On a Jelly Roll

It started with an intriguing idea for using beer

by Phyl Newbeck

potlicker1118 By 2011 when blogger Nancy Warner began selling jellies through her Barnard business, Potlicker Kitchen, she had found a niche making jelly from Vermont craft beers. By 2015, she and her husband, Walter, had moved the business to Stowe. It now boasts 400 wholesale customers in 39 states.

Nancy Warner has always been a forager. She grew up making marmalade, and in college studied traditional food ways and culture. Still, it was a bit of a jump to go from the field of archaeology to owning a business selling jelly. Assisted by her husband, Walter, Nancy runs Potlicker Kitchen in Stowe, creating custom jams and jellies for sale around the world.

The couple met in 2004 when they were attending Florida State University, both, as it happened, studying anthropology with a concentration in archaeology. “Back then smoking was in fashion,” Nancy recalls, “and Walter was a gentleman and gave me a light when I was wandering around looking for a lighter.” They discovered they lived two doors from one another and were waiting for the same class to start.

Nancy and Walter had taken very different paths to arrive at FSU. Nancy grew up in a rural area north of Tampa. “I like to say I grew up in orange groves,” she says. Her father was a scientist who sold research microscopes, and her mother is a property appraiser and real estate agent.

Walter was raised in the Catskills with a homemaker mother and truck mechanic father. Following high school graduation in 1990, he worked as a waiter in a Catskills resort, a door-to-door home security products salesman in New Orleans, a car salesman in D.C., and a truck driver before enrolling at Florida State.

Nancy was interested in museum work, but the National Park Service was hiring and she needed a job, so after graduation she joined the Southeastern Archaeological Conference. When budget cuts resulted in layoffs, she turned to the private sector, and Walter joined her after graduating and completing some academic archaeological work in Hungary.

He had a simple reason for choosing his field of study: “Indiana Jones,” he says, grinning.

The couple married in 2008 and worked a number of digs across the Southeast doing cultural resource management. Nancy was a fan of herbalist Rosemary Gladstone and she enjoyed collecting mushrooms, snails, and other specimens to bring back to their hotel rooms.

By 2009, they were looking for something else to do. “I had a degree to dig holes in the woods,” is how Walter puts it. When Walter was young, his father tried to persuade him to further his education and become a doctor or lawyer, so he chose the latter option. Vermont Law School offered the best financial aid package, he says, and having tired of Florida, they headed north.

While Walter studied, Nancy looked for local archaeological jobs without luck. She worked a dig in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for a couple of months, but missed Walter and returned to Vermont and the job that had sustained her through college: waiting tables.

They lived in a one-room schoolhouse in Barnard, and Nancy would come home from work in the middle of the night and stay up canning. “In Vermont there is such an amazing food culture,” she says. “I’d never seen things like fiddleheads, so I’d pull up plants while I was jogging and then can what I’d found or grown to work out my frustrations.”

She must have been plenty frustrated because she canned enough to begin selling her products at farmers’ markets in Woodstock in 2011, starting with jams made from the their own berries.

By then, she had made a bit of a name for herself with a food blog. “That was another outlet for my frustration,” she says. She began using the name Potlicker on her blog and decided to use it for her kitchen creations as well. Initially, she was amazed that people wanted to buy something she’d made.

After she ran out of fruit one winter, she came up with the idea of making beer jelly. “Nobody was making it at the time,” she says. “I knew that wine jelly was a colonial thing and that craft beer was on the rise.”

She approached some local stores, and before the end of 2011, a dozen retail outlets were carrying Potlicker Kitchen products. “I just walked in and sold my stuff and didn’t realize that was unusual,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was doing so I had no fear.”

The first store to carry her jelly was the Barnard General Store, followed by FH Gillingham & Sons General Store in Woodstock, and then the Cabot Creamery Visitor Center. There, Nancy was asked if she had insurance, and after assuring the purchaser that she did, she dashed home and asked Walter to help her make that statement a reality.

The Warners credit Laurie Callahan of Cabot and Amelia Rappaport of the Woodstock Farmers’ Market for being instrumental in their early success. By the second year, Potlicker Kitchen had over 100 retail outlets.

After a year of making jam out of their Barnard house, the Warners found a 500-square-foot kitchen in Waterbury Center. The Uncommon Goods catalog discovered their beer jelly and ordered 1,200 sets of four jars, by far the largest order at the time, says Walter. “We had been making maybe a couple hundred jars a day, so 4,800 was a shock to us.”

“We slept in the kitchen,” Nancy recalls, “and we got to know which boxes were the most comfortable to lie on.”

They had five or six employees in their cramped quarters and eventually rented a barn, and then an auto shop on Vermont 100 for additional space while continuing to commute to their Barnard home. “We knew we had to get out of that,” Walter recalls. A chance conversation with a bartender at Grazers in 2015 led them to their current base of operations at 192 Thomas Lane in Stowe. They live nearby in Morrisville.

Kimberly Dinofrio, owner of Tangerine & Olive in Stowe, met Nancy when they had booths at a Woodstock craft fair. Dinofrio carries Potlicker jam and jelly in her retail establishment. “I’ve learned a lot from Nancy,” she says. “I saw her go from making 20 cases a week in her kitchen to where she is now, and I think I’m a better person for having her as a friend. Seeing her hard work and how she grew her business helped me with mine.”

Potlicker Kitchen now has two full-time employees and some seasonal help. The fourth quarter of the year is always the busiest. Wholesale customers number 400 in 39 states and include distributors like Uncommon Goods, QVC (the beer jelly sold out in minutes), Etsy, and Amazon, plus international wholesale and retail customers. For example, seven pallets of beer jelly were recently shipped to South Korea.

Although the beer jelly initially used homebrew made by friends, the Warners have shifted to suppliers like Otter Creek Brewery, whose black IPA was one of Potlicker’s signature flavors, and Harpoon Brewery, which provides the basis for the UFO and pumpkin ale varieties. The five top flavors are carrot cake, pineapple Habanero, raspberry smoked maple, blueberry bourbon, and IPA.

Nancy is always seeking new flavors, and this year she created cranberry horseradish, fig lemon, and onion smoked maple. Most of Potlicker’s ingredients are local and include rhubarb, blackberries, and raspberries, as well as cucumbers and garlic scapes for the craft pickles, a small part of the business. Other local ingredients are Cold Hollow Apple Cider and Vermont Artisan Coffee.

The Warners didn’t want to use plastic for shipping, but using newspaper resulted in some broken jars. They were thrilled when they discovered a wood-based product made by Sylvacurl of Vermont and have since become close to its proprietor, Jim Lovinsky.

Lovinsky’s day job is with the Lamoille County Housing Project, but he has been making his packaging for over 25 years. When he was thinking about going to trade shows, he reached out to Walter for advice. “It’s been really great; we’ve gone from just a business relationship to being friends.”

The Warners’ roles within the company are shifting. With two daughters, Emma age 3, and Charlie, 14 months, Nancy had to step back for a while. Now she’s returned to the forefront to allow Walter more time for his Stowe law practice, where he specializes in family law, criminal defense, and food regulation and compliance. Nancy still loves canning and goes into the garden at night with her headlamp to pick tomatoes for sauce. She is a member of Junior League and enjoys practicing yoga, but she’s had to give up running due to lack of time. Walter plays golf and likes tinkering with machinery.

This spring, the Warners began scaling back to focus more on smaller shops that specialize as opposed to the corporate accounts. “It wasn’t as much fun with big volumes for corporate clients,” says Nancy, who admits she might change that thought if she finds appropriate partners.

“I choose to work with people and companies that value our time and energy as much as we value them,” she says. “I don’t need to auction it off to the highest bidder.”

Potlicker Kitchen jams have received several awards, including sofi (specialty outstanding food innovation), which Nancy describes as the Oscars of the food world, but she is prouder of the Dalemain gold medals won for her marmalade, since that’s what she grew up making.

“Having kids was a big change,” Walter concedes, “but we’ll figure it out.”

Nancy concurs. “We’re finding our happy place in life. I’m really enjoying working again.” •