Heirloom Recipes: Garden-Cook Balances Family, Home-Food Business at the Holidays

12/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

STRASBURG, Pa. — The smell of gingerbread and molasses cookies wafts through the air upon entering the certified kitchen of Suzi Knowles during the holidays. Her shy but beaming preschool daughter, Tori, dressed in pink pants and top, hides behind watchful grandmother, Ann Schein, on a recent cold but sunny afternoon. With a glance, the 4-year-old’s sparkling eyes give away the special holiday baking project of the day, fixing on the gingerbread houses, frosted house architecture, and bags of colorful hard and soft candies set on a table nearby, waiting to be wrapped separately and handed out to customers who will take them home for a time of family decorating fun.

Suzi Knowles, founder of “Suzi Q’s Looms,” as her business is called, continually looks for ways to balance the demands of running a home-food business, growing a large garden, taking care of her three children, and managing the farmers market she started in the town where they live, Strasburg, Pa.

Knowles uses her family’s original “heirloom” recipes to make most of her products, such as her pickled beets, pickled asparagus and mixed-fruit jams and jellies. For the winter holidays, she bakes an assortment of 6-inch and 10-inch pies to order as well as both decorated and nondecorated gingerbread houses for additional income.

She sold nearly 30 gingerbread houses prior to this Christmas, charging $20 for the undecorated ones and $35 for the finished houses.

“The hardest part is making the dough, rolling it out and baking it,” she said. “The fun part is decorating.”

She keeps customer lists, sending out emails near the holidays about the availability of pies and gingerbread houses with ordering deadlines.

Knowles also taught a gingerbread house-decorating workshop this winter, attended mostly by mothers and children, or sets of friends who wanted to do a fun holiday project together, she said. She donated all the proceeds to a local church.

Her gingerbread recipe comes from the Land O’Lakes website (see sidebar, page B5) and the all-important gingerbread house frosting from the instructions inside of the Wilton Meringue Powder container — the “royal icing” recipe, in particular.

But mostly, Knowles treasures the recipe boxes she has from her grandmothers on both sides of the family.

“Those (family recipes) are my heirlooms, not antique furniture or other things. That is what I cherish the most,” Knowles said. She bakes her well-known molasses sugar cookies from a recipe that her great-grandmother, who was a New Englander, had. She gives dozens of the tasty cookies away at the holidays as a gifts to thank people for their help throughout the year.

Calling herself a “garden-cook,” Knowles grows two large gardens during the rest of the year, with her biggest crops being raspberries and tomatoes. Harvesting from at least 100 raspberry bushes, raspberries feature prominently in many of Knowles’ food products. She bakes and sells raspberry pies as well as raspberry jam, raspberry-cranberry jam, raspberry-chocolate sauce and fresh raspberries. Her mother, Ann, brought along many of the original raspberry plants from a previous property, and Suzi has transplanted more over the years.

Knowles, who had started gardening when she lived for many years in Atlanta, Ga., before returning to her home community in Lancaster, Pa., prefers canning.

“Canning is my thing; next is baking,” she said.

She cans thousands of jars each year, one small batch at a time using natural pectin, which restricts her from doing commercial-scale batches. Her kitchen is located in a small building next door and is certified for home baking and canning.

To make her canned products, the 45-year-old entrepreneur also grows beans, cucumbers for pickles, beets, squash, rhubarb, lettuce and other greens like Swiss chard and arugula. Additionally, to sell at market, she makes and sells cookies, brownies, shortcake, fresh fruit pies, muffins, relishes, salsas, spices and spice combinations in small packets, as well as other items.

Her horseradish spread sells by the case to a local man who drives it to a Philadelphia market where it sells quickly at his market stand.

What Knowles doesn’t grow herself for her canned and baked goods, she tries to buy in season from other local farmers. She said she’s gotten a reputation for buying other farmers’ boxes of fruit and vegetables that didn’t sell at market and so now farmers will come to her, asking if she wants their extras (she usually does).

Pomegranates, oranges and cranberries are the only produce she gets from outside the county, she said.

She also buys large quantities of asparagus from a neighbor — who doesn’t spray her garden with chemicals — to make 16-ounce jars of dilled asparagus chunks, a popular seller.

When fruit, such as peaches, are in season, she preps it for later use in pies — peeling, chopping, measuring and freezing it in exact quantities for simplicity.

Her large 10-12-inch pies are $15; the smaller 6-inch pies are $4.50. She said she sells about a dozen of the smaller pies at market each week.

Knowles started the farmers market for many reasons beyond just wanting to have an outlet for her garden produce and value-added food products.

“As much as my kids are important to me, next is community,” she said, “I wanted my kids to know their community. That’s what tells them where they belong. It’s as much about me finding an outlet for my business as it is about community’ and sustaining the community.”

Knowles sold from a booth at Lancaster City’s Central Market for a year before the market closed for renovations four years ago (it has since re-opened). But it was a fruitful year nevertheless. Suzi learned more about the Buy Fresh Buy Local movement, which celebrates local foods and products, especially from Linda Aleci, a Franklin and Marshall College professor and leader of Lancaster’s Friends of Central Market.

Living in the town of Strasburg, Knowles decided to start a really local market — just a few blocks from her home at an outdoor location — and adhere to the Buy Fresh Buy Local philosophy, which requires 90 percent of the vendors to sell items that are grown or produced in Lancaster County.

“It was hard getting the farmer’s market started,” Knowles said.

Eventually, the market partnered with a national nonprofit organization, Sertoma, which had a Strasburg chapter. Sertoma now runs the market, collecting vendor fees, carrying liability insurance and earning any profits.

“From February through October, it’s like a full-time job running the farmers market,” Knowles said, describing how much work goes into the marketing, website, lining up its 15-22 vendors, etc.

But Knowles had already spent seven years working for herself out of her home — in recruiting, HR and sales and had the experience of running her own business.

“I’ve always worked for myself once I had kids, so it was not a huge stretch for me to do something I wanted to do for myself,” she said. “I was ready to do something I wanted. I love to cook.”

Her biggest challenge running a home-business is simultaneously raising three kids in the same space. Her daughter, Catharine “Cat,” is 13 and Elizabeth “Ellie” is 10.

As a stay-at-home mom, she said, “I constantly balance ... and home isn’t home.”

“I just have to take a deep breath when things don’t get done,” she said about juggling her home-based business with family responsibilities.

She uses an oversized calendar with “huge” blocks for each day where she writes down everything that needs to get done, including family activities.

January and February are her time off, said Knowles, except it is also when she begins to dream about her next year’s garden. Now that the holidays are almost over, she’ll have plenty of time to dream of what comes next.

More information can be found online at www.Qslooms.com or www.strasburgfarmmarket.com.

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