Sabrina Valle, The J.am, Woman Entrepreneur

SabrinaVI am always intrigued by people who start food businesses.  Most of the time it is just something that comes from the heart and is just stumbled upon.  I have yet to meet a food entrepreneur who decided they wanted to make food for consumers when they grow up.  Craig Kanarick, of Mouth, introduced me to Sabrina because the jams are flying off the shelf at Mouth and he has personally been helping her think about her business.

Sabrina grew up in Florida outside of Ft. Lauderdale.  Her parents had migrated south from Brooklyn when she was one years of age.  Her father owns a dental technician business in South Florida and her mom is a nurse.  Sabrina stayed close after graduating high school landing at University of Florida where she majored in marketing.  That is where she met her business partner, Jessica Quon but the business idea came much later.

While Sabrina was in school she spent two summers in NYC and a semester in Madrid.  She knew she always wanted to live in NYC.  Her first summer in NYC she did an internship for friends of the family in their embroidery business.  Her second summer she spent in an internship at Macys.  It was the summer before her senior year.  The internship is similar to the training program where you spend 12 weeks on the buying side.   She was offered a job when she graduated college and  her desire to live in NYC was met.

Sabrina returned and went through the three month Macys training program which is completely different than the one I went through so many years ago.  She started out in 2009 when it was Macys East and while she was there they added additional stores for the buyers and went from 150 stores to 500.  Sabrina trained in shoes her first year, fine jewelry her second year and junior dresses her third year.   You leave the program and go directly to being an assistant buyer.  Then you continue to be promoted to two more assistant buying jobs before becoming an associate buyer for another two years.  It essentially takes 4/5 years to become a buyer.  When I was there you spent the first year as a sales manager (head of one department in the store), one year as an assistant buyer, one year as an assistant store manager and then you became a buyer.  It took me 3 years to become a buyer.  I am kind of surprised that this program no longer incorporates the store line into the process which I have always believed to be one of the best training grounds in how to run a business.

Sabrina left Macys after three years because she was burnt out.  Middle management was getting cut out and the merger of other Macys/Federated stores were taking place.  Totally get having had enough.  She decided to sublet her apartment and take a hiatus to South America for four months.  Her mother is from Ecuador so she went down and stayed with friends of her Grandparents.  She went to Quito for a month where they live and then met her friend Natalie who was in graduate school in Argentina.  Then off to Buenos Aires, Patagonia and Peru and back to Ecuador.  While she was there she taught herself spanish.

When Sabrina was in Patagonia she went to a farmers market stall where they were selling little jars of jam with fabric on the top and brought them back to NYC.  Her friend Natalie, who had also returned to NYC, helped Sabrina think about the next move in her life.  She told her to put down 5 bullet points on what she wanted to do.  #1 – get a job; #2 – learn to make jam and bread and numbers 2-5 never took place.  She called her friend Jess who she knew from college who was also looking for the next thing.  They got together and made some jam.

Sabrina took a job in Steve Maddens wholesale office at this time.  Jess and her would talk and make jams in the off hours.  They started out with some basics and then began to make unique and special jams.  The first jam they made was during the winter so they created Drunken Monkey from bananas and rum.  Their friend Natalie was studying to become a lawyer and after graduate school and incorporated their business.  They decided to build a website and put up a page on Facebook.  They put their first batch up online and sold $500 worth of jam.  They realized that they had a business and so it began, the J.am Stand  in their apartment in Brooklyn.

Fast forward they are selling to Mouth, Dean and Deluca, 200 stores nationwide and manufacturing in the Finger Lakes area mostly by hand.  It is a grueling business but Sabrina loves it.  The jams are really good and the ones I have tasted pack a serious spicy punch.   They packaging is very authentic and definitely reads hand made.  Definitely worth having in your refrigerator.