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Start-ups find a niche in homemade preserves

For Marlene Baroli-Turati, life has become an obsession with sugar and fruit.

After working two decades as a project manager for Boeing Co., she was laid off during a round of recession-fueled cutbacks in 2008.

"I had always made jams and jellies as gifts," said Baroli-Turati, 44, who lives in Lake Forest, Calif., and launched a line of preserves under the brand name DaSweetZpot. She sells the products at her online store on and at food festivals and trade shows.

"I figured, why not start making them as a business?" she said.

While home food preservation thrives as a cultish hobby, the slow economy has helped launch a cottage industry for homemade preserves. Boutique businesses such as Baroli-Turati's are using old-fashioned methods to make small-batch jams, jellies and other preserved foods. Start-up costs can be low. The products have a relatively long shelf life. And even in tough times, consumers still seek out comfort foods.

No one keeps track of the number of such tiny start-ups. But scores of Web sites and ads on Craigslist have cropped up across the U.S., hawking jewel-like jars of jam or bottles of homemade pickles.

Officials with said they have seen the number of preserves being sold remain healthy over the last year: As of this month, there were more than 1,300 items for sale, with flavors as varied as walnut butter and lemon drop pepper jam.

Sales of Jarden Corp.'s Ball and Kerr glass canning jars are booming, with domestic sales in 2009 up 20 percent over the previous year after rising 60 percent in 2008 from 2007.

The number of people e-mailing the National Center for Home Food Preservation has boomed, according to staff based at the University of Georgia and funded largely by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Last summer, the [state] cooperative extension offered a two-hour preservation class," said Elizabeth L. Andress, a University of Georgia professor who is director of the center. "There was such demand they ended up offering it seven times."

Some preserves start-ups are launched by people with classical culinary training. Others have found their way through serendipity.

Eric Haeberli, a former Yahoo Inc. product developer, and his partner, Phineas Hoang, never liked to eat apricots. But when Hoang's mom had a bountiful Blenheim apricot tree, the pair decided to turn the excess fruit into jam.

Word spread and requests for jars of the product grew. The Bay Area pair sent a jar to Food & Wine magazine to review, on a whim, and launched in 2007.

"The magazine wrote a short piece about the jam and we were inundated with orders," said Haeberli, whose handmade jam sells for $10 for a 9-ounce jar. "We went from making 60 jars a year to a peak of 10,000 jars."

Baroli-Turati's business was inspired by family tradition. During World War II, her Italian grandparents survived the German invasion by harvesting and canning grapes, olives and other produce. Her mother later passed on those recipes.

Baroli-Turati obtained the required food-safety certifications and permits, and started scouting area growers and her own backyard for ingredients. She then rented space at a certified commercial kitchen and started cooking.

Over time, sales of her sweet concoctions -- chardonnay jelly from California wineries, sunflower preserves and prickly pear jams -- increased on DaSweetZpot, and at local food festivals.

Last year, she pulled in more than $60,000, enough, she said, to pay most of her family's bills.

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