Dining Reviews

Tabitha Stroup Talks Product Discovery and Highlighting Local Foods

Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. chef and founder recently scored another Good Food Award

Tabitha Stroup won a Good Food Award for her Smokin’ Padron Jam. COURTESY PHOTO

Ever the flavor sorceress with local harvests and eccentric seasonings, Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. chef and founder Tabitha Stroup recently scored another Good Food Award for her latest must-have condiment, the outrageous Smokin’ Padron Jam. 

With her new venture Terroir in a Jar, Stroup is building alliances with growers to transform regional fruit and excess harvests into money-making specialties. Last year Stroup started reaching out to her Pajaro Valley farm partners to create unique, “sense of place” shelf-stable products the farmers could legally sell to the public through community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, and local stores, with exciting results.

At what point did you realize that Friend in Cheeses could provide financial security?

TABITHA STROUP: I’m not sure. I didn’t get into this to make a fortune. I got into it because it was needed. By my fifth year it was somewhat sustainable. 

How does product discovery happen?

I get wacky ideas and go with it. I might look for a food underserved and in abundance, for example the otuna fruit or cactus pear. That became Prickly Purple Heart Jam with bergamot and cardamom. 

What is the greatest satisfaction you get from your work? Doing what you want?

It’s all I know at this point after a great career running restaurants, wine brokerage, caterer, educator—balled it all up into Friend in Cheeses Jam Co., which in turn got me prepared for Terroir in a Jar, my true passion. Greatest satisfaction is providing products that ring so true to our terroir or sense of place. 

Do you ever think about expansion? Or handing things over to an employee? Ever get weary of such a labor-intensive biz?  

Ha. Yes, no. Yes, sometimes. Never. I have a great lead cook who is my kitchen wizard, a great shipping handling manager and a crew of dedicated humans. Yes, we are bursting at the seams and are looking for a new facility to handle both companies. Weary? Every day. I’m running the company now, not wearing every hat every day. Finally working smarter not harder. 

How did your latest award-winner the Smokin’ Padron Jam come into existence? (Luck? Inspiration?)

Trial and error, many incarnations and looking for a product that would be a shape shifter amongst the cheese world and recipe boosters. Padrons grow so beautifully in our growing zone, and there wasn’t a product in the market that represented this gorgeous pepper. So I made one.

Is this latest award a big deal?

It’s always a blessing to be recognized. I just try not to let it define me. Sales get a nice bump for sure.

How does your latest baby, Terroir in a Jar, expand your interests?

Terroir in a Jar already is beyond Friend in Cheeses. Terroir in a Jar can save a community by helping the small farmer maximize profits with a year round, shelf-stable pantry while diversifying offerings and keeping food waste out of landfill and in the mouths of the community. 

Finally, talk a bit about the Quarantine Cook Off idea that’s buzzing among Facebook fans.

It was started by Kimberley Beer, a former Santa Cruzan living back East who was looking for a way to work out Covid stress. I came in soon after and shaped the group by having rules to keep the group earnest and pure—no politics ever, never lazy links, YouTubes, web addresses; only your own words and pictures, working out stress through food.  Now, almost 7,000 members later, it has become a very supportive group helping each other with recipes, techniques, support and genuine care—a place where a pro is on the same plane as a home cook, since it’s only about cooking at home, not business advertising.

Visit friendincheeses.com and terroirinajar.com to learn more. 

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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