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  1. Cooking

For Illene Sofranko, St. Petersburg-based Urban Canning Company a labor of love


The label on the jar of Peppered Peach and Rosemary Jam reads "hand canned," and for Illene Sofranko the phrase isn't just a gourmet gimmick.

On a recent cooking day in a small local industrial kitchen, the founder of the Urban Canning Company is whipping up three batches of her signature jams. Sofranko, 32, has spent the morning hand-washing glass jars before getting to work soaking fresh produce in a vinegar bath, measuring spices, peeling, chopping, de-seeding.

Now, in large pots on a gas stovetop, vine-ripe tomatoes cook down, on their way to becoming a vibrant red jam. Washington apples simmer in a stew of double stout beer, cinnamon and other spices. Peaches are reduced to goo alongside rosemary sprigs and freshly cracked black pepper.

Sofranko, who started the St. Petersburg-based small business out of her kitchen, does this about four times a week to keep up with the demand for the jams, pickled vegetables and mustards she sells at four farmers markets and in 14 retail locations around the bay area (jams and mustards retail for $10; pickles are $12). Her business thrives on St. Petersburg's embrace of all things local; it's a fixture at major markets like the Saturday Morning Market and known for beer-infused pickles and mustards that sell at Green Bench Brewing and beyond. Her jams and other pickled products show up on the menus of the Avenue in St. Petersburg and Pearl in the Grove in Dade City.

In July and August, Urban Canning sold its most product yet. Sofranko's newest retail partner, Mazzaro's Italian Market, is also her biggest. And a few months ago the company was accepted to show off its wares at the Renegade Craft Fair, a niche fair specializing in artisan products hosted in bastions of cool around the world: London, Portland, Austin and, this weekend, Chicago. In many ways, the small business Sofranko started in spring 2014 is the largest it has ever been.

'Taste the love'

Back to where the magic happens.

Almost everything in this industrial kitchen feels like it could be in your home kitchen: Plain white washcloths are used to move jam-filled pots from the stove to the counter; Sofranko sets an iPhone timer to count how many seconds the jars sit in a hot-water bath. The process of transforming fresh produce is surprisingly quaint.

"The fact that there isn't much to do to it makes the product better. We call it farm to jar," Sofranko says.

On this particular day, she is alone in the kitchen, dividing her attention among three jams at once. She stirs the tomatoes, counting to 60 each time. When the mixture is done, Sofranko ladles it into a couple dozen jars, one at a time, hand-tightening each lid "with the softest little close that your hand can do." From there, she uses canning tongs to place each one into a pot of boiling water. (She doesn't do it all alone. To help her make the product, she has brought on volunteers eager to learn about the jam-making process. She also pays freelancers to help sell at the markets, the only part of the business she has relinquished slightly.)

"It's a labor of love, without a doubt," she says. "And I know it sounds totally cheesy, but customers tell me they can taste the love that goes into it."

The personal touch is fitting, given that Sofranko developed a passion for canning food from her family, who didn't do it for profit but for survival.

Her great-uncle Ray, who taught Sofranko how to can, grew up in a small coal miner town in West Virginia in a self-sustainable way that meant turning burlap bags into clothes and farming and preserving food year-round. During trips to her family's place when she was younger, Sofranko remembers sneaking down to the basement and opening a jar of her uncle's 14-day sweet pickles to get a taste.

"It's funny, when I was growing up, I wanted to do the opposite of what my family was doing — I wanted to do fashion, makeup, the big city. I was the last person everyone thought would start a canning company," she says. "But sometimes you go full circle in life. You think you want to do the opposite, but that takes you so far away from yourself you don't even know who you are anymore."

Sofranko did experience the big city: After high school, she used all of her money to buy a one-way ticket to New York City, where she lived for six years. (Her first day of work at her first job, at Macy's Herald Square, was Sept. 11, 2001.) She eventually got to work as a make-up artist assistant for British Vogue, but for a variety of reasons New York didn't work out. She moved back to St. Petersburg in her mid-20s and asked her uncle to teach her how to can. They made pickles together, and Sofranko hasn't stopped since.

"I think that the canning was really fun, but what was even more fun was that he shared a lot of stories about what childhood was like for him, and it made me realize a lot," she said. "It was those stories that opened my eyes to the kind of life that I actually wanted to live."

She started buying produce from local farms and preserving her own food. It became a new way of life, and then more.

'Sharing everything'

Turning her canning passions into a business happened kind of by accident. For Sofranko, selling the stuff wasn't really the goal.

After New York City, Sofranko was selling vintage products online and at local markets when she started making jam out of her home in St. Petersburg. One day, her friend suggested she bring some of the jam she was making to these local markets. Each time, it sold out. She knew then that she needed to put everything into canning.

She starting selling jams at a weekly market in Dunedin in late 2013, then in spring of the following year she created the Urban Canning Company, putting most of her money into renting a commercial kitchen in Oldsmar and into the bureaucratic steps like getting permits that go along with starting a business. A month later, places around town started to inquire about carrying her product: Green Bench Brewing was first, then St. Pete's Brew D Licious and Tampa's Duckweed Urban Grocery. Every month, she'd get more and more requests. Even now, she is constantly catching up with orders and rarely has a back-stock of product.

In March 2014, she started the Local Buds Artisan Collective to encourage local small businesses like hers to band together and cross-promote each other. Almost everyone who joined initially — Mother Kombucha, O'Berry's Succulents, Commune and Co. — has seen success.

"This past year or so, as I've been trying to investigate what my No. 1 passions are, I just realized that that's why the Urban Canning Company is successful, because I really love sharing everything with everyone."

Her most recent contract with Mazzaro's in St. Petersburg was a surreal step for Sofranko, professionally and personally. During her first tasting at the store, the Mazzaro's folks ordered a case of everything she makes on the spot. By the next week they had ordered more. One store manager loved the fact that her mustard arrived still warm, having just been canned that morning.

"I grew up going to Mazzaro's," Sofranko says, "so when I left the store after making that first order, I just looked up at the building and shed a tear."

Foodie sensibility

The process of canning full time and the subsequent commitment to highlighting simple, locally grown, seasonal foods has made Sofranko think about food differently.

She's a thoughtful person, a calm presence whose every word has a clear intention, but there is a noticeable fire to the way she talks about how we as people consume food without knowing where it comes from, eat in a way that isn't sustainable for the planet, and are too afraid of things like fermentation because of modern notions about when and how food goes bad.

She makes her own Sriracha (unbelievably red with some serious heat) by letting a pepper puree ferment for 9 days, keeping a log each day of how it looks, smells, tastes.

"Sometimes, the funkier the better," Sofranko says. "You have to throw out preconceived notions about how food should look, taste and smell."

This spirit of thinking outside the box translates to her flavors, a unique blend of Sofranko's rural upbringing and keen foodie sensibility.

There is no plain grape jelly in the Urban Canning Company's supply. Recent batches have included Blueberry Lavender Vanilla Jam, Mixed Berry and Thyme, Spiced Apple and Stout Jam. For the pickled products, it's Ginger Spiced Beets, Chili and Fennel Brussels Sprouts, Bourbon Vanilla Peaches, Sriracha Peppered Okra.

She finds inspiration everywhere.

"I'm a self-proclaimed creative person, so I just get this wild tear, and will be having a drink and think, 'This cocktail will make a wild jam,' " Sofranko says.

That goes for food, too, like the chicken and waffle dish with sage butter she had at St. Petersburg's Z Grille that led to a limited batch of Apricot Sage Jam. (There was also the time she tried to turn a bourbon-grapefruit-honey cocktail into a jam with "terrible" results.)

Some people just don't get it, asking where the plain jam is. Sofranko says that, starting out, there were flavors that didn't sell because people didn't understand how to use them. Now, at the markets, she offers samples and recipe ideas for incorporating her product into a main course. She first got the idea when she stumbled on a Smucker's cookbook from the 1960s that worked the jelly into every meal.

"That changed my jam game. I started making jam a different way. I now consider all of my jams toast jams and cooking jams."

When it comes to actual recipes, Sofranko has an entire notebook of handwritten originals, but says that everything she makes, she has memorized. Indeed, when she cooks, she hardly stops to consult a book.

Her jam methods differ slightly from her family's, who use a ratio of 1 part fruit to 2 parts sugar and no pectin, a thickening agent often used in jam-making.

"There's a real debate in the jam community over whether you should use pectin," she says.

You can make jam with just fruit and sugar, boiling down the mixture until the sugar reaches a certain temperature. ("This also kills all the vitamins in the fruit. It's basically just flavored sugar," Sofranko says.) For the Urban Canning Company's product, she uses an all-fruit pectin that lets her flip that fruit-sugar ratio to 1 part sugar and 2 parts fruit. It means the jam doesn't have to cook as long, and can showcase the fresh flavors she puts into every jar.

At a critical juncture

For all of this year's success, Sofranko is blunt about the fact that starting the Urban Canning Company is one of the hardest things she has ever done. And this summer — one in which all of the July farmers markets where she typically sells the most product were rained out — didn't make it any easier.

Her business is at a crossroads; she is making just enough money to support herself but not enough to reinvest in the company. She needs more capital to buy everything she uses in the largest quantity possible, thereby cutting down dramatically on production costs. Oh, and to buy things like a dishwasher, so she doesn't have to hand-wash what can amount to 1,000 mason jars a week.

Sofranko hopes the Renegade Craft Fair this weekend will get her company recognition on a broader scale. She is making the trip with another St. Petersburg business, O'Berry's Succulents, schlepping "as much product as we can make" (about 30-50 cases, which equals roughly $3,000-$5,000), up to Chicago, and for both of them it's an exercise in working out of the comfort zone of this town. The trip is "a peak" for the Urban Canning Company, she says, adding that now she needs to find another, bigger goal.

Sofranko explains this as she squishes cooked peaches with a potato masher, reducing the diced fruit to a jammy consistency. On the counter, lids on the dozens of jars she already has canned begin to pop, a reassuring sound that means the preserving process is working.

"Sometimes I do get stressed about the business part of things," Sofranko says. "But once I come in here, the repetition of it all calms me down."

Michelle Stark can be reached at or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.