Passion fruit has played a big part in the history of jams and preserves brand Single Variety Co. It inspired the start of the business and recently brought it big acclaim at the Farm Shop & Deli Show Product Awards.
The brand is the brainchild of Nicola Simons, who previously worked at some of the UK’s largest food and drink retailers.
Her career started in Sainsbury’s postgraduate program where she progressed to the role of product developer in the chain’s bakery. She brought her bakery background to Selfridges, where she was a bakery and dairy buyer, before becoming a product developer at Waitrose. Later, she was a food chef at a salad supplier.
Simons had long dreamed of starting his own food business. The idea for a jam brand was born about eight years ago while vacationing in Sri Lanka with her husband, Ross Elliott.
“The English guy who ran the hotel made his own jam, including a phenomenal passion fruit jam, and that’s where the idea came from,” says Elliott.
The opportunity to start Single Variety Co arose when Simons was fired by the salad company. She started in 2016 selling jam at farmers markets.
The heart of the company is the use of a single variety of fruit in each product. It produces canned Maravilla raspberries, Sonata strawberries and King George blackberries. They sit alongside single-variety chili jams, including Fireflame and Jalapeño, in a line of 10 staples plus limited-edition seasonal specials.
“One of the things we’ve been careful not to do is create too many products,” says Elliott. “With Nicola’s experience in the food industry, she is convinced that if you have too many products, you dilute your range and lose some quality.”
The desire for simplicity has extended to the appearance of the products, which are packaged in clear jars with minimal branding.
“A clean, contemporary look has always been the goal,” adds Elliott. “We really wanted to highlight the fruit or the pepper that was in there and the colors that it had. One of the ways we achieve this is by using a lot more fruit and a lot less sugar than our competitors, and we cook it for less time to retain the color.
The fruit used is sourced from UK suppliers where possible, with lemon chilli sourced from Wales and rhubarb from Yorkshire.
In her early days, Simons rented various kitchen spaces in and around her flat in south-west London. When demand for jams increased, it outsourced production and distribution, an arrangement that worked well until demand once again exceeded supply.
The critical moment came on a Black Friday, when Single Variety Co sold jam at lunchtime.
“Nicola called the producer guy and asked if they could do some more, and they said ‘no chance’,” Elliott explains. “At that time, I said we should open a jam kitchen and bring everything in-house.”
As a result, the couple left London and found business premises and a home in Bristol, where Elliott, a former tennis coach and personal trainer, later joined Single Variety Co full-time.
The decision to create a direct-to-consumer platform in October 2019 was an important factor in the growth of the brand. A few months later, the first lockdown was declared.
“The pandemic meant everyone was home and buying great groceries online,” says Elliott. “Our jam sales have exploded.”
DTC now accounts for around half of Single Variety’s sales, with 30% through wholesale and 20% through distributors. The brand can be found in around 400 independent stores, including farm shops and bakeries, as well as high-end retailers such as Selfridges and over the Waitrose deli counter.
Despite its presence at Waitrose, the brand has never sought to register in large-scale supermarkets. “We don’t want to start producing large volumes that could compromise the high quality of our products,” says Elliott. “There are enough opportunities in the field of gastronomy to create a sustainable business.”
Single Variety currently employs a three-person kitchen team comprising a plant manager and two cooks. Operations like HR and accounts are outsourced, so the brand “can focus on the things we love and value, like selling and growing the business,” says Elliott. “It’s a family business and that means we share everything, including the ups and downs.”
Among the tops, Single Variety’s passion fruit jam won gold at the inaugural Farm Shop & Deli Product Awards last month, while its jalapeño jam won silver.
“We think we’re doing it right, and the award was a great reminder that people appreciate what we do,” adds Elliott. “We try to create products where everything is as shiny as possible, and we are very proud of that.”