Laura Russell, 32 makes jam and chutney for a living. She works from her farmhouse kitchen in East Sussex, where she lives with husband Ian and three busy little boys. Laura set up Trug & Trowel Homemade Produce in 2009. Making jam everyday sounds pretty fun, but Laura is here to tell us what it's really like to juggle pots of boiling fruit and sugar and three young boys. Why did you start making jam? I went to the Country Living Spring Fair in London in 2009 and was inspired by the variety of stalls and people there. I got thinking on the train on the way home about how I could do something similar. My husband Ian works really hard in the garden and on the farm growing lots of different produce. We are pretty self sufficient and we grow our own meat, veg, fruit, milk, eggs. I can whip up a meal with out going to the shops which I'm so proud of. In 2009 we had a glut of fruit and vegetables on the farm and I hate waste so I wanted to find something to do with it. And that was it Trug & Trowel was born.
I’m imagining you making jam as a child – is that how you learnt? I had never made jam, chutney or marmalades before Trug & Trowel! It was a whole new experience for me. I worked with Point to Point horses before I got married – I’m a farmer’s daughter, I lived for everything and anything outside on the farm. Making jam was not something I'd thought about doing. I made blackcurrant & apple jam and red currant jelly first, using recipes from an old book of my Mum’s. I gradually got more adventurous and now my best sellers are my onion marmalade, sweet chilli sauce, cranberry & apple chutney, ginger marmalade and blackberry & apple jam.
When did you sell your first jar? In the summer of 2009 I organised a fayre in our village with some friends. I had a stall with a huge variety of my homemade jams and this was my first attempt at selling. People were amazed that I had time (back then I had two little boys), let alone the energy to run the Fayre and make all my produce. The buzz I got from selling my jars was fantastic though. I loved the fact that people loved trying and buying something I’d made. I put out tasters and just watching people's reactions was fascinating.
How did you move your business on from there? I'm not very good at the marketing side I must admit. I think it's because, though I believe in my product, I feel I don't want to push it upon people...not great for business I know! But I have some amazing, enthusiastic friends and contacts who tell everyone about Trug & Trowel. They make people try my products at dinner parties and lunches - without them I wouldn't be doing this. I’ve built up quite a fan base over the past few years. I do use Facebook and Twitter which are great for keeping in touch – but I really believe the success of T&T is through people tasting and loving what I’ve made. Word of mouth really is the best marketing tool. People talking about my products led to me supplying the kitchen for the tea rooms and gift shop at Chiddingstone Castle in Kent and a few festive pop up shops. I also make jam for favour pots at weddings - which is lovely to do. I’m hoping to work with some local garden centres and try to get a customer based in London established in 2014 – finger crossed.
What does a typical day in your life look like? With 3 boys, my days are never the same. I try and commit two days a week to cooking when things aren’t too busy. But it really depends on what’s going on with the boys and what they need. T&T works around us, not us around it. I believe that it’s important for me to be achieving, doing, making something for myself, without it affecting anyone else. We should all be able to benefit from it, otherwise there's no point. Family, friends, horses, dogs, and the farm all come first. I'm also really led by my mood, some days I just don't feel like cooking, but others I just can't get enough. Sometimes you’ll find me potting up jam late into the evening after the boys are in bed. Luckily, T&T is pretty much seasonal, so there are quieter times. The build up to Christmas is mad though, I tend to have something cooking most days from early October onwards. I make gift boxes and hampers which are hugely popular and keep me working into the night. I rope in friends nearer to Christmas to help label up, box up orders and keep me sane. The boys are amazing at just getting on with it but I do stop at 3pm to pick them up from school. Then it’s boys, their ponies and everything else that keeps me away from the stove until they are all tucked up in bed and then it's all go again with the jam.
Between your family and your business do you have time for a social life? Ian and I have fabulous friends and we’re very sociable. Ian is my biggest critic and supporter. I couldn’t do this without his constant support and encouragement. Although we see each other all the time at home, to go out smelling clean and looking nice, is still a novelty.
Is it harder than you’d imagined running your own business? I love what I do so I don't really feel like I'm running a business. I'm proud of how T&T has grown naturally and so I don't feel the pressure of it being a full on business yet. I'm lucky that I haven't had to rely on its income so I give myself a break, refresh and then get back chopping!
What are your three top tips for anyone hoping to start a small business? 1- Don't throw everything in to it straight away, test the water and get honest opinions from your friends and family before investing huge amounts of money and time.
2- Love, enjoy and believe in what you do first, then go for it.
3- Use social media to get feedback from others in the same position, remember there will be ups and downs but don't give up.
What inspires you everyday? I love doing what I do. It's great to see someone smile when they taste one of my jams or chutneys. The feedback is always a real boost. I’m also inspired by the farm and our special productive lifestyle. I’m proud that most of my ingredients are home-grown – and any that aren’t are fair-trade and local if possible.
With Valentines day just around the corner why not treat a loved one to one of Laura's special gift boxes - £12.50 for four 4oz jars of Laura's handmade jams. Find out more at www.trugandtrowel.co.uk.