There is quite the backstory to Zac Caldwell’s budding jams and jellies business, Caldwell’s Quirky Cookery.
In 2013, Caldwell, an Elizabethtown native, was working with students in the Kentucky YMCA’s service-learning program Y-Corps to raise money for the nonprofit’s scholarship fund, and he promised the kids he would match however much money they raised.
Caldwell’s friend Ben Reno-Weber, who’s now CEO of Kentucky YMCA Youth Association, offered to give $100 if he could sneak hot sauce into Caldwell’s food whenever he wanted during an event they were both attending. “Hurt you for three days” kind of hot sauce, Reno-Weber explains.
After that, Caldwell naturally wanted to get revenge.
How do you hide spicy peppers in food? It turns out you add them to innocuous-looking jellies or jams.
Caldwell concocted his first jam, Peach Habanero, and casually asked Reno-Weber to try it.
Upon tasting it, Reno-Weber tried his best to save face.
“It was so impressive,” Reno-Weber says. “I had to give it to him.”
Fast-forward to April 2015: Caldwell was living in Florida and working as director of Youth in Government at the YMCA. He’d come to Louisville to visit friends and was talking to them at WFPK’s monthly Waterfront Wednesday about the positive changes around the city.
Something clicked, and Caldwell says he made a sweeping declaration that he would quit his job, move to Louisville, and start a food business. And he did.
“This has all been very sudden,” he says. “I didn’t grow up here, but it’s kind of home in a weird way.”
Reno-Weber was surprised Caldwell made jams and jellies his business but was not surprised in general that he decided to start a company in Louisville.
“We have this both amazing entrepreneurial and food space here,” Reno-Weber says. “I love that this is a city that welcomes an entrepreneur like Zac.”
What makes Louisville magical, he says, is that people want to move here, and once they do, they find people ready and willing to help them make the right connections.
Caldwell, who always enjoyed cooking, originally considered starting a food truck, but eventually decided to use his spicy jams and jellies for good, not just payback.
This summer, he worked as a camp counselor to make ends meet and since has been working to get Caldwell’s Quirky Cookery off the ground.
Caldwell is one of the first tenants of Chef Space, a food incubator in the Russell neighborhood.
To help with upfront expenses including three months rent, insurance, jars and compliance with state and federal regulations, Caldwell is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise $12,000. As of Tuesday morning, he’d raised more than $8,200.
Caldwell will start selling his products come Nov. 2 online and at farmers markets. He hopes to expand into small retail shops as well.
The line includes a mixture of sweet and spicy jams and jellies, such as Ice Tea Lemonade Jelly, Blackberry Ghost Pepper and Pineapple Jalapeño Jam. Quirky Cookery also will sell Blueberry Chipotle Ketchup.
Quirky Cookery products will cost $5 to $6 for a 4-ounce jar and $7 to $8 for an 8-ounce jar. The company also will sell 1-ounce sampler packs, but Caldwell has not settled on a price yet.
Caldwell can produce one batch, or about 48 ounces, of jam or jelly an hour by himself and plans to be his only employee for the first six months as the business gets off the ground.
He also plans to continue playing with flavors for new products. His latest idea is a mixture of strawberry and the world’s hottest pepper, Carolina Reaper.
“If you can get your acid, your sugars and your temperature right,” he says, “you can make a jam out of anything.”