Texas Sweet Heat Jam Company simmers up opportunity for young adults with disabilities
On a Monday morning in early March, Earl Beechum was washing small jars in a church kitchen in Leander.
He’s the head dishwasher for Texas Sweet Heat Jam Company, which Nolan Stilwell started 10 years ago in Katy with his parents, Christine and Randy.
Christine Stilwell is in the other room with Nolan and his co-workers, Grady McGaha and Walker Raney, who are each at their stations. Nolan is in charge of cutting up the green peppers. Raney cuts up the red peppers that give both spice and bright color to the jams and jellies. McGaha is peeling Granny Smith apples with a spiral peeler.
Each person is doing an important job, Randy Stilwell says, especially Beechum, a Special Olympics weightlifting champion who graduated two years ago from Leander High School, who makes sure all of the pans are clean and sanitized. Beechum explains that he keeps his gold medals at home and then demonstrates how the dish sprayer works.
“He’s got a lot of elbow grease to get the burned jam off the bottom from Miss Christine,” Randy Stilwell says.
Christine Stilwell is at the stove within earshot, stirring a batch of the company’s new Texas apple pie jam in a wide, heavy-duty pan. She doesn’t mind the jab about an occasional burned pot of jam.
After all, everything is a teaching opportunity at Sweet Heat. Staff members, all of whom have some kind of developmental disability, such as Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder, teach each other the skills that they’ve mastered.
“It’s a peer-mentored program. Every skill, someone learned off of someone else. Grady is our newest team member, and he has learned from Earl how to do the dishes, from Walker how to do the red peppers, and now he’s doing the zesting,” Christine Stilwell says. “We add fresh lemon zest to our strawberry and blueberry jam, and it makes a huge difference, right Nolan?”
Nolan Stilwell enthusiastically agrees while continuing the task at hand: taking out half of the jalapeno seeds so the jam isn’t too hot.
“Nolan is the expert on the food processor, to get it so you can taste and see the jalapeno, but there aren’t huge chunks of it floating around,” Randy Stilwell says.
Raney chips in on the dishes from time to time. “I’m in the burned pan brigade,” he says. “I’m also in charge of making sure there’s no pepper guts.”
H-E-B quest for something sweet
Attention to detail and teamwork are two of the strong suits of this small Central Texas consumer packaged good — or CPG — company.
Nolan Stilwell started Sweet Heat when he was graduating from high school. His mom says that, like many young people with disabilities, her son didn’t have many employment options after leaving school, but he had so many talents that he just needed the right environment to thrive in.
He got the idea for the spicy jam as a way to use up the peppers he was growing in his garden. Along with his mom, he started making spicy sweet jam and decided to sell it in little jars. “We literally started in these little Mason jars with one flavor,” Christine Stilwell says. “Then we added strawberry (jam) and found some other young people who would benefit from this kind of work.”
The company grew slowly and eventually moved into a commercial kitchen at a nearby church. This was 2014, the year that H-E-B debuted its Quest for Texas Best contest to find new food products to feature in its stores. A friend nominated them for the competition, and before long, they were pitching in front of a panel of judges.
“We were hemming and hawing about whether or not to enter,” Christine Stilwell says. “We didn’t know if we were ready for the next step. We didn’t want to push them too hard.”
“But the more we thought about it, we realized that if we never let these guys push beyond that comfort zone, they are never going to know. The experience they had, they’ll never forget,” she says.
Out of 600 entries, Sweet Heat came in fourth place.
Jody Hall, H-E-B director of global sourcing, told them they could sell at as many H-E-B stores as they can make jam for, Christine Stilwell says. She knew they didn’t want to produce at a mass scale, but growing at their own pace allowed them to expand their workforce and vocational training program, too.
Moving to Central Texas after the flood
At the high point in Katy, Texas Sweet Heat Jam was in seven H-E-B stores and a few other retail outlets. But then two floods forced the team to reckon with the flood-prone location of their home. They decided to uproot and move to Central Texas, where two of the other four Stilwell children lived.
Randy Stilwell, a geologist who had recently retired from the oil and gas industry, and Christine, a longtime grant writer, bought a home in Georgetown and quickly got to work finding a new home for Sweet Heat.
They connected with Life Church in Leander. Its commercial kitchen had been home to another small-batch hot sauce company whose owners were ready to close the business. Christine Stilwell also made connections with several local school districts, which have programs to help students with disabilities gain job skills at local companies.
Texas Sweet Heat Jam was back in business.
Over the next three years, they welcomed new employees and interns, expanded their product line, started shipping to new stores and landed back on shelves at eight H-E-B stores in the area.
'I made that'
Each week, Nolan Stilwell and his small team go through about 20 pounds of peppers and 25 pounds of sugar. Imperial Sugar, which donates the sugar, has been one of the company’s sponsors since the beginning.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t affected business too terribly, partially due to the increasing popularity of meat and cheese boards, which often include a little jar of jam to accompany the charcuterie. Texas Sweet Heat has been selling gift boxes, and it adds a new retail outlet per week, Christine Stilwell says. Life Church gives jars of jams away in its welcome pack for newcomers, and Austin’s Quality Seafood Market uses Texas Sweet Heat’s new mustard in one of their shrimp dishes.
But COVID-19 took away one of Nolan Stilwell’s favorite parts of the job: sampling product and telling the story of the company to members of his community.
He and his coworkers used to give out samples about once a week, which gave them an excuse to go to the stores where their jam is sold and see the product they made. Christine Stilwell says it’s always a special moment. “Being able to see it on the shelves somewhere, they get to say, ‘I made that’,” she says. They see their work in that jam. “It’s huge.”
In recent years, Texas Sweet Heat Jam has connected with other organizations that support adults with developmental disabilities, including entrepreneurs who sell candles, soap, socks and even quilts.
Last year, Texas Sweet Heat Jam collaborated with Down Home Ranch in Elgin so their employees could engrave the metal jam spreaders that are sold with the jam gift boxes. “They engraved them with ‘Spreading love’ with a heart,” Christine Stilwell says.
Meeting people where they are
Christine Stilwell says that the young people who work for Texas Sweet Heat Jam are caught in the middle.
“Not every young person who graduates from high school has the ability to go into a retail market, whether it’s attention span or they get apprehensive,” she says. “They don’t need one-on-one training, but they aren’t yet at the stage where they can work independently.”
She says the team intentionally built up the work environment to suit each individual, which helps develop their confidence to go work somewhere else if they want.
“When they come in to work at Sweet Heat, we look at what are their strengths, what do they enjoy doing? We create jobs that are fit for their strengths and abilities, rather than, ‘We’ve got a job opening and we want you to fill it,’” she says.
They’ve had employees go on to work up to full time at places like Home Depot, Sonic, Randalls and H-E-B.
“We give them a resume so when they want to apply for a job, they can say, ‘I have skill sets that I think will enhance your company, and I’d like for you to hire me’,” she says. “I tell the kids, this could be a place that they love to stay at or this could just be a stepping stone in their life.”
Harry Schaefer, a student at Leander High School who is graduating this spring, is assembling boxes in the marketing room next to the kitchen. His job coach, Laura Baca, is sitting nearby. She’s a former preschool teacher who came out of retirement five years ago to work as a job coach for the Leander school district's bridge program. She teaches high school students basic life skills, such as laundry, cooking and dishes, as well as vocational and social skills. She says she's been working with Schaefer on making more eye contact and on verbalization.
“I see this as the beginning, right after high school,” when you’re trying to make that transition from school to adulthood, Baca says.
She says this job has changed her life: “It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you can achieve and do in life if you really put your mind to it. It’s amazing to see them learning tools and accomplishing their goals through jobs like this.”
She’s also made a friend in Nolan Stilwell.
“Oh my goodness, he’s such a good friend," she says. "Always caring, helping out. As a supervisor, he’s patient, loving, warm, smiling all the time.”
New decade, new flavors for Texas Sweet Heat Jam
Now 31, Nolan Stilwell is enjoying life as a “funcle” — a fun uncle — with six nieces and nephews. He frequently visits his grandmother, who lives nearby, and he’s hoping to go to Ohio to visit his 96-year-old grandfather, who talks with Nolan once a week on the phone.
But thanks to the company's growing network of distribution, Grandpa George was able to buy Texas Sweet Heat Jam at Artful 21, a store outside Cleveland that specializes in selling products from entrepreneurs who have Down syndrome.
With 14 flavors, four employees and more than a half-dozen interns, Texas Sweet Heat Jam is entering its second decade of business in a new home, and with a new crew and the same leader.
They still buy peaches from Studebaker Farms and have been in talks with Fredericksburg food company Fischer and Wieser to collaborate on a product. This fall, the Stilwells are selling 10th-anniversary boxes that will be available for pre-sale soon, and staff members are already working on a barbecue sauce to add to the lineup.
The company’s newest jam flavor is Texas carrot cake, made with carrots that Grady McGaha will be shredding in that food processor. Walker Raney is still working on the red peppers, and soon he and Christine Stilwell are talking about cooking.
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Raney occasionally helps her measure out the ingredients from her master recipe book that sits by the window. “Walker used our cranberry jam as a glaze for ham,” Christine Stilwell says. “I was so proud to see him cooking and getting creative.” (Raney says that one of his prized possessions is a cookbook his dad gave him for Christmas, and he’s hoping to get another one this year.)
The team of foodies can brainstorm new flavor ideas all day long. The Texas apple cake was Nolan Stilwell’s idea — he started telling people they were going to make it before they had concocted a recipe.
He loved watching the Food Network as a kid, especially Emeril Lagasse. He’ll occasionally throw a “bam” out to lighten the mood in the room. He loves Guy Fieri and Rachael Ray now. And wrestling. Sasha Banks, the Miz, Bobby Lashley, Carlito. Name a single wrestler, and he and his work family light up.
For as long as he’s loved wrestling, he’s loved food and being around his family.
Together, the Stilwells combined their passions in a way that helps build a community and spreads a sweet story of working together and following dreams.
Randy Stilwell calls Nolan the caboose, the youngest of five kids who ushered in a new era of parenting for them. He’s all grown up now, but 10 years ago, Nolan ushered in another new chapter that brings even more goodness into the world.