Stonewall Kitchen’s new CEO has embraced the company’s festive culture.Loyal Stonewall Kitchen customers may have blanched last fall when the company announced that founders Jonathan King and Jim Stott, who built the York-based specialty-food purveyors from a farm-stand novelty in 1991 to a $50-million-a-year business today, had cut a deal with the national private equity firm Centre Partners. Along with a cash infusion, Centre Partners contributed a new CEO, Maine native John Stiker, from its office in LA (that’s Los Angeles, not Lewiston/Auburn). Can a transplant from corporate America really lead this homey family business (King’s sister and sister-in-law hold key management positions) to what the company calls “the next level of growth?”
So why does Stonewall Kitchen need to reach the next level? What’s wrong with this level?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing is wrong with this level. But the number one complaint about Stonewall Kitchen from our consumers is that it’s hard to find. We get a bit of a distorted impression here in New England, especially in Maine, because around here, there’s plenty of Stonewall Kitchen. But, boy, if you go to the Midwest or parts of the Southeast or where I lived most recently, on the West Coast, there is not a lot.
But can you take the company out of Maine without taking Maine out of the company?
Yes. We do that by being very careful about the partners we choose to sell our products to. Take a national grocery chain that may have 2,000 stores. We won’t necessarily think that Stonewall Kitchen is a great fit for all of their stores. But usually in a chain like that, there will be 200 to 400 stores where specialty food or organic or natural food is performing very well. Those stores would be a good fit for us. And then what we try to do is sell our products in hutches, so there’s a dedicated Stonewall Kitchen section, rather than just having three Stonewall Kitchen jams mixed in with every other jam brand.
Was it at all uncomfortable for you to fit into a family business? Too many Kings in the Kitchen?
Yeah, we joke sometimes about the Three Kings. As you may know, January 6 is Three Kings Day in the Catholic tradition, and we decided to have some fun with that. We even made a cake for the occasion. So yes, there’s always some trepidation for an outsider coming into a quote/unquote “family business.” But I have been just incredibly impressed with how great this team is. And it starts with those three Kings — Jonathan; Lori, his sister-in-law and the president and chief financial officer; and Natalie, who is Jonathan’s sister and the executive vice president of sales and marketing. Last name aside, it is a management team of true pros.
Is there something about Maine companies that attracts investment firms?
I can’t speak for others, but I’d believe it, because I know that in the world of food and beverage, there is a real focus on authenticity — on being natural and clean and healthy — and Maine kind of embodies that. Certainly we think our brand does. I would think other brands coming out of Maine with that same sort of heritage and feel would be very attractive for investors right now.
Have you tracked other Maine companies that have developed successful national brands?
As cliché as it sounds, I’m an L.L.Bean guy. That’s why I’m all decked out in L.L.Bean today. It’s not because of this interview — that’s just what I wear.
So it’s safe to say you’re glad to be back?
I grew up in Maine, and my folks still live in Maine. Centre Partners needed someone willing to move here, live here, and be here every day. Some people probably wouldn’t have done that. At one point in my life, I did a CEO job where I was commuting. I was living in San Diego, and I got on a plane every Sunday night and came back every Friday night. It was horrible. I would never do that again. So this has been terrific for me. I’m thrilled to be back — as are my folks, as you could probably guess. Having lived on the West Coast for the last 16 years, it’s really great to be back with a lot of family.
Now for the hard-hitting investigative reporting. How many Stonewall Kitchen products are actually in your kitchen?
Oh jeez, at least 75. My favorite is bleu-cheese herb mustard. I know that sounds kooky — I don’t know many others who would pick that as a favorite. I’ll put it on kielbasa and throw it in a skillet. My wife mixes it into salad dressings, and she used it last night on salmon. It’s a great, tasty, spicy sort of zany product. Love it. — Rob Sneddon