With a resurgence of interest in local farmers’ markets and the quest for quality, food purveyors who make small batch foods like sweet tupelo honey, creamy goat cheese, and thick, fruity olive oil are often referred to as artisans and their products artisanal.
The word artisanal gets bandied about often, but what does it really mean and can it legitimately be applied to food?
Liz Cowan, founder of Three Little Figs – a fast-growing jam and preserve company based in Oregon – said, “Yes. What else would you call food that’s been hand selected, hand cut, hand cooked, and individually packaged?”
Cowan has dedicated her life to making small batches of high-quality jams and preserves. What started as a hobby when she was traveling the world as a fashion stylist blossomed into an artisanal food business two years ago.
Three Little Figs, a company comprised of Cowan and four employees, has just moved from her home kitchen to a 3,000-square-foot former sausage factory in the Willamette Valley. The team knocks out nearly 4,000 jars a month from scratch in small batches, never more than 15 jars at a time.
Cowan always made great jam. For her, the leap was how to make it into a business so she could do what she truly loved. “To succeed, you have to have a great product, but you need more than that. You also need to know business,” she stressed.
Her previous freelance styling career taught her how to be an accountant, distributor, salesperson, and marketer for herself. Cowan’s business savvy has ensured that Three Little Figs products are in 100 stores around the country, including Whole Foods. But her heart is in the food.
She travels around Oregon meeting with farmers to determine what the best produce will be. “I am obsessive about field trips,” she laughed.
Although Three Little Figs has five rock-solid products, including the original fig jam that launched the company, she is always on the lookout for interesting ingredients, ripe produce, and suggestions. “I’m a slave to the farmers. Whenever something great is growing, I create something around it,” she noted. Case in point: a limited edition pinot noir and lavender jam, inspired by her fruit farmer’s crop of seedless reliance grapes.
Despite the growth of Three Little Figs, Cowan is determined to keep her operation small enough that she can continue to hand craft each batch of jam in copper pots.
“I never want to get so big that I have to give up what I care about,” she said. “I get why customers love artisanal foods because it’s exactly what I love, too.”