Jan Hogrewe of Just Jan’s: “Execute in the short term but focus on the long term”

Make a plan — Execute in the short term but focus on the long term. When starting this venture, although I was working with a professional in the food industry, I could have used a more detailed plan — I didn’t have a plan. I was flying by the seat of my pants! I think […]

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Make a plan — Execute in the short term but focus on the long term. When starting this venture, although I was working with a professional in the food industry, I could have used a more detailed plan — I didn’t have a plan. I was flying by the seat of my pants! I think my excitement and desire to get the end result blinded me a bit from forming a long range plan. I let some of the short term decisions that I had to make on the fly take focus away from working towards long range goals.

I had the pleasure to interview Jan Hogrewe. From a very young age, she loved baking, and experimenting in the kitchen. Never did she imagine that she would one day create her own line of gourmet food products. Yet after a long and successful career in the film industry that’s exactly what she did. Growing up in Burbank, Jan was surrounded by an abundance of citrus and fruit trees. Figs, Meyer Lemons and tangerines were in most backyards, including hers. The influence of those early years can be seen in Just Jan’s signature flavors; Kadota Fig spread, Tangerine Marmalade and Meyer Lemon Curd.

After a decades long career in film it was no longer Jan’s passion. Considering what she would do, Jan was confronted with another question; “What am I gonna do with these figs?” There were too many to eat and Jan didn’t want them to go to waste. Out of ideas Jan turned to the internet, a few keystrokes later and she was looking at a recipe for fig jam. An avid and skilled cook, Jan took the basic recipe she found online and began to augment and experiment until she got the jam she was looking for. Unbeknownst to all but a few creating and perfecting her fig jam was Jan’s refuge. Production business was waning, her marriage along with it, her daughters were on their way to college, and she was caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Making something that tasted good and brought joy to others helped Jan through a difficult time, little did she know it would also become her second act. Initially Jan only shared her spread with family and close friends but in her small community word began to get out about her spread.

One day while out getting coffee Jan ran into a friend who was getting coffee with someone in the food industry. Jan’s friend told the food insider about Jan’s fig jam, intrigued he asked if he could try it sometime. Jan ran home and got what was left of the jam so he could sample it. After tasting Jan’s fig recipe the insider told Jan he thought it was better than what was on the market, and asked her if she would “consider doing this for a living?”. In that moment Jan’s path was changed, she said ‘yes’ and began her journey to create Just Jan’s.

Today Just Jan’s is a line of award winning artisanal, all-natural fruit spreads. Her spreads have a strong following and reputation for high-quality and unique flavors. Each Just Jan’s product begins in her kitchen, and is fine tuned until it meets her standards for flavor, texture and consistency. Because Jan believes the fruit is sweet enough, all her spreads are made with less sugar, no artificial ingredients and no preservatives.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

So many things! I always loved being in the kitchen baking, cooking and sharing what I’ve made with others. That seed was planted in my childhood. At the time I started Just Jan’s so many other life changes were taking place; my twin daughters were preparing to go to college on two coasts, my production company was winding down, my marriage along with it, and I was caring for my mother who had Alzheimer’s disease. In the midst of that, spending time in the kitchen, experimenting, learning how to make jam was really a form of self care. Still, with all of that what ultimately got me on this career path was being asked the right question at the exact right time.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Oh wow…When I first started Just Jan’s one of my dreams was to one day have my product in Williams-Sonoma. Growing up Williams Sonoma was the culinary gold standard, so I thought that if my products could ever be on their shelves, I must really be making something excellent. Early on, about six months after launching Just Jan’s, I was given the name and contact information of the person in charge of new product development at Williams-Sonoma, so I reached out. They responded quickly and said they weren’t looking for my type of product at that time, but that I should keep in touch. 6 months later, I was busy working and connecting with various gourmet retailers, when I was struck by the memory that I should check back in with Williams-Sonoma. I sent a reminder email and got a response, it turned out that they were looking for a new lemon curd. So I put a gift box together with my full line and some fresh baked scones and sent it off, then I waited. Two weeks later, I got a call from the 415 area code and I knew it was Williams Sonoma. Since then I’ve helped them create and launch multiple new products. It has truly been one of the biggest thrills of this whole experience and they’ve been a fantastic partner to work with.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I started this, I knew I couldn’t have just the one flavor in stores as it would get lost among all the other jam products. So as I was working on different recipe ideas, I settled on 8 that I wanted to produce. It was my ‘go big or go home’ mentality to be honest. I’m not sure what I was thinking and even my co-packer suggested it was an ambitious quantity for a startup brand. That said, I was all in and had no desire to do less so they produced all 8 flavors for me. If I knew then what I know now, I would have definitely started with 4 flavors, it would have been much more manageable and a better financial decision.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

A lot has changed from when I started this company to where I am now. One thing that hasn’t changed is how we create our products. Everything still starts in my kitchen, either myself or my partner, Kris will come up with an idea of what we want to create. We do our research, source ingredients and then get in the kitchen for the development and testing phase. Some creations come together quickly, with others this is a process that has taken a year or more. I know that sounds crazy for a fruit spread or a food product, but it’s a difference you can taste. My favorite compliment is when someone tasting one of our products for the first time, tells us it reminds them of something their mother or grandmother used to make, a taste that takes them home. Nothing will ever top that as a compliment.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My partner has been working on a gluten free flour on and off for a few years now. Last year he really locked in on the proper ingredients and ratios and created something we think is very special and indistinguishable as gluten free. So much so, that chefs we know have tasted items we baked with it and been completely unaware that they were eating something gluten free. We’re in a period of increasingly specialized and allergen specific diets, even if you don’t have a gluten allergy, chances are you know someone who does. Being able to bake cookies or a cake for someone with a gluten allergy that anyone could eat without knowing it was gluten free, would be huge for removing some of the stigma associated with gluten free baked goods.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

The people who work with you are always looking to you to lead. That doesn’t mean that you have to have all the answers all the time, but you do have to have a clear vision for where you want to go and how to get there. Communication is key to assure that you and your team are on the same page and striving to accomplish the planned goals. Even having a small company it requires a team effort from creative, to food scientist/chefs overseeing projects to social media and sales. Being clear on what needs to happen to achieve the goal or final product helps make the journey a lot easier and hopefully you avoid some of the gotchas along the way.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

You have to know what you need to be effective and also what your team needs to be effective. Where are you strongest, and how can your team help you get there? Where is your team strongest and how does what you do get them there? Utilizing individuals strengths, being able to relate to team members and empowering them to carry out the various projects and delegating are important factors that can make the difference.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Honestly there have been so many people who I’m grateful to and have helped me along the way. My daughters, who tasted so many PB&J’s while I was developing recipes, friends who never minded trying new creations, a stranger who was the catalyst for a nationwide launch into stores and the community of people who taste and share. But the one person who I will be eternally grateful to is my partner, Kris. He joined me about 2 years into my journey. He was one of my initial taste testing friends and as I kept telling him how business was growing he’d offer suggestions from a marketing point of view. When I asked if he’d like to go on this journey with me — he didn’t hesitate. His background and strengths are areas I was in need of. I felt like I was spinning plates trying to work it all on my own. So much was going on in a good way but it was stressful and he helped calm the storm. His presence in Just Jan’s has been more than I could have dreamt of. He is creative and a visionary in the kitchen so we make a great team. Thank you, Kris!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our motto is “Spread the goodness” and that is something we try to carry forward every day. I have benefited from serendipity and the kindness of strangers throughout my journey in this industry. If I can be the kind stranger on someone’s path, if I can give them the advice that propels them forward then that’s what I do. I can still remember how much it hurt to have distributors or retailers try to dissuade me from even attempting to start this business, so I offer as much support and information to beginners as I can.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Start with fewer products — I was in the ‘go big or go home’ mentality although I’m not sure why. I guess my thought was visualizing how many different flavors would look good together and I wanted a variety. I wanted to include sweet and savory flavors, traditional spreads and not so traditional flavors. However, it would have been best to start with 4 not 8.
  2. Make a plan — Execute in the short term but focus on the long term. When starting this venture, although I was working with a professional in the food industry, I could have used a more detailed plan — I didn’t have a plan. I was flying by the seat of my pants! I think my excitement and desire to get the end result blinded me a bit from forming a long range plan. I let some of the short term decisions that I had to make on the fly take focus away from working towards long range goals.
  3. Be patient — Coming from the film world where the pace was so fast and projects needed attention yesterday, this industry couldn’t be more the opposite. The process of development from conception of recipes to finished product takes time. A long time. I had no idea of all the steps involved and how long each step could take. It took over a year after I had my recipes finished to find a co-packer that could make them like mine. Getting into stores was another eye opening experience. Some large stores only review certain grocery categories once a year. So I had to learn to embrace the process, it’s a marathon not a sprint.
  4. Retail lessons: bigger isn’t always better. So my initial idea for promoting and selling my line was to sell to gourmet stores and specialty shops, wineries and boutiques. Initially this was a sound strategy, I was able to get into local stores, as well as a couple of restaurants, and some hotels. After a few years we wanted to grow more aggressively and were introduced to a broker who connected us with a large distributor. They had the ability to place us in grocery chains nationwide. Upon meeting them we agreed this could be a fantastic opportunity. We launched into 30 stores in Indiana and did a whirlwind demo tour introducing our products to stores and customers. This was a great way to start in a new market, but as a 2 person company it was a level of engagement we simply couldn’t sustain. As this was our first experience in major distribution and grocery, there was a lot we just did not know. We learned some tough lessons during this time, but they served us well going forward. Today our products are still in distribution, and can be found in major grocery stores throughout Southern California as well as grocery and specialty stores nationwide.
  5. Don’t neglect your brand or vision. When Just Jan’s was in it’s first year I met with a large nationwide retailer about private labeling for them. I was enamored with the idea of creating for a large company and saw a great opportunity for cash flow but working on their products was like another full time job. It took my focus away from selling and promoting the Just Jan’s brand.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is a hard question to answer. I think any movement should empower and inspire. We’ve all seen how quickly a small movement can become a cultural shift. Being that the world is dealing with a global pandemic, how great would it be to come together spirit and mind as a collective and really take care of one another. The entire world is truly in this together and we just need to recognize that, be patient with one another and we’ll get through it together.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? Change is the only constant or the only thing you can count on.

This idea has been a constant thread throughout my life. My mom was frightened of change and wanted to control her daily surroundings and outcomes. I didn’t quite understand how much this affected our lives until I was an adult and realized I had the tendency to do the opposite and actually embrace change. Not that these transitions I went through weren’t hard, but trying to resist them made it much more difficult to deal with. I believe this was inherent for me as a child. My dad died before I was born and my mom had a business to run so she hired a live-in nanny to take care of my older brother and me. Grace became my mother figure for 13 years. During that time, my brother was drafted for Vietnam and I was adopted by my stepdad. When my mom decided she wanted to close her business and be a stay at home mom, Grace left — the hardest change. So as I got older I decided that leaning into changes — good and bad were where my growth would happen. I have leaned into it ever since.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Well.. I’d love to have breakfast with Ina Garten and lunch with James Taylor!

Ina makes me smile and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. She’s a literal rock star in the culinary world. Her early career life from working at the White House writing the nuclear budget under two presidents to opening a specialty food store, talk about a major life shift! I admire her savvy and business acumen and her sense of humor. She would be so much fun to hang out with — I picture enjoying brunch we make together with some bubbly drinks!

James Taylor — the first LP I ever bought was his greatest hits in 1976. I’ve been to at least 5 of his concerts and even performed “Shower the People” in the 8th grade talent show with my girlfriend. His life’s journey is incredible and I admire him greatly. Oh and my twin daughters first concert experience was hearing him live at the Hollywood Bowl. He’s just the coolest.

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