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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Local Jam Maker Wooing Foodies Statewide

Ernie Riley never meant to start a food business.

But she was in Maine, it was blueberry season, and her sister didn’t know
how to can.

“We made some jam, I took some home with me, gave it to my friends, gave it to
the kids,” Riley said.

At the time – more than 30 years ago – she had an antique store in Phoenix,
so she started selling it there and at church bazaars. Soon, she built a
following.

“People said, ‘You should do the farmers markets,'” she said. “I said,
‘What, with one product?'”

And so began Cotton Country Jams, now a thriving family business with a
product line of more than 80 jams, jellies and pickled and canned goods. In
June, Riley moved into her own commercial kitchen and storefront at 3801 S.
Central Ave. just north of Broadway Road.

Riley, 75, and granddaughter Amanda Hawkins, 31, both residents of the South
Mountain District, work with employee Khristine Jackson to produce boxes full
of everything from apple butter to zesty salsa.

Riley’s husband Joe, 72 – who also owns a cotton gin manufacturing business
in South Phoenix – is the official taste tester. He also goes with his wife
to farmers markets every Saturday in Prescott and Sunday in Flagstaff from
May to October, and sells goods at three other Valley markets once a month.

Riley’s grandson Thomas Davis and Hawkins’ daughter Breanna Price sell the
jams at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market on Saturdays, too.

Demand is strong and keeps increasing, Riley said. Hip Phoenix foodie
destinations La Grande Orange and Postino Wine Café sell and use Cotton
Country Jams, and other restaurants have expressed interest, too.

“It’s a farm-to-jar concept,” said Lauren Bailey, general manager of
Postino. “Everything they use is fresh.”

Riley buys raw materials from local farmers such as Bob McClendon, who
grows Burr gherkins specifically for her. There’s a waiting list for his
goods, but he and Joe Riley have long been friends.

They also buy from Crooked Sky Farms, One Windmill Farms, Schnepf Farms, KB
Farms and Whipstone Farms.

“We try and get everything we can locally from the farmers we do business
with,” Ernie Riley said.

Fruits such as peaches and plums can be frozen and canned later, but
pickled items must be processed within a day of getting them.

“It has to be done with fresh vegetables,” Ernie Riley said.

She uses no preservatives and makes everything in small batches that sell
out within a month. Shelf life is at least two years for jams and nine months
to one year for pickled products.

Customer Randall Garczynski of Phoenix, a lawyer and graduate of Scottsdale
Culinary Institute, said a few of his Cotton Country favorites are the
pickled beets, Bloody Mary mix, brandied peaches and strawberry amaretto
jam.

There are other social and political reasons to prefer local foods, he said
(speaking of the “locavore” movement), but for him, it boils down to one
thing: “It’s at the peak of ripeness, so it’s going to taste better,” he
said. “Line up 10 jars and I can pick out (Riley’s).”

The Rileys have owned their 4,000-square-foot South Phoenix building that
houses Cotton Country Jams for 35 years; it used to be a childcare center.
They gutted it, built shelves in the front room for displays, and created
two large commercial kitchens in the back.

George Buttell and Nina Khamo, who run Nina’s Specialty Foods, rent space
from the Rileys, but it’s available for other caterers and food producers as
well.

Cotton Country Jams is open 8 a.m. to noon and by appointment.

“A lot of people call and ask if I can stay later,” Riley said. “That’s
fine, because we live close by.”

Cotton Country Jams

Where: 3801 S. Central Ave., Phoenix

Hours: 8 a.m. to noon and by appointment

Contact: 602-478-6085; 602-478-1828; www.cottoncountryjams.com

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