A fixture in Lebanon, known for its unique jams and preserves, canning classes, and a cameo in a Hallmark movie, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The Jam and Jelly Lady, owned by Sonya Staffan, has existed in different forms for much longer, though. For this shop, the best is yet to come.
The idea for the Jam and Jelly Lady started after Staffan, who had recently quit her job writing computer manuals and consulting with companies to take care of her newborn daughter Jessica, decided to can peach puree and other baby food recipes to save money. She was taught by her Grandma Betty and Great-Grandma Marie. Soon Jessica moved on to solid food, and Staffan moved on to turning the leftover peaches into canned peach preserves. She ended up with a surplus of preserves and sold them at the 1995 Lebanon Applefest.
“Years later, we laugh at our audacity, thinking it was a good idea to sell peaches at an apple event,” Staffan said, “but we sold out in just a few hours!”
As the business grew, along with Staffan’s family, she worked out a plan that allowed her to balance the business with childcare. On weekdays, she would break the canning process into chunks, and on weekends she would sell jams and baked goods at the Waynesville Farmers’ Market while her husband Pete watched the kids. She even started a farmers’ market in Springboro. In 1996, farmers’ markets were viewed as hippie-dippy and were hardly the staple of society that they are now, so Staffan was ahead of the curve.
It was through farmers’ markets that the Jam and Jelly Lady got its name; vendors often get their names through what they sell, such as “the egg man,” “the zucchini guy,” etc. Eventually Staffan began selling at weekday markets and taking her kids with her to help her operate the business; the experience proved to be valuable business experience for the kids. In early 2013, Staffan opened her brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Lebanon.
In addition to jams, preserves (made from pieces of fruit in a thick sugar syrup), and conserves (jams made from a mixture of fruits), the Jam and Jelly Lady sells regional gourmet foods, local honeys, and creative kitchen tools. Their flavors are varied and creative. Their bestseller is the Christmas jam, a blend of strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries.
The Jam and Jelly Lady’s most unique offering is Peach Pecan Whisky Jam, which is made up of peaches, pecans and Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. It also sells limited edition whiskeys like pear and anise preserves, and the website offers recipes for using the products, such as sweet grilled cheese sandwiches and turtleberry brownies.
In addition to selling canned products, the Jam and Jelly Lady offers canning classes. Initially, Staffan started these classes in the local YWCA and in Cooks’ Wares and Dorothy Lane schools, but eventually she decided to host the classes on her property and built a summer kitchen behind her home. (The term “summer kitchen” comes from the Amish community and refers to a kitchen separate from the house kitchen, where all the hottest work is done.)
The entry level class is a boot camp, where students can learn to water-bath can strawberry preserve and pressure-can glazed carrots. After students pass boot camp, they can move on to master classes, where they perfect their canning techniques with a variety of products like salsa, honey-based preserves, pickles, lemon curd and spiced apples. In addition to teaching students tangible skills, the canning classes often create lifelong friendships.
Not only is the Jam and Jelly Lady a fixture in the Lebanon community, but it gained a bit of Hollywood fame when it was featured in a locally-filmed Hallmark movie called “The Christmas Spirit.” The film, directed by Jack Angelo, called for a “jam lady” character, and naturally, Staffan auditioned. Angelo, not knowing who Staffan was, picked her, saying, “She looks like a jam lady.”
Filming was long and hot (the movie is set at Christmastime, but filming took place in September, so the cast had to bundle up despite the warm weather), but it was worth it for Staffan, a fan of Olympia Dukakis, who starred in the film. While filming, Dukakis “kept chatting with me about jams, how much she loved ours, and wondered how she might get more,” Staffan said.
“We were both exhausted from a very long, hot day, and it was natural to forget I was speaking with a screen icon about the best eats at local restaurants, fountain Coke from McDonalds vs. Speedway, and the merits of pumpkin butter over apple butter. She was charming and simply unforgettable.”
To Staffan, the best part of owning the Jam and Jelly Lady is the people: Customers, the crew, Lebanon city personnel and other small business owners. City personnel and business owners have been vital to keep the downtown area vibrant. Staffan describes her crew as a “unique sisterhood.” And, Staffan mentions, she has longstanding relationships with regular customers.
“I meet them for coffee, enjoy watching their kids grow, and share their personal successes and pain.”
The Jam and Jelly Lady was voted Warren County’s best non-clothing boutique two years in a row in a customer-driven contest from the county’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.
As with many local businesses, the Jam and Jelly Lady has faced difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic and inflation. Fruit prices have risen, weather has been difficult, the bee population has declined, and there have been shortages of fruit pickers and water. These factors have led to an increase in costs, and profit margins have decreased.
Due to the pandemic, however, Staffan has had to get creative in order to stay afloat. “Before the pandemic, JamAndJellyLady.com was primarily used to register students,” she says. “But in March 2020, we added hundreds of products in 48 hours in order to keep our business afloat during the shut-down. Surprisingly, I learned that free, contact-less, local delivery opened up a whole new customer base!” The Jam and Jelly Lady’s immediate goal is to increase production to grow the website so the shop can reach out to customers near and far.
How to go
What: The Jam and Jelly Lady
Where: 20 S Broadway St. in Lebanon.
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.