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Driven to start her own business, Top Shelf Preserves celebrates more than five years in business

By Amanda Armstrong on March 8, 2019

Sara worked in kitchens for 11 years before starting her own business. Selling preserves and jams, Top Shelf Preserves quickly took off, becoming a staple in the fridges of Ottawa’s foodies. With Top Shelf’s success, Sara very quickly went from cook to business owner. Her resume expanded tenfold, in what she did do and what she could do.

Kitchens have often held the reputation of being a toxic work environment. Sara was driven to start a business that would do things differently. Sara draws inspiration from other women business owners in Ottawa; including Josephine Masterson (Little Jo Berry’s), Jessica Carpinone (Bread By Us), and Liz Mok (Moo Shu Ice Cream). As a feminist business owner, Sara thinks very highly of businesses that incorporate feminist ideology within their charter and who prioritize the well-being of their staff. The continued success of these women-run businesses in Ottawa are a clear indication that, as Sara remarks very matter-of-factly, “we are a demographic that matters and we are not going to put up with the bullshit”.

Just having celebrated Top Shelf Preserves’ fifth anniversary last year, Sara has much to be proud of. Not only has she successfully run a growing local business over the past five years, but she has managed to achieve her biggest goal and when we sat down at the Manx on a Tuesday night, she tells me that she hasn’t worked a 16 hour day since we spoke last, in celebration of Top Shelf’s fourth year.

When Apt613 last spoke with Sara, we corresponded over email and she described how one of her biggest goals for the upcoming year was to achieve a work-life balance. To put an end to the 16 hour days and work a normal 40 hour work week and go home to a life that is rich outside of it.

Sara’s new 40 hour work week has allowed her to enjoy the simple life: to go for a walk, make dinner, watch a movie. It has also allowed time for better decision making. Over the past five years, Sara pressured herself to grow and expand her business. Focused on breaking the Toronto market and repeatedly asking herself why it had not been successful, the answer finally came in the form of a question: “Why not Ottawa?” It was a simple question that made her realize that Top Shelf Preserves was an Ottawa product – one that still had tremendous room for growth in the local market, despite having already come so far.

Another lesson that has come over the years is to be patient. A lot of Sara’s customers, she remarks, are more patient than she gives them credit for. It is through them that she has learned to be kinder and more patient with herself. “If I tell them that we are sold out of a certain product and that it will take three weeks to get them the next order, they just say ‘okay’”. Her customers understand that good things take time.

Having the time to take a step back from production and take a look at the numbers also caused Sara to pare down on the number of products and focus on what works. Top Shelf Preserves is comprised of roughly twelve signature products, as well as a rotation of seasonal products. The tried and true favourites are Sara’s spin on old fashioned preserves: the chutneys, the pickled beets, the marmalades, and the mustard pickles. Sara’s flavours are always very clean and technique focused, with an ingredient list that lacks complexity. New this past year is a sweet and spicy jalapeno jelly, a tart and sour strawberry jam, and a whole grain apple mustard.

Top Shelf Preserves’ products can be found in several stores around the city and you will often find Sara at local markets around town, but another exciting element of growth for Top Shelf Preserves comes in the form of an online store, Built and designed by Art + Science, an Ottawa-based business that specializes in e-commerce websites, this beautifully designed website rounds up all of your Top Shelf favourites in one place. Now, when you find yourself craving whiskey orange marmalade on toast at 2am, you can order yourself some with a few clicks of a button and have it delivered right to your door.

You can find Top Shelf Preserves at Beyond the Pale’s International Women’s Day Night Market this Friday March 8th. $10 from every Top Shelf Preserve shirt sold during the month of March will be donated to Harmony House.