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September 1st, 2012
Award-winning jam maker, acclaimed pastry chef and restaurateur, Sarabeth Levine, remains the driving force behind the success and outstanding reputation of the Sarabeth brand. Sarabeth’s personal search for perfection extends to everything she creates.
Sarabeth's award-winning "Legendary Spreadable Fruit", which had its beginning in Sarabeth and her husband and business partner, Bill Levine's Manhattan apartment with a few jars being sold to local businesses, is now being produced in a 15,000 s.f. factory in the Bronx, still being operated by Sarabeth and Bill. They are sold in the finest department stores, gourmet shops and specialty stores throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Canada, Japan and South Korea and have achieved a reputation as the finest fruit spreads and jams in the gourmet industry. From that humble beginning, Sarabeth with her husband, now own and operate a jam factory, a wholesale-retail bakery café and nine restaurants. It is a true American success story.
How have the needs of your customers evolved since you began in 1980?
I haven’t seen the needs of my customer change too much since I started in this industry because my customer wants to come in and enjoy a great, and comfortable meal with their family– Sarabeth’s has always provided that great meal in a comfortable atmosphere and we always will. It all comes down to people wanting to go out and enjoy a simple and delicious meal, in maybe one hour instead of three, and we are that place for them.
My customer has been coming to me for the same reasons as when I started, and that is a timeless, home cooked meal – you can eat at Sarabeth’s every day.
I always say that if Sarabeth was your mother, you would be home for dinner every night.
What was they key to your ability to build the Sarabeth retail line?
I started with a really great idea and ran with it. I don’t look back and take things one step at a time. If it feels good to me, I test it out and make it work financially. You have to really love what you are doing to be in this business, so I do what I feel in my heart. Sarabeth’s has always produced quality products with quality ingredients, so when we decide to put something on the shelves, it sells – people are able to recognize the quality of the brand.
What brought you into the industry?
In 1981, I met Bill Levine, a contractor working on a new cafe that needed a special touch. Little did he know that I had just the trick. I had never forgotten a treasured family recipe for orange-apricot marmalade that was kept secret by ‘Grandmère’, (my Aunt Ruth’s mother-in-law) a French Jewish woman also named Sara. I recall grandmère making clandestine batches in the basement, and the recipe was revealed to me by Aunt Ruth long after her death. That very special recipe is what I prepared daily for Bill’s cafe, making it from my apartment kitchen and serving it proudly to rave reviews. That, of course, was only the beginning.
Who had the most impact on your career and why?
My husband Bill has had the most impact on my career because he instilled in me a self belief that I could be successful, and he wanted to be a part of it. Bill handles more of the business side of Sarabeth’s and that has allowed me to get in the kitchen every day and create – something that I might not have been able to do without him. Once I create a new product, we look at the bottom line and evaluate the product together, and then as a team, decide if we are going to sell it or not. Bill has been the encouragement to grow the business, and even helped build the first restaurant.
I also have to credit the woman who dared give me the marmalade recipe, my Aunt Ruth
The secret to the success of Sarabeth’s Kitchen is Bill Blue-Eyes and the Golden Marmalade recipe – a great pair.
You work with your husband, what are the keys to making that relationship work?
This is similar to the way I work with my employees; you need to let everyone express themselves, the good and the bad, because it will all pass and you’ve made a commitment to each other. You’re not going to split up each time you disagree.
You created a brand before Food Network and the "celebrity chef", how did you do it?
I feel that I did it in reverse. Sarabeth’s Kitchen started as a specialty food business – we were a wholesaler of specialty products, and then expended into a bakery and then finally the restaurants and not the other way around, as do many of the “celebrity chefs.” Our products are not after thoughts, but what started our business and the key to its continued success. I just wanted to feed people and I built on that. Everything happened because I invested in myself.
You’ve had a number of employees that have been with you for 20 years, what is your approach to building a team?The people that work for me are paid to work for me, but I never think of it that way. I think about how fantastic they are, and over the years they have become family because to me, work is home. An important thing in building a successful team is to take an interest in your employees as more than just an employee, but as a person. They devote a lot of time to you, and there will be times that you need to be there for them on a personal level. I truly care about the people that work for me, so I treat them like family. And if you don’t care about your employees, they won’t stay.
What role did your famous marmalade have in building your business?
The Orange-Apricot Marmalade is what started Sarabeth’s Kitchen. The bakery business came after because we realized we needed something to put the marmalade on, so I started baking pastries and never looked back.
There seems to be a trend towards healthier menus. How has that impacted your approach?
I have noticed a trend toward healthier options, but I have always made pastries and desserts and always will, although I have always made small muffins, and other smaller pastry items. I started making a great new product called the “Morning Cookie,” and it is packed with flavor, as well as fiber and whole grains and it’s only 3 points on Weight Watchers!
This new trend, though, doesn’t mean you need to stop eating sweets all together or that I should stop baking – just eat half a cookie instead of a full one.
And I eat seasonally as much as possible in order to support the earth and be healthy, but when you want a little something, eat a sweet treat.
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