by Emilie Woods, HFM volunteer
Miranda Rake makes you want to fall in love with your work. As the owner of Portland’s Plum Tree Jam rises through the ranks of the city’s small food industry, she is learning how to run a business at a time when the concept “farm-to-table” is not in most budgets.
Launched in 2014, Plum Tree Jam has become a Portland farmers market staple. Miranda first experimented with jam in the early 2000s, calling it “Miranda’s Jam” and selling to a friend’s restaurant in town. January 2015, though, was when Plum Tree Jam really got its start. Miranda was working in publishing at the time, making her no-pectin jam on the side, when The Wall Street Journal featured Plum Tree Jam in a food column. Following this article, Miranda sold out of everything in stock – from buyers East to West – sending her into a full-time jam career.
Miranda Rake graduated from New York University’s Food Studies master’s program in 2011, and followed her education with renowned writing jobs at Food & Wine and Food52. In 2013 when she moved back to her Portland roots, Miranda returned to jam making, longing for the hands-on food work that she once had at a chocolate shop job years ago. Plum Tree Jam was thus created, and Miranda was finally able to put her education and beliefs surrounding food to work. “Doing Plum Tree felt like…the way to directly affect the problems that I had read so much about,” she explains to me.
Miranda has a philosophy on food that she abides by and that she has carried with her in forming Plum Tree Jam. Being an aware consumer comes foremost – that we need to think for ourselves when purchasing food, and not just listen to the voices that tell us what to buy because of the way that something looks or the press that it has garnered. Miranda is also a new mother, and is focused on learning how to introduce good food to her four-month-old, Griffin. But Miranda also understands that buying fresh and local comes at a price, and acknowledges that her $12-$14 jams are an investment. She, too, has to make daily decisions about how to spend money efficiently.
Running Plum Tree Jam out of a certified home kitchen, Miranda avoids the high commercial kitchen rent costs that can drain a small business. In order to effectively market her company, she is enrolled in Portland State University’s business outreach program. Business honors undergrads have helped Miranda create formulas for determining the appropriate costs for her jams and the berry prices that she must negotiate with farms. In a big sigh of relief for Miranda, the class informed her last year that Plum Tree Jam was a sustainable business. “Oh my god! It was amazing,” she shares of this moment, because she knew then that she could finally afford to hire someone. Plum Tree Jam had officially survived the grueling trial stages of a small business, when “making it” is nothing less than a gamble.
In addition to some summer market help, Miranda has one employee that works for her at the Hollywood Farmers Market. On most days, though, Plum Tree Jam is a one-person operation. (Although Miranda does not fail to mention the support that she receives from her mother and husband.) “I do…12 hour days, 7 days a week until berry season is over,” she admits laughing, wondering aloud about how she will run the same schedule this summer with her new baby. These gorgeous jams take a whole lot of stamina and longer days than many would care to sign up for. But Miranda is in heaven.
Plum Tree Jam is farm-based, but its unique character is its community backbone. Miranda’s “Backyard Plum Jam,” for instance, is cooked from the plums that she picks from her family’s and friends’ backyards around Portland. Quite fitting, as this is how Plum Tree Jam came into existence, with the excess fruit from her mother’s plum tree. Miranda shares with me that her next project is a rose petal jam, and her dream is to recruit Portland residents with rose bush gardens who would be willing to share their bounty.
The ingredients aren’t the only community aspect of Plum Tree Jam. Miranda has, in many ways, built her company on the skills and advice from the small food business owners around her. In particular, she speaks to the women who stand with her at farmers markets. Naming Sarah Marshall of Marshall’s Haute Sauce, Nikki Guerrero of Hot Mama Salsa, and Anna Henricks of Sweetheart St. Johns, among others, Miranda states, “these people…are the farmers market…Sarah and Nikki gave me so many tips about juggling baby and market…both made me feel like, ‘You can do this. You can handle it.’” Surrounded by these powerhouses for the days when she wasn’t sure how she was going to pay herself, the unbearably hot summer markets, and the joys of Plum Tree Jam made Miranda realize that she wasn’t in this world of jars upon jars of labor alone. She had an entire support group who had gone through the same process, and that she could, in turn, lift up as well.
Miranda Rake may feel indebted to the women who have helped her through the first years of Plum Tree Jam, but she is already in their category. In meticulously and passionately building a growing small business while the city overflows with them, Miranda has proved herself among the very best of Portland’s small food scene. And not to mention, her jams are absolutely delightful. Go and try them for yourself.