Meet the Maker - Nicola Smyth, Big Red Kitchen
Hello and welcome to our ‘Meet the Maker’ series!
Part of the reason I started Irish at Heart was to showcase the brilliant artisan products of Ireland and work with makers with a true passion for their craft. In our ‘Meet the Makers’ series, we get to know the people behind the products that go into our subscription boxes. Settle in, grab a cup of tea and find out what we got to know about Nicola Smyth from Big Red Kitchen.
So, Nicola, tell us a little bit about your business and the products that you make.
Big Red Kitchen is my business established in 2011. We produce a range of homemade artisan, jams, preserves, chutneys, marmalades, basically across the globe of preserves is what we do here in my home kitchen just outside Navan, County Meath.
We have staple products that we sell all year and then some that change seasonally. So right now we’re into autumn/winter, we’ve got the Christmas range out, and then going into January our production will change to our spring/summer range. No two days are really the same with Big Red Kitchen. We’re always making something different, mixing it up a bit.
...and is there a story behind the name ‘Big Red Kitchen’?
When I started making jams, I didn’t have a name. Somebody asked me, ‘What are you going to call it?’ and they said are you going to call it ‘Nicola’s Jam’, or ‘Smyth’s Jams’. Smyth is my surname, and it’s quite a common name in Ireland. I wanted something a bit more unique, a bit quirkier, and I just said ‘No, I’m going to call it something that I hope people want to remember’. Big Red Kitchen just came to me, and that’s what it was. I just kind of rolled with it!
At the time I was starting out I didn’t even know if jams were going to be successful for me, I didn’t know if I was going to have to go back and have a look and change the product range, so I didn’t want to call it anything ‘jams’. So, we went with Big Red Kitchen. When people started coming to the farmer’s markets, and saying ‘Ah, it’s the Red Kitchen lady!’, I knew it must be sticking!
What inspired you to start Big Red Kitchen?
I was made redundant from my job in the recession, and I knew that the redundancy will be coming down the line, so I knew I had to think about something else to do. I had never worked in food before, it just started as a hobby to make jams, and then I thought this could become a business venture, a side hustle, more than a full-time job or a business. I started to do some local farmer’s markets and craft fairs, and we got a really good reaction to the range and to the products, people loved the story. It just kind of became something on the side of working part-time, and then I built it up to selling to local cafes and gourmet stores.
Do you have a favourite product that you make?
My products are a bit like children, you know you shouldn’t really have favourites! If I’m honest, raspberry and vanilla jam is probably my favourite for a couple of reasons. It’s the first product I’ve ever made, so it’s more of a sentimental reason, and it’s our most popular. Our customers absolutely love it and it’s always nice to share something that you both love.
What makes your jams special?
I suppose when I was inspired to start Big Red Kitchen the reason it was jam and not cookies or something else was because I lived next door to a fruit farm, who at the time had a large surplus of jam-grade fruit that they weren’t using themselves. At one stage the farmer was throwing the strawberries out on the field to fertilise it, so I guess it was for that reason that Big Red Kitchen became jam and not something else. Using locally sourced produce, I really see that as a differentiator for Big Red Kitchen. It’s a core part of our sustainability plan, and sustainability is really at the core values of what we do. I think those things are all really interlinked. The other thing it’s got is that Big Red Kitchen is run from my home, my home kitchen, so it is a business, but it really is homemade jam which uses Irish produce. I guess a bit like the name, we tried to do something a little bit memorable, a little bit unique, a little bit quirky with some of our flavours. And then we try and tie it all together with presentation that reflects all of that.
Do you still source the fruit from the same local farm?
I do. I’ve since moved, so I don’t live next door to them anymore, but they’re still our local fruit farm, ‘Clarke’s Fresh Fruit’ We still source our fruit from them and then we have other local producers as well, including the flour that we use for the mix comes from a local stone ground watermill Martry Mill. It’s been there since the 1800s, they mill our flour, so we’ve added more local producers to our supplier list.
What’s next for Big Red Kitchen?
This question always makes me nervous! Really, it’s more of the same. I think sometimes you can be so busy planning the future that you don’t really enjoy the present or that you don’t really see the opportunities that are in the present. So I try not to plan way, way down the line. This year has been really exciting for us, just the idea that our little jams made in my kitchen in the countryside in Ireland are going to be going to more than 700 homes in the U.S, that’s mind blowing to us! It is huge for a small business like ours, we’re a very small team of three people, so it gives us a really big kick. We hope to do more to build on that.
If any of the Irish at Heart subscribers wanted to buy your produce individually, can you ship to the U.S.?
Yes, we do ship to the U.S. That’s something that we do a little bit of, because what often happens is U.S. citizens come to Ireland on vacation and they go to some of the lovely tourist attractions that we have or they pop into a cafe and buy our products to take them home as gifts or for themselves. Then once they’ve run out, they’ll often contact us to find out how to get more and that’s kind of how our online shop was formed. We deliver almost worldwide, there are a few exclusions due to regulation on getting food into some countries, but pretty much we do ship worldwide.
What is the one thing that you would recommend a person visiting Ireland should do?
That’s really hard! There is so much I love about this country. I suppose given that I am a food producer, I would focus on something food-based, I would say that Cork’s English market is such a foodie paradise, there is nowhere else in the country quite like it.
Cork’s English market is an indoor covered market with permanent stores, almost like shops, and there is everything from fishmongers, butchers to cheese counters, olive counters, fruit and vegetables. We supply an amazing artisan food store in there called ‘Roughty Foodie’ You can find our entire range in there, but the experience of the Roughty Foodie is that there’s cafes and restaurants, there’s hot food stands that you can just buy something to take out, and there’s amazing foodie gifts for you to find and bring home. There’s nowhere else quite like it in the food scene in Ireland.
When the English Royal family come, to do state visits, they genuinely always visit Cork’s English market. The last time His Royal Highness Prince Charles and Camilla the Duchess of Cornwall came to visit, a hamper which included our products was presented to them.
You can check out Nicola’s selection of award-winning jams and preserves over on the Big Red Kitchen website. They ship to the US, and just like your Irish at Heart box, they have a great selection of items to use, keep or gift.