Whenever merchandise manager Kate Fox welcomes tour bus groups to the J.M. Smucker Co. store and café, she asks visitors to guess Smucker’s first product. “Everyone always answers, ‘strawberry preserves,’” says Fox, “but the company actually started with apple butter.”
Located near U.S. 30, the store sits along a rural road in Wayne County just minutes away from the J.M. Smucker Company’s headquarters in Orrville. The town’s population is less than 10,000, yet it’s home to a Fortune 500 corporation with some 7,000 employees who work in offices and manufacturing facilities spread from Quebec to California. Why Orrville? In 1897, local farmer Jerome Monroe Smucker opened a cider mill there and began making apple butter from concentrated cider. It’s believed Smucker used apples that originated from trees that had been planted decades before in the area by none other than Jonathan “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman himself.
Smucker priced his cider apple butter at 25 cents per half-gallon and sold it in clay crocks from a horse-drawn wagon. The crock’s paper caps were tied with string, and Smucker guaranteed his apple butter’s quality and freshness by hand-signing each cap. Of course, Smucker’s cider apple butter and other fruit spreads now come in glass jars instead of crocks, but Fox points out that in a way, the company’s founder is still vouching for his namesake products. “A replica of J.M. Smucker’s signature is embossed on every jar,” she says.
While more than 1,500 jelly jars were used to create the store’s two most eye-catching features — a strawberry chandelier (strawberry jam and mint jelly) and a rainbow-colored wall of jam (blueberry, pineapple, and cherry) — customers are often surprised to find considerably more than jams and jellies on the shelves. Indeed, in the hundred years since Smucker incorporated his apple butter business in 1921, the company has grown into a behemoth of brand-name foods consumed not only by people but also by their pets. Its products, which can be found in 90% of the nation’s homes, include the top brands in fruit spreads (Smucker’s), peanut butter (Jif), dog treats (Milk Bone), and coffee (Folgers).
A unique shopping experience, the store showcases products from the company’s family of brands and offers a tastefully curated selection of related culinary and lifestyle merchandise. Go to the store’s pet section, for example, and you’ll find collars, leashes, and cat-opoly games displayed among the bags of Meow Mix and Rachael Ray Nutrish morsels and treats. Head to the coffee department for coffee makers and milk frothers as well as Café Bustelo whole beans and 1850 espresso in ready-to-drink cans.
Fun PB&J socks that pair images of Smucker’s Concord Grape Jelly and Jif Creamy Peanut Butter are one of the store’s best sellers, but its most popular food item is Dickinson’s Sweet ‘n’ Hot Pepper & Onion Relish.
Of course, the store also carries apple butter, which is still made with the same ingredients J.M. Smucker used. Look for it below the wall of jam, among the hundreds of jars of fruit spreads with the trademark gingham-patterned lids (tip: the cider apple butter lids are brown and white).
Another surprise for shoppers is that the store doubles as a museum. Two walls of exhibits chronicle the company’s enterprising journey from unknown cider mill to household name, with the Smucker family at the helm through five generations of innovations, acquisitions, and adapting product lines to changing times.
With the family’s history and the company’s corporate heritage so strongly intertwined, it’s certainly fitting that Smucker’s Tomato Ketchup is the one product sold exclusively at the store and its online counterpart (https://shop.smucker.com). The ketchup is made from a Smucker family recipe, and its old-fashioned, slightly sweet flavor has garnered quite a following. “People come and buy that ketchup by the case,” says Fox, “and if the store runs out, they get upset.”