What a Sweet Heat!
Hot peppers, seasonal fruit, and a whole lot of love
Aromas of spicy peppers mixed with sweet fruit create a summer perfume that is impossible to resist. It is cooking day at Sweet Heat Jam Co. in Katy, Texas, and the mood is joyous yet focused.
Tucked inside the commercial kitchen at Grand Lakes Presbyterian Church, 25–year-old Nolan Stilwell and team are bustling about making jams from scratch using seasonal ingredients and a whole lot of pride. Fredericksburg peaches are chopped at one counter. Habanero and jalapeño peppers are finely minced at another. They all end up together as gorgeous golden lava bubbling in an authentic jam pan on the stove.
When the timer goes off, the boiling mixture is carefully poured into waiting 9-ounce sterilized jars. Soon the jars will get labels that say: Peach Heat, one of 12 Sweet Heat varieties that are as addictive as they are versatile.
The sweetest part of Nolan’s business is not the fruit or the sugar but the resilience, collaboration and resulting success that are shared by all those in the kitchen. Nolan and his friends have Down syndrome, a condition characterized by cognitive disability that can make it difficult to gain traditional employment after high school. Since November 2011, Sweet Heat Jam Co. has worked to alleviate this challenge.
Through a structured and supervised program led by Nolan’s parents, Christine and Randy, and supported by local educators, mentors and additional volunteers, the company provides a means to empower and enrich lives in the community through positive action and scrumptious jam.
“Opportunities are limited to high school graduates with Down syndrome or other developmental, physical or intellectual disabilities,” says Christine. “Many will stay home, and parents are faced with the task of finding new opportunities that will help keep their child engaged and actively involved in life. Sweet Heat Jam Co. was founded from the passion and desire to provide meaningful, productive and rewarding jobs to high school graduates with special needs.”
Three days a week from 8:30am to 2pm, six to eight participants embrace and carry out every phase of the manufacturing process from selecting, prepping and cooking the produce to filling the jars and adding labels. Every other Friday Nolan hand-delivers orders to local stores that stock their products; this year he expects to sell 8,000 jars through stores and online. He continues to expand his business and hopes to one day sell his jams throughout Texas.
When Nolan was 8 years old his parents noticed a keen interest in gardening, particularly hot peppers because he enjoyed all the varieties he could grow. They nurtured Nolan’s passion of growing and cooking his own food, not knowing that they were laying the foundations for his future business. One day Nolan asked to make a jalapeño jam recipe he had found in a cooking magazine; it was an instant success when shared it with friends and family, thus inspiring him to try new flavor combinations.
“I love to make jam with my friends,” he says. “It is something I like to do from my heart.”
Spend any time visiting with Nolan and you’ll quickly realize his heart is very big—his gentle, sincere hugs are truly original and good for the soul. His Holiday Heat jam further personifies his caring nature. When a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, he wanted to do something to help. He researched for ingredients with high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C; to this day he credits the cranberry, pomegranate juice, citrus and jalapeño combination for aiding in his friend’s recovery.
His impact on others extends in many directions. In 2012, Nolan received a three-year sponsorship from Imperial Sugar that has helped him to expand his skills and provide a summer internship program to help other students with special needs learn the tools of the trade. Thanks to Nolan and his company our world is a little sweeter—and spicier—day after day, jar after jar.
Currently Sweet Heat Jams come in 12 varieties: Original, Drunken Pepper, Apricot Jalapeño and Habanero Gold, and Tropical Heat, Spring/ Summer flavors: Strawberry Heat, Blu Heat, Peach Heat, Mango Heat, Hatchanero Heat Fall/Winter flavors: Texas Apple Pie and Holiday Heat
Where to buy:
Pin Oak Katy
26567 Nelson Way
Grand Parkway at Fry Road
6711 S. Fry Rd.
1752 FM 1489
1623 S. Fry Rd. Katy, TX
2450 Fry Rd. Houston, TX
1325 N. Greenfield Rd. Mesa, AZ
25600 Westheimer Pkwy.