Shares how cooking for friends led to a fast growing business, the upside of starting over, and the new challenge she’s about to take on.
It’s a blustery December day in the Pacific Northwest. Gray clouds hang low over salty gray water on Puget Sound, concealing the behemoth of Mount Rainier for the moment. On tiny Vashon Island, Sarah Collins stirs a fragrant pot of thai peanut sauce with one hand, and holds a mug in the other. Through the window she watches trees blowing in the cold winter wind, and waves crashing just outside her waterfront home. She enjoys a sip of hot tea on this moody, overcast day.
Sarah laughs easily and often, a resoundingly warm laugh of happiness and contentment. “I wondered, am I really going to do this? Take what little savings I have, quit my job, and take a leap of faith?” She says, her voice melodic and carrying a thick, unmistakably Australian accent. “And I thought… why not?! If there’s something you want to do, there is no time like now! Make it work if it’s important. There is so much to do, so many wonderful things to experience, you can’t let time get away from you.”
You have a unique business - tell me more about it.
My business is Seattle Canning Company. I make chutneys, sauces, and pickles, from local produce.
What gave you the idea?
I’m always cooking what I miss from Australia, things my mum used to make.
I had my Uncle Winston’s recipe for tomato relish. It’s sweet and a little bit spicy, you can put it on anything! I’d package it as a gift for my friends. They suggested I sell it, but I saw it as a hobby. Eventually I realized - this is something I love! Why wouldn’t I try to pursue it? I started looking in to what it would take, and… it was much more complicated than I expected!
I was working full time for K2 Sports, and slowly meeting the requirements. You have to be licensed with the Department of Agriculture, register with the FDA, do classes and get certifications, it took a year.
After that, I applied to the summer farmers market on Vashon, and started slinging chutney! And it sold! People liked it!
I thought, next summer, I’ll apply to a lot of farmers markets. If I get in to enough, I’ll quit my job and just make chutney! And… I got in to every single one. I wasn’t expecting that. That was April. I quit my job and started a whole new chapter in my life.
Did you hire any help?
No, I did all the markets myself! I bit off more than I could chew. I couldn’t keep up with the demand! I was going to markets, setting up booths, making the products, trying to keep my books together and grow the business… I was so busy, my father came from Australia at the end of the summer to help me make chutney!
And in the middle of that busy summer… I found out I was pregnant!
It’s still surreal. I’m here with my tea, and I feel him kicking. It’s wonderful.
I have to hire somebody for the year round markets, because my belly is growing and I can barely bend down these days!
I’ve been so busy, but in a wonderful way. I’m doing all the things I want to do. It’s been a fun year, for sure.
You started with farmers markets - how did you get your product into stores?
A store I planned to reach out to, actually reached out to me first! They saw us on Instagram. I dropped off their order 2 days later, and there it was on the shelf! I felt like an excited little kid.
Where do you get the fruits and vegetables to make your products?
I use anything that grows on Vashon, or local or regional farms. Eastern Washington and the coast. It’s mostly organic, and I experiment with what’s in season.
It’s fun to buy from local farms and support the community.
You grew up in Australia. What led you to leave?
I’ve always been a curious person. I wanted to travel and experience as much as I could.
I’ve lived abroad since graduating, almost 20 years. In Colorado, mostly Breckenridge, in London, and here on Vashon. I’ve had all sorts of interesting jobs. I was married for 9 years, and then divorced. And now here I am. I’ve been with my partner, Chad, for 5 years, and starting a business and expecting a baby.
I feel I’ve already lived a few lifetimes, and I’m excited because I think I’ve got a few more to go!
The traditional path was never my priority…. well, if there is even a traditional path! There isn’t one way you’re supposed to do things.
If the traditional path was not your priority, what WAS your priority?
Finding out who I am, and what I’m all about. We all go about that in a different way.
Have you figured it out? What you’re all about?
Not entirely! I have a better idea, but I love the fact that I’m still learning a lot about myself. I’m 40 and still learning, and I’m about to find out a lot more! Having a baby is probably going to be a wonderful challenge, and push me in different ways.
You look too young to be 40!
Hahaha thank you! The life you live, your state of mind, that’s really how old you are.
Have things in your life happened by accident or on purpose?
A little of both. We definitely have more power than sometimes we believe. You can make things happen…. in good ways and bad ways.
Some things happen for reasons you don’t understand at the time. When things don’t go the way you hoped, it can be a blessing in disguise.
Have you had any blessings in disguise?
The divorce for sure. I knew it was the right thing, it was best for both of us, but those are the hardest decisions at the time. I don’t look back on anything badly or regret anything, but it was hard.
After that, you’re starting again. Emotionally, mentally, physically, financially. It’s difficult, but also freeing.
What’s Vashon like?
We are in Puget Sound, a 20 minute ferry from Seattle, and it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere! It’s very beautiful and quiet. There’s one bear and one cougar on the island - they had to swim here.
The main street on Vashon is small, you might miss it when you drive through town. It’s a mix of artists, creative types, city commuters. It’s a great, small, community with wonderful people.
I feel so at home here… this island, this house, my life with Chad and our growing family. I feel happy, comfortable, safe, warm. It’s a really lovely feeling.
Something I’m trying not to think about, given the whole pregnancy thing, is there is no hospital on Vashon! There is one way on and off this island, and it’s by ferry. And there’s a gap during the night when the ferries don’t run!
How do you feel about the rainy, overcast weather?
When there’s moss growing everywhere, even the tailgate of old trucks, you know you’re in the Northwest!
I realized quickly when I moved here, you can’t let rainy weather dictate what you’re going to do. If you’re waiting for a nice day to go for a hike, you might be waiting a long time! You just get out and do it and enjoy it!
Maybe the weather is why a lot of artists and musicians come out of Seattle - people find ways to be creative indoors, too.
What inspires you?
Other people. People doing what they love and are passionate about.
And being outside. We have the best of both worlds here - the sea and the mountains.
Are there times in your life that you’ve felt the most happy?
Right now. I feel fulfilled, happy, loved, loving. I feel very fortunate.
I’m excited about everything the future will bring. Maybe I’m just silly and too optimistic, but I can’t help it it’s just my nature!
I’ve always been an optimistic and positive person. If our child can inherit one thing from me, I hope it’s that.