What does heaven taste like? For Suzanne Glover O'Melia, it tastes like her mother's sweet pepper jelly.
O'Melia, of Maple Lawn, and her daughter, Bailey Glover Johnson, are the owners and proprietors of Pepper Jelly Heaven, a jelly-making operation that in two years has exploded from a neighborhood endeavor to having their jelly stocked in every Harris Teeter and Whole Foods in Maryland.
"We've come really far in a short period of time," O'Melia said of her business' progress, which now includes sales in stores in Washington, Delaware, New Jersey and Ohio.
The business began in 2010, with O'Melia making pepper jelly during the holiday season because it brought back "good memories" of her grandmother. O'Melia's friends and family said her mother's recipe for jelly was good enough to sell, so O'Melia started making larger batches and selling in the Strawberry Fields Flea Market, off Route 40 in Ellicott City.
To help expand her operation, O'Melia enlisted the help of Johnson, 24, a graduate of West Virginia University.
"I always loved cooking and considered myself a foodie," said O'Melia, 49, who had previously worked as an accountant, "so I fell easily into this industry."
One of the first stores they sold to was David's Natural Market, in Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Center.
General Manager Greg Resch remembers trying the jelly and deciding to sell it.
"I like hot stuff, so nothing can go wrong with me," he said, adding that his store tries to sell local products "as much as they can."
Before O'Melia and Johnson knew it, they were perfecting their all-natural, vegan, gluten-free recipe on a large scale with Lancaster Fine Foods, a manufacturer in Pennsylvania that specializes in jelly-type products.
Last year they sold 60,000 individual jars and about 5,000 gift sets, O'Melia said.
"But a lot of that has been sold in recent months so I predict we could quadruple that this year," O'Melia said in an email.
O'Melia and Johnson attend every manufacturing run, which is usually every six weeks, to make sure their product comes out as O'Melia's mother's recipe intended.
"It's pretty much like we would do it on our own, but its huge," said Johnson, who helps manage the operation out of her mother's home office in Maple Lawn.
Adding some kick
Some of their products have come a long way from O'Melia's mother's holiday recipe.
"Mom's recipe was heaven," said O'Melia, of the original recipe that used sweet red and green bell peppers. However, she said, "people wanted more kick," which was where the jellies they call Purgatory and Hell came from.
Purgatory introduces a moderate amount of habanero peppers, O'Melia said, and Hell adds a whole lot more. Pepper Jelly Heaven's spiciest jelly, Ghost, takes pepper jelly to a whole new level with the addition of ghost peppers, one of the hottest peppers in the world.
Their recipe for chicken wings using Pepper Jelly Heaven's jelly won the Mountaire chicken wing recipe competition at Peppers, a spicy food store in Rehoboth, Del., earning them a cover spot on the next issue of Chile Pepper Magazine, which showcases peppers and other spicy food.
As for future plans, O'Melia said she "would love to go national and eventually hire more people. Currently we do have about four demo people that I use as subcontractors.
"As far as manufacturing," she added, "I hope that as I get bigger I can do more local, natural and organic products."
The future of Pepper Jelly Heaven, in a sense, is also in Limbo — not the edge of hell, but their newest jelly flavor, which will include pineapple along with bell peppers.
"I love that tangy, sweet, hot combo, it tastes very Polynesian and the name fits in with the others," O'Melia said. "Get it?"