For Suan Grant, the entrepreneur behind Suan’s Foods, what lingers in the Scotch bonnet pepper isn’t just its fiery heat and rich flavor, but fond memories.
In 1974, Grant traveled to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to work as a medical records consultant at a new hospital as part of Project HOPE, an international health care nonprofit. During her four years in the country, she first rented a cottage from a boutique owner who “took me under her wing and made sure I met everyone I needed to know, including my future husband,” she said
She also fell in love with the Scotch bonnet pepper, a ubiquitous ingredient in Jamaican dishes, particularly in jellies. Since Grant started cooking at 8, she had loved toying with combinations of flavors, and she developed her own jelly recipe that underscored the pepper’s taste, rather than its spiciness. “You’re going to get a kick, but you’re not going to get burned,” she said.
Grant continued making Scotch bonnet pepper jellies after returning to the United States, and the recipe was a hit with family and friends. Her daughter encouraged her to sell them, so in 2009, Grant attended a food entrepreneur workshop held by Oklahoma State University to figure out how. She learned about food safety and requirements for selling products on shelves, such as UPC codes. Pretty soon, she signed papers to establish her new business.
“It was far more difficult than what I anticipated, and it was going to take far more money than I anticipated,” Grant said. She and her daughter toured trade shows and county fairs to sell her signature jelly and build her brand. Former Oklahoma grocers Crescent Market and Sterling Produce soon picked up her product.
When Suan’s Foods was first heating up, Grant cooked her first jars of Scotch bonnet pepper jelly in a test kitchen at OSU, but she soon switched to a co-packer to scale up production. As more customers bought her jellies, they began suggesting new flavors. Grant experimented in the kitchen — her Scotch bonnet mango lemon fruit butter was a “fluke” sparked by leftover mangos — and she sent samples of pending creations out to friends and family, whom she fondly calls her “guinea pigs.”
Now, Suan’s Foods offers seven products; the only non-Scotch bonnet pepper condiment is a jalapeño relish made in collaboration with Sysco for The Garage Burgers in 2019. “They use it in their hamburgers and in their tartar sauce,” Grant said. “It’s been a good relationship.”
The jellies’ Oklahoma identity has been key to Grant’s success. She continues to travel the state holding demos and chatting with dedicated customers. At one point she explored sourcing her cherished Scotch bonnet peppers directly from Oklahoma, although the state’s climate proved to be “not conducive” to growing the plant, she said.
Grant also joined the Made in Oklahoma Coalition, which works to support and promote local food and agricultural businesses and products. She gleaned advice from founding members, and the coalition helps her and other businesses meet certain criteria and sell with grocery stores such as Homeland and Pruett’s.
But what’s kept Suan’s Foods on the shelves is the versatility of the jellies, which Grant said allows customers to “make them their own.” She illustrates their slew of possibilities by publishing recipes — ranging from wings to double chocolate cheesecake to bread puddings to Waldorf salad — for each jelly, jam, butter and sauce on her website, suansfoods.com.
“I try to be very creative when I look at food and what I can do with it,” Suan Grant said. “I find a lot of things that I taste are shallow; you’ll get a lot of flavor and sugar, and then it’s gone. So, I really work on getting that depth of flavor. I want it to linger. I want you to remember how absolutely good that is.”
Suan Grant will hold three two-hour cooking demonstrations at this year’s Oklahoma State Fair on Sept. 16 at 3–5 p.m.; Sept. 23 at 4–6 p.m.; and Sept. 24 at 2–4 p.m. at the Modern Living Building.