Earlier this year we reported that Don Harper, whose Whistling Wings Farm had been making raspberry and blueberry jam for eight years under the L.L. Bean private label, had been given the boot after the two companies disagreed over the content and labeling of jam. (Bean wanted Harper to add more sugar to his product so it could legally be called “jam” under FDA requirements instead of “spreadable fruit.” Harper refused and stuck to his more-fruit formula.) At one time Whistling Wings had also made raspberry and blueberry syrup for Bean. Losing the Bean account cost Harper $80,000 a year.
Since then, Harper has been a thorn in Bean’s side, needling the mail-order company with newspaper ads comparing the contents of Whistling Wings’ products with those of Bean’s. In a recent ad, Harper noted that L.L. Bean’s blueberry syrup contained food coloring to make it blue. “I really got them good,” Harper says. “There were pictures of the Bean syrup and our syrup and the two labels with lists of the ingredients. The copy read, ‘Let the consumer decide.’ ”
L.L. Bean has now announced they will soon begin selling an all-natural blueberry syrup, and plans to add a fruitier jam. John Oliver, director of L.L. Bean public affairs, denies that the changes have anything to do with Whistling Wings Farm.
“I am aware of (Harper’s) ads,” Oliver says, “and he continues to suggest a connection. But our customers have expressed an interest in more natural ingredients and that’s where our response is coming from.”
A landscape architect by profession, Harper is now working on a new product, Royal Purple spreadable fruit made from . . . purple raspberries. Developed at the University of New Hampshire by Prof. E.M. Meader, the rare raspberry plant, named “Success,” is a cross between a black raspberry and a red raspberry.
“When eaten fresh, it’s the world’s worst-tasting raspberry,” says Harper, “but when it’s cooked, it turns into the most delicious tasting jam. People go nuts over it.”
Although he’s already planted 300 bushes, Harper still can’t keep up with demand for the jam. “Right now,” he says, “there are close to 400 people on a waiting list.”
Another change: When Harper discovered that surveys show 85% of consumers in the food industry are women, he put his wife, Julie, and daughter-in-law, Cheryl, in charge of running Whistling Wings Farm. “What do men know anyway,” says Harper. “They just think they have good ideas, and when they don’t pan out, they look for someone else to blame.”
Harper adds: “I still get to be the boss, but only because my wife says I can.”