Food and cheese bring together a whole host of wonderful personalities, which is a big part of why I love meeting as many of them as possible and sharing their stories with you. Today, I present to you the strong-willed, big-hearted, entrepreneurial Alison McQuade, maker of McQuade’s Celtic Chutneys. Since launching her chutney business over ten years ago, she has developed a devoted following in San Francisco and beyond.
The business of chutney came to Alison by chance. She had spent her career doing the sorts of things I dreamed of not so long ago. Leaving her native Scotland behind, she worked at the British Consulate in New York City, the World Trade Center, the United Nations, and in law firms doing intellectual property work (OMG!). Along the way, she had even received her Scottish dancing teaching certificate (Since I’ve done Irish step dancing most of my life, we compared a few dance notes. They’re different dance forms, sure, but related!). After she had settled in San Francisco with her husband, one of the folks at Cowgirl Creamery got hold of a jar, which until then had only been gifts for friends and family. Impressed, the Cowgirls asked for 60 cases of the chutney for their new Ferry Building shop, and a business was born.
These days, Alison is up at around 5am to make chutney, deliver it, and run her business. She now delivers 6-8 quarts a week of the apple ‘n ale chutney to Cowgirl Creamery’s Sidekick at the Ferry Building, on top of a host of other San Francisco shops and restaurants. She also sells online. Her music of choice is Cuban, which she can play in her commercial kitchen as she cooks up fig ‘n ginger, habanero, banana curry, pineapple red chile pepper, cranberry tangerine, and more. Her passion for chutney has opened doors everywhere. She teaches classes about the magic of making chutney. She’s on the board of Grace Cathedral in SF, the SF Professional Food Society (where we met), and is involved with Junior Achievement. She’s a chutney superstar! People yell “Hey Chutney!” at her on the street.
The progress Alison has made in chutney has given her ideas for her next venture—a Scottish restaurant. Yes, one day very soon, there will be a SF establishment serving up cock-a-leekie soup, rumbledethumps, haggis (“Haggis balls!” she laughs), and a grilled cheese bar. We might even be able to enjoy all these Scottish delights in the next year! Here’s hoping she finds that perfect location soon.
Alison had some words of advice for budding food entrepreneurs out there.
If you’ve got that passion, just follow the passion, but be realistic. You probably can’t make the kind of money to keep yourself going off the bat. You probably have to start and keep your day job for a long time until you’ve built a base, until the money starts trickling in. Even then, you’re not going to become a millionaire. It’s never going to make you rich. I won’t be rich through doing this. It’s my passion. You can’t beat that.
That said, she loves the freedom and high quality of life that making chutney affords her. She spends a month in Scotland every year to see her family and friends. She keeps up with her many friends in San Francisco and around the world. Money can’t always buy moments like that.
I left the café feeling invigorated and inspired. Alison has that way with the world! She just infuses her surroundings, her chutneys, her projects with her positive, focused energy. Thanks, Alison, for the talk! See you and your chutneys soon!