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Auntie Val's Jammy Dodgers

The team at Auntie Val's

Published on 4th October 2017

 

We meet Val Challis, founder of the award-winning business Auntie Val’s, on a busy day of production in Storrington...

“I’ve always loved jam.”

 I have made jam since I was about eight-years-old. I would make jams, marmalades and chutneys in my kitchen and sell at small markets and fairs, usually run by the Women's Institute. I was a professional carer for many years, looking after people with disabilities. Initially, I worked for what was then called The Spastics Society (now SCOPE) and later worked in private homes. I would make jam in my spare time. I have always been known as Auntie Val, so that is what I called the business. Gradually, I built the brand and the aim was always to invite people with learning disabilities to join me. That became a reality when this unit came up at Chancery Lane Industrial Estate in Storrington. 

“No Two Days are the Same.”
We’ve been here for 10 years now. Beforehand, I would have boxes of jam piled up in my bedroom, so I could only make a few of the most popular jams or chutneys. Since 2007, Auntie Val’s range has expanded hugely. I would say strawberry and vanilla is the most popular flavour, whilst our lemon and elderflower marmalade is also a good seller. We have unusual marmalades like chocolate orange, which scooped a bronze in the marmalade world championships. Another popular jar is orange and licorice marmalade, which people love or hate, and a marmalade made with the Hammerpot brewery’s Porter Ale. We also make pickles, piccalilli and even a spicy hot madras chilli chutney. Along the way, we have won several awards. We’ve picked up the County Times’ community award for charity of the year in 2016. 

“We are the Jammy Dodgers.”
I started out as a limited company but in 2015 we became a Community Interest Company (CIC). Our workforce is entirely made up of people with learning disabilities and the kitchen team are collectively known as The Jammy Dodgers. We can have as many as 12 people in, including people with autism, deafness, Asperger’s syndrome, and some confined to a wheelchair. Our staff can come from the local area, but we also work with the Job Centre and colleges to offer work experience. We find out what they are good at and feed the information back. Whilst staff are paid for working on certain days, they often insist on volunteering on extra days as they enjoy the camaraderie. 

“They don’t get the support they need.”
I’ve long found it frustrating that young people with learning disabilities go through school and college, but at the age of 18, the shutters come down and there is no work for them and no support for the family. I’ve known instances where a child with learning disabilities has died and social services have collected the family’s mobility vehicle before the funeral has even taken place.Here at Auntie Val’s, we not only try and provide work opportunities, but ty to support the family too. I would urge other companies to offer similar work experience, as disabled people have skills. It’s just a matter of finding them. It seems to happen automatically that after two or three years of working here, people want to move on and take another positive step in their career. We’ve had great success in preparing people to make that step. One lady met me in Storrington and gave me a hug as she’d been offered a job working for the local council.”

“People lack confidence at first.”
The team here is close. We all know that everyone has a problem either physically or mentally - my husband Andy has had five mini strokes in the last 18 months and I have fibromyalgia - so we all watch out for one another. We are like a family and even when a new person comes in, somebody will take them under their wing. Often, people lack confidence when they first arrive, but soon settle in. Some employers are impatient with people with learning disabilities, but I just show them what they need to know and I don't care how many times it takes, eventually it will stick! If you look in the kitchen, our team will all be meticulously measuring and preparing ingredients. 

“We keep the top chefs guessing.”
Auntie Val’s products are of a very good quality and that is proven by the businesses we work with. We often label our products with a different name. We sell to five-star luxury hotels as far as Scotland, as well as farm shops, tea rooms and several National Trust properties. You’ll find Auntie Val’s products at beautiful homes including Parham House. There have been instances where people have hear about our story and have supported us, which we’re very grateful for. Some businesses take our tiny 28-gram jars whilst others take buckets of jam, so there is diversity in what we do. The fact that we work with wonderful hotels like South Lodge in Lower Beeding shows that we offer very good quality. I even keep some of their star chefs guessing as to how we hide our chocolate stars in amongst the Christmas marmalade!

“We’d Love to Run a Café.”
What we would like to do is to expand, as we have outgrown our current premises. There are only a couple of car park spaces available to us as it's a very busy industrial estate, so we are looking out for a new home. We also have a dream of running our own on-site cafe one day, which would give an opportunity to chefs like Jake to use Auntie Val’s products for a wider range of recipes. It would also mean that families could come and see their children working, which would be fantastic as parents don’t always get to see that side of their character. I would also love to have a minibus, but we can't afford one at present! But still, it’s an exciting future for us all.”

For the full range of Auntie Val’s products view the website at https://www.auntievals.com 

WORDS: BEN MORRIS

PICTURES: TOBY PHILLIPS

Richard at Auntie Val's
Jake at Jengers Craft Bakery
Luke at Auntie Val's
Auntie Val's