Journey of a Brand: Jess Ford of Peppercorn Events on Launching, Growing, and Pivoting During a Pandemic

Photography by Linda Pordon Photography.

Who: Jess Ford
Location: Bergen County, New Jersey
Occupation: Catering business co-owner, chef, and director of operations

THE STORY: The founding of Peppercorn Events was a marriage of not only talents and interests, but also in the literal sense. Co-owners and husband-and-wife duo Jess and Daniel Ford met while training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Careerwise, they chose different paths: his focus was on fine dining in New York City and front-of-house service, and hers was on farm-to-table and sustainable restaurant practices. After working independently for several years, upon marrying in 2018, they decided to merge their areas of expertise by starting a full-service catering and events company focused on local, seasonal ingredients and custom catering centered around their clients’ personal connections to food. “It’s important to us to have traceable source products,” Jess says. “We want to be able to know the farmer who is growing the vegetables and highlight those products in our preparations.” While the backbone of their business is focused on cuisine, offering event planning services makes them a one-stop shop for their clients, whether they’re planning an intimate dinner party or a large wedding celebration. 

Photography by Natalia Fries. Event design by RSVP by Anastasia. 

THE JOURNEY: With their own kitchen, and word-of-mouth picking up, Jess and Daniel booked their first wedding for early 2019. “That was super thrilling,” Jess says. “I have worked so many weddings as an employee at other companies, it was wonderful to be doing it my way. It really legitimized what we were doing—someone was trusting us with their most important event.” Going into their business with years of industry experience under their belts, the duo was prepared for a lot of the challenges that came their way. But as Peppercorn Events continued to flourish, time management became a hurdle. “We had all these ideas and all of these things that we wanted to pursue, but until you have a solid foundation for the business and a good team in place, you have to recognize you can’t do everything,” Jess says. “We needed to be a lot more organized or the business wasn’t going to be a success.” 

With dreams of growth in mind, the newlyweds decided they needed to find a larger, more permanent space. “We had to find just the right space for offices, a prep kitchen, and tasting room,” Jess says. Not long before the pandemic hit, they began their search for a new location, and while the arrival of COVID-19 came with many challenges, it didn’t stop them from what ended up being a yearlong quest. 

In addition to complicating the hunt for real estate, COVID made everything more expensive—from gloves and eggs to chocolate. Measures were taken to ensure that their staff, clients, and event attendees were safe, and the founders had to get creative to figure out how to pull off limited events to everyone’s comfort level. Still, they consider themselves lucky that business remained steady. “We were really fortunate, there wasn’t a lot of time when we weren’t working,” Jess reflects. “We did a lot of drop-offs, created packages for holidays for smaller groups, and started doing intimate, tented events in people’s backyards.” Through it all, they stayed true to their core values: keeping everything hyper-local while creating menus that cater to guests’ food memories and cultural backgrounds. 

Photography by Ben Lau.

THE FUTURE: After a long quest to find the ideal location, Peppercorn Events will move into The Grocery in River Vale, New Jersey, in summer 2021. As part of their pandemic-era evolution, they developed a grab-and-go line, in addition to artisanal products, both of which will play big roles in their storefront. In concert with their commitment to work with local vendors, all of the tables in their new space were made by a carpenter in Tarrytown, and the platters they will use in display cases were handmade by ceramicists in the area. Additionally, a rotating gallery of art on the walls will highlight New Jersey artists. 

In addition to finding a larger space to accommodate their business, their team has grown to include a sous chef and an events manager. The addition of these new members has enabled Jess and Daniel to take a breath for the first time in three years, return to a normal sleeping schedule, and think about implementing some of the exciting ideas that have been running through their heads since they started Peppercorn Events three years ago. “We’d love to explore more partnerships with local farms,” says Jess. “And should our line of grab and go be successful, we’ll look for stocking in other outposts of Bergen County.”

But in the meantime, they’re going to take some time to reflect and celebrate. “We grew very quickly,” Jess says. “This summer we are really going to celebrate our three-year anniversary, especially making it through a pandemic.”

Photography by Ben Lau.

THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY: When asked about the reason behind their success, without hesitation, Jess credits the network they have built. “When we first started, we spent a lot of time getting to know other vendors in the area. We’ve also connected with other business owners, and they’ve become good friends,” she says, noting that the small business community in Bergen County was very welcoming, and that everyone was willing to grab a cup of coffee and share their experiences. “Bergen County isn’t that big, people know people, and they’re always happy to connect you,” she adds. 

Through their partnership with The Scout Guide Bergen County, Jess and Daniel have found tireless cheerleaders in co-editors Chris Doherty and Eileen Sweeney. “They’ve been a terrific resource,” Jess says. “They introduced us to our cake partner, Petal Dust Cakery, and to Audrey Zona of Zo Healthy.” Together, they are working with the area health coach to launch a line of healthy grab-and-go items that meet with Audrey’s recommendations. 

As Peppercorn Events approaches its three-year anniversary, the owners are reflecting on not just their journey as business owners, but the fact that many say that the first year of marriage is the hardest. “We put that to the test by moving into a new state and starting a new business—all during a lockdown,” Jess says. “But it all worked out in my favor. I got to spend all my time with my husband!” 

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