Pittsburgh Canning Exchange

Year: 2013
Work products: Research, Strategy, Brand identity, Communication design, Website, Marketing, Ongoing management

Context:

The Pittsburgh Canning Exchange was a side project I worked on with three friends in our spare time for three years. Our goals were to support intergenerational knowledge exchange and local food systems through building a community around food preservation.

I’m proud of the following we built over those years through our workshops (including over 1,000 Facebook followers, many successful events, and local and national press), but what I’m most proud of is how we continued to iterate on our offerings and on our business model to best achieve our goals throughout the life of the project.

Our intial idea for the Canning Exchange — at a time in the 2010s where food preservation was beginning to stage an unlikely comeback — was that it should be an app for people to arrange trades of their shelf-stable home-canned goods, a modern version of the canning exchanges people in farming communities held to diversify their larders for winter. After doing some initial research, we pivoted our idea: the actual problem was building up a community around home-preserved food in Pittsburgh, and educating a new generation of curious home cooks about food preservation to help build that community.

Solution:

We built an organization to hold canning workshops, events where we would invite people into a community kitchen (for example, in a church basement) and together can a batch of produce from local producers (salsa, dilly beans, and jams were always popular). That way, new canners could become confident in their new skill through hands-on experience and be ready to try it at home; and experienced canners could share their accrued tips and tricks without messing up their home kitchens. We tried to keep our tickets as affordable as possible (between $10 and $20, depending on the cost of the produce) to make the workshops accessible to as many people as possible.

We gave demonstrations of water bath canning a few times when the trade-off felt worthwhile (for example, to introduce a large audience to canning through a local tv appearance), but by and large we focused on hands-on learning. We also leaned on our friends; we worked with a food scientist friend, a fermentation expert, local chefs and restaurateurs, and our friends at Slow Foods Pittsburgh to contribute their specific knowledge and help deliver an excellent experience to the people who attended our events.

And we used the power of the internet (standing up a simple website, ticketing for our events via Eventbrite, sending out email marketing campaigns, advertising on Facebook, handling payments via a Square reader) to make the experience of finding and attending one of our workshops as simple as possible.

Impact:

In the years that the Canning Exchange was active, we were successful in building up our audience, holding canning classes and swaps, and even bringing in a well-known canning blogger and author to lead a weekend of workshops.

But most of all, I'm proud of how we defined success: by delivering excellent experiences, and by not making it about ourselves. When it was time to wind down the project, we did it happily because we'd achieved what we'd set out to do: readying home cooks to feel confident canning at home, and facilitating connections to make our local food systems stronger and more sustainable. The Canning Exchange didn't need to last forever, because what we helped people do through it will have a long shelf life.