Farm to Jar
Barbara Burleson was unsuccessful in her search for affordable organic food to feed her granddaughter Lillie, so she did what most people do: She launched Lillie Fuel, a baby food company delivering meals to infants and toddlers in Charleston.
Burleson said it’s difficult to access organic baby food without having it shipped from the West Coast, an expensive and time consuming process. After enlisting the help of her chef daughter-in-law Alex Presswood, formerly of 82 Queen, Burleson started making her own organic purees.
Burleson always made time for cooking during her 17-year career as the regional manager for a retail company, but she quickly learned that making baby food was a completely different challenge. Luckily, her 10-month-old granddaughter wasn’t too picky.
“I made lots of messes, let me tell you, but I did some more research, practiced and Lillie was very patient with me,” Burleson said. “When you make baby food, you can’t make one or two jars, you have to make 10. So when you make 10 jars and you have one kid and she’s only eating it twice a day, you end up with a lot of extra food.”
Burleson said the only way to maintain the consistency of the purees was to make large batches, and freezing the extras wasn’t an option. “We learned that if you freeze baby food it’s never the same,” she said. “Lillie didn’t like it and other babies didn’t like it.”
After testing out the extra food on a dozen babies in the neighborhood, Burleson realized there might be a wider market for baby food made using fresh, organic produce. After completing the lengthy state health department certification, Burleson set up shop at a North Charleston commissary kitchen, officially launching Lillie Fuel in February.
As many businesses struggled to make ends meet at the onset of the pandemic, Lillie Fuel’s delivery service became a necessity for parents who lost the ability to frequently venture out for baby food.
“All of a sudden we’re trucking along and then everyone’s in lockdown,” Burleson said. “But people weren’t going to grocery stores, so we got really busy.”
Burleson said they started doing between 55 and 75 weekly deliveries, porch dropping meals in coolers at houses from Kiawah Island to Moncks Corner between 4:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. daily.
The meals vary depending on the child’s age — Lillie Fuel offers food for newborns to 6 year olds. For babies, there are over 50 pureed options that come in jars, including combinations like sweet potato and peach, beets and carrot or blueberries with coconut milk and oats. Produce comes from local farms like Joseph Fields Farms and Kindlewood Farm in Walterboro.
“They can really choose anything they want because they know their baby better than anyone,” Burleson said. “We have stage one, two and three which is when they start getting a little more chunky.”
Presswood, Lillie Fuel’s executive chef, is whipping up meals that will make your preschooler the envy of class. TOT Box to-go gourmet lunches include dishes like chicken bacon tortellini with asparagus, sloppy Joe pinwheels with roasted corn and meatloaf with roasted potatoes.
While many organic brands may be too pricey for young parents, Lillie Fuel’s price point is comparable to the mass-produced jar from the grocery store. It costs $22 for eight jars of Lillie Fuel, and $60 will get you 21 jars. TOT Boxes are $5 per lunch.
The family-run company has seen enough growth to take the next step, Burleson said.
“We are opening a storefront so we can have more room,” she said. “We picked up daycare centers because a lot of daycares and preschools are not offering lunch anymore during this whole COVID thing. So we have five daycares now which equates to about 300 meals per day. We’ll still do deliveries but want to have meals ready on hand.”
The storefront is slated to open Sept. 21 at 426 West Coleman Blvd. in the space previously occupied by PaPa ZuZu’s.
Burleson feels fortunate to help out local parents during this unprecedented time.
“There were so many times when we would get to a house at 7:30 a.m. and the mom is sitting on the porch and she’s just like, ‘Oh my goodness thank you.’ This is such a crazy time for everyone, and being a parent is more challenging than ever, so for us to be able to take just a little of that uncertainty and turn it into something positive is extremely rewarding for all of us.”