Focus: Lighthouse Keeper’s Pantry

Cape Cod Life  /  April/May 2022 /

Writer: Cape Cod Life Publications

Sandy Neck, the peninsula along the northern coast of Cape Cod, gets its name from the shifting sands that continuously redefine its shoreline. For Kelly O’Connell, Sandy Neck Beach acted as the ultimate refuge from city life, and its lighthouse provided the inspiration to redefine her professional path. 

What began as a hobby, pivoted the career of the Manhattan businesswoman from busy city life to an even busier one as a small-town entrepreneur in Yarmouthport. Kelly’s career began in New York City after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology. With a degree in product development, she landed her dream job with Martha Stewart, and it was a jar of homemade jam, given to her by Martha herself, that would later spark an idea and guide her back to her hometown. 

During her career in product development, brand management and marketing for lifestyle brands including Martha Stewart, The Pioneer Woman, Macy’s, Walmart, Weight Watchers, QVC, Kraft Heinz and Purina, she successfully built merchandising strategies, launched new product lines and created national advertising campaigns. 

In early 2020, Kelly returned to the Cape to escape New York City and the looming pandemic. While quarantining at home, she set out to recreate the raspberry jam Martha Stewart gifted her years earlier. Kelly’s father was her target consumer in her early experimentation; he loved toast and had a collection of store-bought jams in the fridge, but he reminisced about the homemade jam Martha Stewart made. After studying recipes and methods, her initial batch was nearly perfect. A raspberry jam with a heaping dose of lemon was her first  recipe, followed by a blueberry, lemon and cinnamon blend, then an orange-lemon marmalade. Soon, jars of jam piled up on her kitchen counter. That summer, Kelly set up an old table with a red checkered cloth and began selling her jams in the front yard.

What started as a hobby to pass the time turned into neighbors streaming in and out of her driveway buying three to four jars at a time. After a few weeks, customers began leaving notes in the money jar telling her the jam stand made them smile.

As the roadside jam stand gained attention and her return to office life in Manhattan loomed, Kelly realized that months of reconnecting with her roots, enjoying time on her boat and the sandy beaches of the Cape had lessened the draw of city living. That realization set an action plan to stay Capeside in motion. 

A background in developing packaged foods and a budding homemade jam business naturally propelled her headfirst into building a gourmet food brand. With interest from an investor, she got to work finding factories that could produce the same quality product she was making at home, and as her recipes were being lab-tested, she put pen to paper and developed her idea for the label.

Experience managing lifestyle brands taught her one thing: authenticity is key. Nothing was more authentic to her than life on Cape Cod, and most importantly, her love for the ocean and Sandy Neck Beach. The lighthouse on Sandy Neck was the beacon for her idea. She thought about how the Sandy Neck lighthouse keeper might have seasoned his meals or utilized his surroundings to forage flavors like wild blueberries, beach plums and native cranberries. He could have made jams with the abundant fruit to pass the time, just like she did. That’s how the brand Lighthouse Keeper’s was born.  

She designed the label of Lighthouse Keeper’s product to mimic the black stabilizing hoops unique to the painted brick lighthouse on Sandy Neck. She used the silhouette of her late grandfather with his signature pipe to represent the lighthouse keeper himself. Though he was never a lighthouse keeper, Sandy Neck was the place they both treasured. He loved passing the lighthouse as he fished the waters in the surrounding Barnstable Harbor. She designed the brand’s name inside a classic ribbon inspired by the naval tattoos he sported on his forearms from his earlier days as a sailor. 

Kelly set out to create even more recipes for products that could contribute unique flavors to some of the region’s most popular delicacies like seafood and oysters; flavorful foods that could last in a pantry to get through a long winter. She started working on hot sauces, condiments, pickles and even a spicy Bloody Mary mix to warm a seafarer’s soul. 

In 2021, after securing funding, a business partner, and retailers to launch the Lighthouse Keeper’s brand, small batch production began. Kelly split her time working remotely for her job in New York while delivering her products to over 80 stores. She spent her weekends tirelessly promoting and sampling her recipes at local farmers markets around the Cape. Her expertise in food and lifestyle marketing easily enabled her to create beautiful imagery of delicious recipes featured in tantalizing scenes of life along the shores of Cape Cod and grow the brand’s reach on social media while inspiring the use of her products. 

As her jams, condiments and hot sauces gained traction in retail, a charming bakery in the heart of Kelly’s hometown went on the market. Kelly and her business partner, both Yarmouthport natives saw potential in the bright and delightful space. Yarmouthport had become a sleepy place in recent years, and Kelly saw opportunity to breathe new life into the village. Her vision to open a space to sample her gourmet food could also become a gathering place for locals and visitors as life began to feel normal again. 

She presented a business plan for a café and gourmet food shop that utilized the branded products as ingredients for menu items to her business partner. The concept would be the catalyst to change both of their careers. With no experience in food service, the two blindly took over the space and got to work. Kelly left her corporate job in New York and moved in above the café. The Lighthouse Keeper’s Pantry opened Labor Day weekend. The time of year that usually signifies the end of summer visitors drew a crowd so large, there was a line out the door for hours. 

Vintage sailboat paintings adorn the wall of the carefully curated café and provide a symbolic view from the lighthouse. Classic elements of rustic wood and marble ground the space, reminiscent of the kitchens in the cottages on Sandy Neck. Deliciously strong coffee, fresh sandwiches and decadent baked goods are made in-house. A kind and lively staff laugh together at sunrise while they glaze warm muffins and scones with jam. It’s a colorful and neighborly place that brings the light Kelly imagined to the village located just across the harbor from Sandy Neck.