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The Faces of Craft

Meet three locals who are elevating their industries and raising the Lowcountry’s profile.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff

In any endeavor, there are those who produce and those who craft. The factory worker pulls levers and assembles pieces but holds no more pride of ownership in one widget than they do the last. It’s a job at its best, and a chore at its worse.

But to craft is to revel in every detail of the act of creation. It is to select each ingredient in a dish, every stitch in a garment, every bolt in a machine with the utmost care and to assemble them with love and pride. There’s a reason arts and crafts get lumped together so often – the line between them is indistinct, if it exists at all.

These three locals embody the joy of craftsmanship. Whether it’s a Bloody Mary mix built on a family legacy, a refreshing spirit whose flavor profile has been meticulously formed, or a fashion movement that is lighting up runways, they are transforming their passions into products that are setting trends and defining the Lowcountry.

Meet the makers…

Lifetime Local
Ross Taylor works his 1,000-acre family farm on St. Helena Island, growing tomatoes used in his Seaside Grown Bloody Mary Mix. He also creates world-class fishing equipment.

Ross Taylor

This local farmer loves mixing business with pleasure.

Across South Carolina and Georgia odds are good that if you’ve had a Bloody Mary, you’ve enjoyed the fruits of the Sanders family tradition, one that stretches back 115 years.

“Gus (Gustav) Sanders was a tax collector for the county, and that’s how we got the land,” said Ross Taylor, and the latest scion of the Sanders clan to run the 1,000-acre family farm. “When stuff came up for sale, he was the first one who knew about it.”

Taylor concedes that you probably couldn’t get away with something like that now, but the ends have ultimately justified the means, since Gus saw something in the land few others did: tomatoes.

Frogmore Manor was located in the sweet spot of the Sea Islands, just warm enough for the soil to yield impossibly ripe and juicy tomatoes – and plenty of them. Gus was soon shipping his wares up the coast by rail, then by truck, making him one of the first commercial truck farmers on the East Coast. “That was a big feather in his cap,” said Taylor.

This is the kind of stuff that makes me tick,” he said. “I’m addicted to entrepreneurship.”

It was Taylor’s great-grandfather Ed “D-Daddy” Sanders who ramped up production, turning Frogmore into a commercial tomato farm that shipped out 700-800 truckloads annually. But it was Taylor who saw promise in the tomatoes that were left behind when the trucks shipped out.

“There were these perfectly red, ripe tomatoes out in the field. Growing up, I’d ask, ‘Why not do something with these?’” he said. “I was told we can’t do anything with them. When you’re shipping 25 million pounds, you pick them green so they ripen up. If you ship them out brilliantly red, they’d spoil in two days.”

In college, his burgeoning love for Bloody Marys collided with his childhood curiosity over unused tomatoes, and he stumbled on the idea for a mix. In his case, stumbling onto it meant recruiting friend and chef Will Collins and refining their recipe over and over again until it was something the discerning pair would use in their own cocktails.

“That’s when we knew we might have something here,” said Taylor. On Oct. 28, 2017, the pair filled around 400 cases with the first bottlings of Seaside Grown Bloody Mary Mix. They were sold out by the end of the year, save for 50 cases they used to plant seeds of product awareness at various restaurants, bars and trade shows.

These seeds bore fruit in the form of more than 100 different retailers in South Carolina and Georgia who now carry their mix. And that’s just the beginning – when we spoke, Seaside Grown was preparing to expand into North Carolina and Tennessee with more contracts coming from California and Texas to Florida.

“Not bad for something that started out at an antique shop on St. Helena Island,” said Taylor.

Macdonald Marketplace still serves as their home store, but the Seaside Grown team is steady creating new recipes and testing their always field to glass products at their very own packaging and production facility next door, Frogmore Bottling Company.

For the latest member of the Sanders family, one who had already launched a massive company in the form of Taylor Off-Shore fishing equipment before turning his attention to the family farm, it’s been an adventure.

“This is the kind of stuff that makes me tick,” he said. “I’m addicted to entrepreneurship.”

Peter Thompson is the executive distiller at Hilton Head Distillery. He’s also a health nut. He hasn’t eaten fast food in more than a decade and his last soda was at age 10. He has an incredibly high tolerance for alcohol. Never go out drinking with him.

Peter Thompson

This local distiller is always in good spirits.

Whether he’s cooking up one of his famous dishes made from wild game he hunted himself or meticulously taste-testing the latest batch of spirits for Hilton Head Distillery, there’s one inescapable fact about Peter Thompson that defines the experience.

“I don’t like cutting corners,” he said. “I’m programmed one way, and that’s to do it the right way.”

That’s evident in every sip of the distillery’s full line, crafted under his care as executive distiller. The effervescent purity of Aermoor Vodka, the creaminess of Two Traditions Dark 23 Rum, it all comes from his distinct palate, honed by years of experience. Even the robust coffee flavor of Mountain Peak Espresso Rum bears his mark, despite the fact that Thompson hates coffee.

While he’s not naturally a coffee drinker, he soldiered through — studying the best local coffee he could find.

“I went and spent $20 at a local coffee shop. That was tough,” he said with a laugh. “I often have a hard time with coffee because I pick up notes of burnt toast. But once I had higher quality coffee and a good understanding of my palate I could start adjusting and tweaking the coffee notes.”

Those adjustments and tweaks are every bit of his process as much as tasting and sampling. Even when running a new batch of vodka, a process which can take upwards of 24 hours, Thompson doesn’t stop refining for the entire duration.

I don’t like cutting corners,” he said. “I’m programmed one way, and that’s to do it the right way.”

“I’ve gotten it down to where I can up the still and know I have half hour here, an hour there, but for the most part I’m going up to it constantly,” he said. “I have to know we have the best liquor possible coming out, so I’m constantly checking it, messing with it, checking valves, water inputs, steam outputs…”

It’s a pursuit of purity reflected in his choice for favorite offering at the distillery – the white rum. “I’m a straight purist. I don’t care for flavorings or colors, I’m all about the spirit by itself. I’ve never been into cocktails,” he said. “The people who made that spirit created it that way and they want you to drink it that way.”

The white rum may be his favorite for now, but new lines coming out of the distillery might just change that. “I’ve missed making whiskey,” he said. “It’s probably the hardest spirit to make.” Fortunately, Hilton Head Distillery has a whiskey in the works, with plans to begin aging in the next year. It’s a throwback to Thompson’s time spent at Dark Corner Distillery, crafting whiskey with renowned distiller Paul Fulmer. This background in whiskey was then informed by three months of training in rum distillation in the Cayman Islands (“By the end of it I was trying to get them to stay a little bit longer,” he laughed).

“Everybody has their own style with how they distill, especially with small batch. I kept my own whiskey-style palate, so I tend to pull out more than a traditional rum guy would to make a more robust spirit.”

His well-trained palate has helped create a truly unique line of craft spirits, but it’s his drive to never cut corners that has helped elevate Hilton Head Distillery to prominence.

Kay Stanley creates high-quality, linen and leather handbags and accessories for her celebrated local brand, Spartina 449. She’s also a pretty good slalom water skier.

Kay Stanley

This local artist spreads Lowcountry style around the world.

By now it’s become a symbol of the Lowcountry as ubiquitous as Spanish moss and sunshine – the signature handbag of Spartina 449. From their flagship store in Bluffton to retail shelves the world over, the brand has served as an ambassador of our region, reflecting our sophistication and color.

It’s one of the Lowcountry’s greatest success stories, and it almost didn’t happen.

“The plan was, in January 2009 we were going to make our debut selling to the wholesale marketplace,” said founder Kay Stanley. “What I had not planned on was the big financial collapse. I already had goods on boats heading to South Carolina, and the trade shows we attended were pretty slow. It was a very scary time and here we were launching a new company. We almost closed the doors before we even launched it.”

Thankfully, Stanley and her husband, Curt Seymour, stuck it out and enjoyed a first year beyond anything they were expecting. That upward trajectory has grown ever steeper each year since, with the signature handbags, apparel and accessories emerging as the “it” look for a young, vibrant demographic.

For Stanley, the essence of Spartina 449 stems from two things. First is the inspiration she draws from Daufuskie Island. She and her husband moved to the island from Kansas after selling off a successful scrapbooking business, based on nothing more than Internet research and photos she’d spied in Southern Living.

It’s one of the Lowcountry’s greatest success stories, and it almost didn’t happen.”

“We had no idea – we’d never been to this part of the country at all. There’s so much history to it and so many stories to tell,” she said. “That’s one thing that I wanted to incorporate – not selling a handbag but telling a story of the island I love.”

The second is her natural artistic talent, bred from and encouraged by her mother. Or at least, encouraged to a point.

“Ever since I could remember I was an artist. I followed my mother around and I’d mimic her – if she’d draw, I’d draw. If she’d paint, I’d paint,” she said. “In college, she requested adamantly that I was not to study any kind of art degree. She did not want me to be a starving artist.”

Stanley honored her mother’s request, pursuing a journalism degree but falling into art nonetheless with a design job at an ad agency right out of college. When she met Seymour, he was working in electronic sales but running a side business selling brass replicas of KU’s “Big Jay” mascot out of his closet.

“But he was not an artist, so when he met me, he thought, ‘Maybe I’d better date her,’” said Stanley with a laugh “So I started doing work for him on a freelance basis doing collegiate products that we’d sell in gift stores.”

The couple’s creative energies would lead to the formation of K&Company, a scrapbooking company formed when the trend was just building steam in the late ’90s.

“It grew to be fairly big company, bigger than Spartina,” she said. “We sold to all the big mass merchandisers – Walmart, Target, QVC, Michael’s. It was a very fun industry.”

They sold a decade later, and found their way to Daufuskie with the intention to retire. All you have to do is look on the arm of any well-dressed woman to know how that went.

“I didn’t give retirement much of a chance, I don’t think,” said Stanley.

For those who have made Spartina 449 their signature style, and the 170+ employees who are part of the organization’s growing empire, it’s a good thing she didn’t.


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