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Sautee couple wins shrimp and grits cooking contest
Clark and Suzy Neal develop Unicoi Preserves Apple Cider Pepper Spread
Unicoi Preserves products are Clark and Suzy Neals’ home recipes, made by hand in small batches. Using local fruit grown in the Northeast Georgia mountain region and picked at the peak of ripeness allows all varieties to be flavorful and low in sugar with no artificial ingredients.

For Good Enough Shrimp and Grits with Candied Bacon recipe, click here.

Two hours is all the time Suzy and Clark Neal had.

In two hours, the Sautee couple added their own touch to the classic shrimp and grits recipe at the 2015 Jekyll Island Shrimp and Grits Amateur Cooking Competition last month. And it worked.

The Neals served up a winning recipe, claiming first place and nabbing the Consumer Choice Award. Clark Neal attributed their success to several Georgia Grown products including their own apple cider pepper spread on bacon.

“When people think of jelly spread, they pigeonhole it to breakfast or on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” he said. “It’s really a versatile condiment. You can use it a lot of different ways.”

The recent award marks the second time the apple cider pepper spread earned accolades. This spread was chosen as a finalist for the Flavor of Georgia last November.

The two self-proclaimed home cooks created the recipe in their kitchen in Sautee, which is their base of operation for their business, Unicoi Preserves.

The Neals started plans for their business in fall 2013 after receiving a positive response about their canned goods of fresh produce from local farms. Therefore, the couple decided to take it to the next level by supplying fresh, locally grown foods to Northeast Georgia consumers.

“We like to cook with local ingredients, and we started buying fruits and vegetables from local farmers,” Suzy Neal said. “Living here just makes you connect with people because there’s so much agriculture here.”

Then, the couple connected with local producers and filled out the necessary paperwork. And throughout the process, the Neals were not afraid to ask questions.

“There’s not a golden book out there that says: So you’ve got a great idea, here’s how you bring it to market,” Clark said. “We asked people that were smarter than us.”

It paid off. While the couple creates the recipes in their home kitchen, the food is cooked and packaged by a third party because of FDA restrictions.

“It’s just the two of us,” Clark said. “We’re not a big company. Whatever gets done is our creation and our hard work, and we thought it up and figured out how to do it.”

They debuted three of the products at the Mayfest Wine Festival in May 2014.  Six months later, the Neals were notified about being a finalist for the Flavor of Georgia.

“We submitted all three of our products at the time and they picked our Apple Cider Pepper Spread to be a finalist,” Clark said.

Standing in front of food industry leaders, Suzy and pitched a five-minute presentation about their company, their product and the reason behind the business.

“It was a good time,” Suzy said. “We couldn’t believe we were there with all these people that were really people that we had followed in the food world. It was kind of humbling.”

Being a finalist also legitimized their hard work.

“To get validation from industry vets was really huge for us in our first year of business,” Clark said. “It was a lot of fun, but very nerve wracking.”

Another confirmation about the Unicoi Preserves Apple Cider Pepper Spread followed less than a year later.

After a delivery to the Nora Mill Granary, the Neals heard about the Shrimp and Grits Competition.

Clark said. “We came up with the recipe since the shrimp and the grits were provided. We had to fill in the blanks.”

They did. They created a simple recipe and used one of their company’s most versatile products.

“This particular spread lends itself to lots of other things, hence why we used it in our recipe as a glaze for the bacon,” Clark said. “I use it on pork chops or on chicken on the grill, just like you would a barbecue sauce. Just put it on the last five or 10 minutes to let it caramelize a bit.”

A friend and local potter with ties to St. Simons Island also crafted one-of-a-kind bowls to use for judging.

“We wanted to let the shrimp be the star of the dish,” Clark said. “So we made an uncomplicated recipe, and we wanted the other flavors to just support the main stars of the dish.”

Their dish captured two awards.

“We went thinking we had a winning dish, but for us to have won consumer’s choice and first place was beyond our expectations really,” Clark said.