GALENA, Ill. — For chef Ivo Puidak, the final few months of each year feel a lot like running a marathon.
With customers drawn by the beautiful fall scenery and the bevy of holiday shopping options, the streets in Galena grow increasingly busy. That means a noteworthy increase in the customer traffic at Galena Canning Co.
Puidak logs long hours to keep up with the demand, often starting work around 5 or 6 a.m. and calling it quits at 8 or 9 p.m.
“Around the holidays, I work seven days a week, 16 hours a day, but I don’t mind it,” Puidak said. “I love my job. And if you are doing something you enjoy, it becomes very easy to do.”
With more than two decades of culinary experience under his belt, Puidak has been doing what he loves for a long time.
Galena Canning Co. has a pair of storefronts nestled within the 100 block of South Main Street, in the heart of the city’s shopping district.
Chris Hamilton, president and chief executive officer of Greater Galena Marketing Inc., believes that Puidak’s store is a perfect fit for the stretch of downtown Galena known as the Helluva Half Mile.
“Galena Canning Co. is the consummate Helluva Half Mile business because it is homegrown, distinctive and fun,” Hamilton said.
The origins of Galena Canning Co. can be traced back to the early 1990s, when Puidak and his wife moved to Galena to open a bed-and-breakfast.
Eager to please his guests, Puidak served homemade baked goods, jams and preserves. While the bed-and-breakfast didn’t pan out, Puidak’s culinary creations were an immediate hit.
Inspired by the positive feedback, Puidak started selling goods at the Galena Farmers Market and Galena Country Fair. He entered cooking competitions and routinely took home top honors.
The local buzz about his products grew into national attention in the late 1990s, when the Food Network learned of Puidak’s cooking prowess and featured him on multiple shows.
“Once we got on the Food Network, our business exploded,” he said. “We could barely keep up.”
During the 1990s, Puidak’s products were available at area retailers. Around the turn of the century, he decided to go into business and opened a storefront at 106 S. Main St.
Today, Galena Canning Co.’s list of products includes salsas, hot sauces, salad dressings, dips, jams, and barbecue sauces — and the selection continues to grow.
While the business used to can all of its products in Galena, Puidak said the surge in demand made it impossible to continue that practice. The bulk bottling is now done off-site, but Puidak said all recipes are formulated in Galena and some canning still is done in town.
Puidak attempts to come out with 10 to 15 new products each year, going through an informal yet rigorous process to determine which concoctions make the cut.
“We listen closely to customers, and we always stay abreast of recent food trends and products,” he said. “We’re always playing with new ideas. I always like to have 10 or 20 people try something, and if it’s a real home run, we will start selling it.”
Many of the products feature attention-grabbing names and packaging. The Fire in the Hole salsa, for instance, resembles a grenade, and the Galena’mite Blasting Sauce resembles a stick of dynamite.
But while the business has a little fun with its branding, Puidak emphasized he does not take his work lightly.
“We use the most premium fruits and ingredients, and that is very important to us,” he said. “We don’t compromise to save a few pennies.”
Puidak is quick to note that he isn’t the only one keeping the standards high at Galena Canning Co.
During its busy season, the business can employ as many as 25 workers.
These employees are spread out over a pair of storefronts in the Helluva Half Mile.
The original storefront, at 106 S. Main, is reserved for hot and spicy items. A second location, which was opened around 2010 at 107 S. Main, offers sweet and savory creations.
Both venues invite customers to sample a wide array of items.
To Hamilton, the interactive nature of visiting Galena Canning Co. has become a calling card for the business.
“There are tasting stations all over the store, and they have an amazing variety of products,” said Hamilton, adding that “the atmosphere is vibrant and entertaining.”
Puidak said the two stores collectively offer “hundreds” of samples on a typical day, noting that he is proud to show off his creations.
“We are not bashful about it,” Puidak said. “We want people to try it. We want them to know what they are getting. We’re confident that if they taste the product, they will want to take it home.”