Volunteers: The Heart of Ila’s Foods

Ilas Foods Walla Walla Onion Volunteers
Rick, Alcadia, Debra, Sally, and Christopher stand next to some of the product they helped process. Photo credit: Alia Brookshire

For small, locally owned businesses such as Ila’s Foods, having strong community support is essential. Debra Kilcup, owner of Ila’s Foods, often testifies to the amazing network of people that make her business possible. One of the ways that volunteers are able to help out with Ila’s Foods is by participating in work parties to help process ingredients that later make their way into the company’s uniquely delicious jams, jellies, sauces and spreads.

Ilas Foods Walla Walla Sweet Onion Relish
This all-natural relish is delicious with pork, baked chicken, salad, sandwiches, burgers, hotdogs, and anything else savory. Photo credit: Ila’s Foods

Delightful Walla Walla Sweet Onion Relish is one of Ila’s Foods’ most popular products. This all-natural product uses Walla Walla’s famous onions alongside apple cider vinegar, turmeric, sweet peppers, celery, and cloves to create a versatile relish that adds flavor to any savory cuisine. However, processing the onions is no easy feat, which led Debra to reach out online looking for volunteers.

After offering lunch, snacks and some free product from Ila’s Foods in exchange for volunteering, Debra heard from 12 community members who were willing to offer their time and energy towards making relish. This work party marked four years of volunteer support for Delightful Walla Walla Sweet Onion Relish.

Delightful Walla Walla Sweet Onion Relish is not only one of the most popular, but also one of the oldest products offered by Ila’s Foods. Even before starting Ila’s Foods, Debra loved to cook. The first time she sold food was at the Hoodsport 4th of July Celebration, an event that features a market fair and local food vendors. At the recommendation of a friend, Debra decided to participate as a food vendor. Debra had some onions, so she whipped up some jars of onion relish, along with her famous Blue Cheese Dressing, and sold out on the first day of the event. This event marked the debut of Debra’s career making and selling food, which would later become Ila’s Foods.

Ilas Foods Relish, Jelly, and Jam assortment
Ila’s Foods offers a wide assortment of products. Pictured here is Delightful Walla Walla Sweet Onion Relish alongside several other popular flavors including Blazer Spirit Jelly and Razzle Dazzle Jam. Photo credit: Alia Brookshire

When I sat down with Debra, four of the volunteers from the most recent work party joined us. Sally, who was accompanied by her 13-year-old grandson, Christopher, and Sandy, who was one of Debra’s first customers. She and her daughter had visited an event at the Shelton Airport where Debra was vending, and walked away with a jar of Bluepena: Blueberry & Jalapeno Pepper Jelly. Sally’s family has been a part of the community that surrounds Ila’s Foods ever since, often stopping by the kitchen to volunteer or just to chat with Debra.

Two other volunteers I met, Alcadia and Rick, had recently purchased some products from Ila’s Foods, having discovered it by attending a car show at Farm Boy Drive-In Restaurant.  They then noticed the post online looking for volunteers, and decided to come help out. “I was just looking for something different to do,” says Rick. “Never done anything like that, it was pretty interesting to see.”

The process of preparing the relish is an involved, complex process, which is why this particular product relies on volunteer support. “Walla Walla onions don’t keep once they’re peeled. You need to deal with them that day,” Debra tells me. Because of the time-sensitive nature of the onions, the volunteers need to move quickly. First, they peel the onions, and then wash them. After that, they cut them into pieces and soak the onion pieces in salt, in order to pull the moisture out. The salt is then rinsed out, and the onions are cooked along with the other ingredients. Afterwards, the relish is left to cool in jars, and then labeled and sold. “It’s our second best selling thing, they usually go out on pallets,” says Debra.

Ilas Foods Walla Walla Onion Unlabeled Jars
Before being labeled, jars of Delightful Walla Walla Sweet Onion Relish sit and cool. Photo credit: Alia Brookshire

Reminiscing on past volunteer events, Debra shares that one a time when the volunteers were working with onions with the doors open, a man in a suit stopped by to see what was happening. He took off his suit jacket and offered to help. He then came by for the next seven consecutive days. “If I didn’t have all these people to help me, I just couldn’t do it,” Debra tells me.

Debra remarked on the way that the volunteer events bring the community together. Sitting in the kitchen of Ila’s Foods, she explains how at the beginning of each work party, a group of people who each know one, maybe two people, show up and get to work. Then, after a while, murmurs of conversation starts up, and by the end of the project, everyone is talking and laughing together. “I don’t just appreciate all the work they do. I appreciate, I love, all the positivity it brings,” she says. “It just touches my heart that people will come out and do this”.

If you’re interested in volunteering with Ila’s Foods, follow Ila’s Foods’ Facebook page for information on upcoming events, or reach out to Debra directly. To try Delightful Walla Walla Sweet Onion Relish, or any of Debra’s other creations, look anywhere Ila’s Foods is sold, or order directly from the Ila’s Foods’ website.

Ila’s Foods
8036 River Dr Suite 204, Olympia


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