After Kelly O’Connell left her family’s home in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod for college in New York City, she didn’t look back. She earned a degree, landed a job developing products for Martha Stewart and immersed herself in big city life.

“I never thought I would leave New York. I really didn’t,” she said. “I figured I’d move back to Cape Cod when I retired.”

She was 33, and a long way from retirement, when the pandemic gripped New York City in March 2020. The excitement of the city was replaced by uncertainty — and fear. O’Connell’s studio apartment on the Upper West Side felt confining, but going outside seemed risky; there were rumors that bridges leading out of the city would close, that stores could run out of food. Like hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers O’Connell fled Manhattan. She let an intense feeling of relief wash over her as she crossed the bridge onto Cape Cod.

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O’Connell wasn’t alone. The lure of Cape Cod appears to have become particularly strong during the pandemic. Anecdotal evidence suggests an uptick in residents across the Cape since the start of the pandemic, and a New York Times analysis indicates that in the Cape’s largest community, Barnstable — which includes the village of Hyannis — there were four times the number of new residents in 2020, compared to 2019.

O’Connell had planned to work remotely from her parents’ house for a few months and then return to New York. But the initial relief she felt when she first arrived stayed with her as spring turned into summer. The pandemic, she said, was like hitting a pause button on her life.

“When I first came home from New York, it really was an opportunity for me to stop and reset my batteries,” she said. “And I didn’t realize that I was actually not that happy living there. I didn’t realize how much of a toll the stress of what I was doing and the stress of my lifestyle there was taking on me mentally, physically, emotionally.”

A red and white checkered table with jars of jam under a bright red umbrella in a yard.
Kelly O’Connell’s first version of her jam store was a stand in front of her parents’ house.
Courtesy of Kelly O’Connell

She said the pandemic gave her time not only to evaluate her life in New York but also to consider what she liked about the Cape: proximity to her family, a slower pace of life, a sense of community and of course, the ocean. As she had during childhood, she found herself making her way by boat to Sandy Neck Beach and a lighthouse there that had served as the backdrop to much of her youth. It would also become the inspiration for a business that would anchor her back home.

But when she decided at the end of 2020 to quit her life in New York, it wasn’t clear how she’d make a living on Cape Cod.

“Giving up my life was a scary move, for sure.” she said. “I just knew I wasn’t going back to New York, it just wasn’t going to happen for me.”

Her company had made it clear that eventually she’d be required to return to the office in New York, so she began job hunting. At the same time, a side business was gaining traction.

"It's like turning lemons into lemonade. I turned lemons into jam."

Living at home with her parents she noticed her dad was, as she described it, “the world’s biggest consumer of toast.” He liked jam, so she made a batch for him and decided it tasted better than anything sold in the stores. Soon she had six flavors and lines of customers outside of her parents’ home on Route 6-A, where she sold her creations on a table covered with a red-checkered cloth. She considered it a hobby, until a professional acquaintance told her he was interested in investing in a food business. In particular, he told her, he wanted to sell jam.

“I nearly fell off my seat,” recalled O’Connell.

Throughout her career, O’Connell had developed expertise in developing and branding products. Now, as she shuttled between her job in New York and her parents’ home on the Cape, she launched a wholesale business manufacturing jams and other condiments. The first orders went out in June to 30 stores. In September, the pair opened a cafe in Yarmouth Port called Lighthouse Keeper’s Pantry. The name and the products are inspired by the Sandy Neck Beach lighthouse.

Kelly O’Connell at her café and bakery in Yarmouth, Mass., on Nov. 17, 2021.
GBH News

“I wanted to take my experience working in lifestyle brands to create my own lifestyle brand and base it on the most authentic thing there is to me,” she said, “which is being on the Cape.”

O’Connell made it official over the summer when she quit her New York job and moved into an apartment above the cafe. Her days start before dawn, when she folds the kitchen’s aprons and dish towels that she washes and dries in her apartment each evening. She often falls asleep at night working on her laptop. She said she’s never worked harder — or felt more grateful.

“I sort of joke and say, ‘it’s like turning lemons into lemonade,’” said O’Connell. “I turned lemons into jam.”

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