After Quaker Oats announced it was retiring the Aunt Jemima brand following accusations that its imaging promoted racial stereotypes, syrup maker Michele Hoskins says she saw a significant spike in sales of her own product line. Michele Foods, a Black-owned, Chicago-area syrup company founded by Hoskins in 1984, specializes in producing unique syrup flavors based on a 150-year-old family recipe. Although the company has been selling syrup products for decades and is sold in stores around the country, the brand has not been able to capture a significant portion of the market.
That began to change amid the reaction to the Aunt Jemima announcement. “My life changed,” Hoskins said to the Chicago Tribune last week. “Our company changed. It brought awareness to us.” More and more people learned about the company through social media.
“The next day my tech guy called and said, ‘Your website has crashed,’” Hoskins added. Now she’s planning to expand the company even further. “I should be in every major retail chain in the country. I should be able to supply customers who want my product,” she said.
Michele’s Foods sells three syrup flavors, including butter pecan, maple creme, and honey creme. Her products can be found in around 6,000 stores today, and the company employs four people.
Hoskins says she started the company after divorcing her husband and moving back in with her parents on the South Side of Chicago. She and her three daughters lived in the attic of the home, not far from where she had grown up. “I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” Around this time, she began to think abut the old family syrup recipe. The recipe was created by a Hoskins ancestor named America Washington.
According to Hoskins, her great-great grandmother Washington was a former slave who began making a “concoction of honey, churned butter and cream,” for the family she worked for. From there, the recipe would be passed down to the third daughter of each generation, Hoskins said in an interview with Diversity Woman. While Hoskins herself was not a third daughter, her mother had given the recipe to her so that it could be reserved for her own third daughter.
Hoskins began to make syrup from the recipe, although the first batch was not successful. When Hoskins brought the recipe to restaurants they said it would need to be separated and reheated. Ultimately, Hoskins decided to focus more on the marketing aspect of the business and hired a company to make the product. “I had a company at 35th and Kedzie [Avenue, in Chicago] that made the product for me, and they would deliver it in 55-gallon drums in the alley,” she told the Tribune. Preparing the product for sale became a family affair. Hoskins and her daughters worked together to fill and label bottles.
From there, the syrup appeared in neighborhood stores, and eventually made its way to the shelves of larger chains, including Kroger, Publix, and Safeway. She appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” multiple times and has supplied syrup for fast-food chains like Popeye’s.
While Hoskins says some corporations were eager to collaborate with diverse suppliers, others were wary about introducing Black products to their stores. She recounted an experience with racial discrimination, telling the Tribune, “I went out to one of the suburbs and told the manager that was my product. He called [the regional grocery chain] and said ‘I don’t want Black products out here. I don’t want anything that’s going to draw the African American community in to my store.'”
Hoskins mentors young entrepreneurs and believes the most important qualities for success are passion, perseverance and patience. She hopes to pass the company down to her daughter Keisha and is striving to make the product a household name.