An Ohio-based chef’s recent business pivot has helped grow his business in ways that he never imagined.
In 2007, Chef Claude Booker and his wife, Crystal, launched Simply Southern Sides. The couple would prepare and supply buffet-style restaurants with Southern food. The company also catered events such as the Republican Convention. But when the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown started in March 2020, Booker lost almost 90 percent of his business.
“I had to pray to God because I was panicking, and God gave me this vision,” Booker said in an interview with The Higher South.
The vision: pre-packaged soul food seasoning kits that would be sold in retail grocery stores.
“Then I had to strategically find out how people were now communicating with retailers and grocery stores when nobody was, you know, allowing folks to come to visit,” he said.
He came up with Soul Food Starters, seasoning kits to help people whip up homemade Southern cooking in a snap.
Within nine months, Booker took Soul Food Starters from concept to grocery store shelves. The company’s seasoning kits are available with non-vegan and vegan options, allowing consumers to quickly create tasty dishes such as collard greens, mac and cheese, peach cobbler, and candied yams. The products include Collard Greens Seasoning Mix, Peach Cobbler Filling Mix, Mac & Cheese Seasoning Mix, among other offerings. They are sold in single servings.
The seasoning kits are sold on the company’s website and in more than 1,000 locations nationwide. Retailers such as Stop & Shop, KeHe, Cost Plus World Market, VW Roses, Sam’s Club, and Meijer carry the brand on its shelves.
Booker knows his soul food. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, he grew up eating home-cooked, soul food meals made with vegetables from his grandmother’s four-acre garden, livestock raised on a neighbor’s farm, or quail and other animals from his hunting expeditions.
Booker took his love of food to the next level by attaining his associate of science degree in culinary arts, bachelor of science in food service management, and master of science in managerial technology.
Booker’s company is one of a few Black-owned food brands with national distribution. While there are no concrete industry statistics on how many Black-owned brands are on retail shelves, there are more than 124,000 Black-owned businesses in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Not Forgetting the Black Consumer
While the general population can consume Booker’s product, he developed his product with the Black consumer in mind. The Soul Food Starters kits are soul food seasoning blends.
“I’m going all in on my community. I’m going all in on this brand,” Booker told We Buy Black. “It has been my dream to create a brand that spoke to our African-American heritage. ‘For us, by us,’ but we want everybody to enjoy it.”
Supporting Other Black-Owned Businesses and Organizations
Booker’s mission for Soul Food Starters was not only profit-driven. It was also steeped in the idea of partnering with other Black-owned businesses to get their products on retail shelves. And, the mission of Soul Food Starters also includes access to education for African-American youth.
Booker’s Soul Food Education Fund, housed in the Spartanburg County Foundation, donates to 501(c)(3) charities that support Black education causes and programs throughout America. Every time someone buys a Booker’s Soul Food Starter Kit, part of the purchase goes to the fund, according to the company’s website.
As Booker developed Soul Food Starters, he hired Black companies and consulting firms to develop the brand.
“I wanted this product to start with a Black working operation and end supporting a Black cause,” Booker said. “I wanted to make sure that once I created recipes, I could find a capable Black company that could help me produce them.”