COOKING UP DEALS

How two black food companies whipped up lucative partnerships with a major firm

mother with the goal of turning a generations-old secret family recipe for breakfast syrup into a marketable product. Today, Michele Foods is an $8 million company whose three flavors of syrup can be found on the shelves of stores such as Wal-Mart and Kroger’s.

Nearly five years ago, after doing some research, Hoskins discovered that Bisquick, the batter she used in trade show demonstrations, was one of a handful of mixes that didn’t have a syrup. Most pancake mixes, she says, are coupled with a syrup manufactured by the company that makes the mix, but General Mills didn’t make syrup.
“That meant that every time you made a Bisquick pancake, you had to use a competitor’s syrup,” she says, adding that she was “amazed” that the company hadn’t taken advantage of consumers’ propensity to buy the products together.

Hoskins called General Mills but didn’t receive a favorable response, so she went on to pursue other accounts, most notably one with Denny’s, the restaurant chain that in the early 1990s was facing lawsuits over discriminatory practices. In 1994, she signed a $3 million contract with the chain, becoming one of Denny’s first minority- and women-owned suppliers.

But Hoskins was still looking for a “slam dunk,” a deal that would get Michele Foods into more retail stores. As
evidence that networking pays off, she ran into Gerald Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Food Service and Hospitality Alliance for General Mills, while attending a food show for industry women. She broached her “fantastic idea” of a relationship with General Mills to him, and Fernandez suggested she attend and donate her syrup to a breakfast that Steve Sanger, the General Mills chairman and CEO, was going to attend in Minneapolis. She did both, but before going, she wrote Sanger a letter outlining her concept.

At the breakfast, Sanger publicly mentioned Michele Foods’ participation in the event. Later, at the opening of a plant, Hoskins introduced herself to him. When she returned to Illinois, Hoskins wrote another letter citing the benefits of a relationship: it would legitimize the food manufacturer in the black community and would give it entrÇe into the market. “And the third thing would have been my slam dunk,” says Hoskins. “If I could partner with General Mills on the retail level, that means that wherever they are, I could possibly be there, too.”

Talks started with General Mills’ executives, but what prompted the company to get serious was Hoskins’ appearance last spring on Oprah. Before that, Hoskins had asked its officials if she could reveal the impending partnership but they refused.

On Oprah, she mentioned her relationships with other companies. This got the attention of Sanger, and shortly afterwards, Hoskins signed a contract. In addition to the 13-city promotional tour, the two companies also agreed to sponsor a dollar-off coupon if both products are purchased together.

Last fall, bottles of Michele Foods’ syrups carrying neck hangers for similar discounts appeared on store shelves. But from Hoskins’ perspective, the most important aspect of the relationship is the impact on her

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