Strategies for spicy profits

Gaining control of distribution spells success for spice firm

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Cooking has been in Wendell E. Turner’s blood for years. His father, who prepared most of the family meals, always told him the key to good cooking is seasoning.

In 1994, the former human resources professional formed Heritage Fare Ltd. in Cleveland to manufacture “down-home” African American seasonings and sauces for making simple, tasty and healthful meals. “We felt the African American market represented a significant opportunity. The foods we like to eat tend to take a long time to cook and they’re often not the most nutritious.”

The company’s first product was greens seasoning followed by chicken, fish and sweet potato pie seasonings. Turner recognized that to be profitable, he needed to control his manufacturing and distribution. So he poured $250,000 into his venture for packaging, distribution and promotion.

Securing shelf space in retail stores has proved challenging for Heritage Fare. Merchants, particularly the larger ones where Heritage Fare products are carried, charge exorbitant fees for shelf space. In addition, they want assurance that the products are going to sell-tough prerequisites for a relatively small fry in the business.

In lieu of capital and guarantees, Heritage Fare cooked up a different plan. It provides merchants with metal shelving to display its products and handles its own merchandising, which entails keeping the display clean, stocked and appealing.

Being in the food manufacturing business also means developing recipes that capture just the right tastes. But even with ingredients carefully measured, mistakes can occur.

Over time, Turner has learned to run sample batches in smaller quantities to minimize losses. Turner, 57, says, “We’ve lost as much as $30,000 because we had to discard products we weren’t satisfied with.”

Still, Heritage Fare is on a healthy growth curve: 1997 revenues were $650,000 for the eight-person company. The company’s seasonings are on major grocery store shelves in Ohio and Illinois, and Turner is set on adding some of his special spices to the Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta areas.

Heritage Fare Ltd., 4614 Prospect Park Bldg., Suite 524, Cleveland, OH 44103; 216-881-9300