Kitchen Dreams

The stories of four cooks who heard, `That's so good, why don't you sell it?' - and did just that.

April 14, 2004|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a busy working wife and mother, Julie Ndjee used to fret about what to feed her family.

"I wanted to prepare food from scratch," says the 31-year-old Elkridge resident, who was born in Cameroon. "But I left for work each day at 6 a.m. And it wasn't easy performing on the job, then coming home and making freshly prepared meals. I knew I needed to find a solution."

So she started mixing up batches of freshly blended vegetables and herbs, using recipes adapted from her African homeland. The seasoning helped jump-start her family's favorites: chicken, grilled fish, rice, pasta and vegetables.

"Everyone loved it," says Ndjee, who often entertained. "I was always putting some in zip-lock bags for people to take home. One day, a friend said, `Why don't you sell this?' "

Neilly's Ultimate Seasonings (named for Ndjee's daughter) hit the market in March 2003. Soon after, Ndjee quit her job to run the business full time.

She is not alone. Though statistics are scant, anecdotal evidence suggests more Marylanders are becoming food entrepreneurs - transforming home cooking into products for the grocery shelves.

Many have abandoned former careers to do so. Yet experts say there's more to launching a food-based business than having a great recipe and a dream.

"The barriers to food entrepreneurship are significantly higher than, say, service providers," says Paul Taylor, executive director of the Small Business Resource Center in downtown Baltimore, which has aided Ndjee and thousands of budding entrepreneurs. "There are health, safety and manufacturing issues to consider. Zoning must be approved. This is not something you can just do in your basement."

Besides a business plan, food entrepreneurs must consider issues such as reserving shelf space in the supermarket, procuring a distributor and testing recipes using professionals or a food laboratory. "It's a science," says Taylor.

Ndjee spent two years researching, product-testing and arranging financing before opening her business.

"We had to scale back on bills, and take the leap," says the former financial consultant, who left a prestigious technology firm about six months into her venture.

"It was a very good-paying job," she says. "But this is what I really wanted to do. I did not want to look back and have regrets."

Today, Ndjee and her husband run Neilly's with two part-time employees from newly acquired commercial space in Columbia. Their seasoning has gained fans at area grocery stores such as Eddie's of Roland Park and Food Depot, and among restaurant chefs who buy it in bulk to give their dishes ethnic flair.

Ndjee typically works 14-hour days, handling everything from cooking demonstrations to marketing, but loves the challenges. "This has become my passion," she says.

Monticello "Monty" Smith of North Baltimore spent years perfecting his homemade barbecue sauce, an all-natural recipe he used on the ribs, chicken, turkey and baked beans he served at cookouts and parties.

"It was a wonderful recipe, full-bodied and tangy. It got so many compliments," says his wife, Willie Smith. "I encouraged him to market it, and so did many of our family and friends."

He first marketed the sauce in the 1980s, but a copyright battle over his product's name sidetracked business for a while. Yet Smith didn't give up.

"The reality is that in business, you're going to have some pitfalls," says Smith, a corporate salesman. "Not every day is the same, so you think of a way to get around pitfalls."

The Smiths spent about $15,000 in savings, changed the name of the sauce, regrouped and resumed operations in 2001. That next year, Willie Smith resigned from Baltimore Reads to devote her energy to the business full time. Today, Monty Smith's BBQ Sauce is available in dozens of regional stores and chains, including Giant, Box and Save, Shoppers Food Warehouse, Food Depot and several Eddie's stores.

The couple gets help from their oldest daughter, Roslyn, but they manage tasks from sending out samples to corresponding with Internet customers themselves. Sales are growing, as is the product line: There's also Buffalo Wing Sauce and a forthcoming Honey/Crab Lobster Sauce, a nod to Maryland seafood lovers.

Meantime, their sauces soon may get national exposure. The Smiths are negotiating with a leading sub-sandwich chain and a hotel operation.

Albert "Toto" Mechali, the man behind Toto's Gourmet Products in Baltimore County, is also a sauce man. The Moroccan-born businessman learned to make salsa while watching his mother, who was Spanish.

"She'd make salsita with fresh diced onion, chiles, cumin, lime juice," he remembers fondly. "Later, after I came to the States and saw the salsa they were selling in the stores, I thought, `This is not salsa.' I started making my own for friends."

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