Persistence pays off for local specialty food firms

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 24, 2002

Pie, cookie and cobbler mixes, cakes, jellies and jams, pepper sauces, candy and stone-ground corn meal are among the products for sale by specialty food companies on the Louisiana side of the Miss-Lou.

But although many of those small companies are now thriving, their owners say getting there has taken long hours and much marketing – and each founder’s marketing approach is unique.

Take Marla Beard, co-owner and manager of Achilles Plantation Products Inc. of Jonesville, for example. That company evolved from Beard’s involvement with making desserts for Chances Restaurant in Jonesville.

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In the two years since that company was founded, Beard and her partners have been visiting grocery stores throughout the region, persuading them to carry Achilles’ chocolate chip and oatmeal frozen cookie dough.

As a result, Beard said, “we’re in most of the local grocery stores,” including the Natchez and Ferriday Markets and grocery stores in Jonesville and Monterey. Beard also visited a grocery chain office in Palm Springs, Calif., hoping to take sales of Achilles’ products to the national level.

Cookie dough flavors Beard and her partners hope to add in the near future include fudge chocolate chip, sugar cookie, white chocolate chip and perhaps fudge peanut butter chip.

Jane James’ St. Joseph-based company, Simply Southern Gourmet Jellies and Food, evolved in the early 1990s from her catering work.

And she has been marketing her company’s jellies, cakes, cheese straws and roasted pecans ever since, traveling to gourmet food shows around the country and visiting specialty food shops in person.

“In many cases, I just knocked on doors,” James said. “In New Orleans, I wanted my products to be sold in Martin’s Winesellers, so I&160;kept going back.

“I was there one weekend and they said, ‘Would you like to do a tasting?’ The products moved off the shelf that same day.”

But James said her company still gets most of its customers from word of mouth and people who have received her products as gifts.

Nathan Patrick Calhoun, president of Calhoun Bend Mill in Jonesville, has even taken his company’s marketing to the international level.

He already attends 15 to 20 trade shows a year, is preparing to adapt products to sell in Canada and is working on marketing to Mexico and Central America.

That’s not bad, he said, “considering it basically started back in 1989 as a hobby my brother and I did when I was at LSU and he was farming,”&160;Calhoun said.

The brothers started selling homemade, stone-ground corn meal, and the company’s other products – mostly dessert mixes under the Calhoun Bend and Orchard Mills labels – evolved from there.

But that does not mean there aren’t marketing pitfalls, especially when a business is located in a rural area — like Buddy and Carol Lee Miller’s Plantation Pecan and Gift Co. in Waterproof, founded in 1970 to market the family’s farm-raised products.

“It’s very hard to market in this area because accessibility to people is a problem,” Buddy Miller said.

To overcome that problem, that company concentrates on products that have a relatively long shelf life, such as pecans, candy, preserves and pepper sauce, although the company does send peaches by mail order in June and July.

In addition to their store in Waterproof, the Millers also have a portable fruit stand and mini-store they can transport from place to place. “The problem with that is cities have such strict ordinances about that type of thing,”&160;he said.

And the Millers, like most other specialty food companies in the area, have a presence on the Internet.

Company founders recommended that others seeking to break into the specialty food business follow these tips:

— Take it slow. A successful business doesn’t spring up overnight.

— Conduct plenty of research, including through the Internet and at trade shows, to make sure there’s a market for your product.

“Go to a trade show associated with the item you have in mind,”&160;Calhoun said. “If you didn’t see it there, there’s a good chance there may be a market for that item.”

— Make sure you have the time and money to invest in starting your own business. “And keep careful track of expenses,” James said.

— Start with the finest ingredients, and don’t cut corners in processing. “Make sure the quality of your product is the best obtainable anywhere,” Miller said.