Success Story October 20, 2021 at 10:00 am

How sales of this Black syrup maker boomed after Aunt Jemima syrup controversy

Abu Mubarik October 20, 2021 at 10:00 am

October 20, 2021 at 10:00 am | Success Story

Michele Hoskins founded Michele Foods in 1984. Image via ABC7 Chicago

After more than 129 years, Quaker Oats announced in 2020 that the Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix will get a new name and image, saying “Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racist stereotype”. Since the astounding announcement, a Black woman syrup maker has seen sharp patronage of her products.

Michele Hoskins founded Michele Foods based in South Holland. Since 1984, she has been selling syrup and other products but only enjoyed a tiny fraction of the market. This was because the market was dominated by Aunt Jemima.

According to her, after 35 years of selling syrup, she has become an overnight sensation following the withdrawal of Aunt Jemima. More and more people were discovering her company on social media and now she is poised to expand her company’s operations.

“I should be in every major retail chain in the country. I should be able to supply customers who want my product,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

“I’m not going to take Aunt Jemima’s place. No one ever can, because she’s a different brand from a different era,” she said. “But if you’re looking for a minority company that sells in that category, I’m that. I think we should have the same opportunity as everyone else because we persevered.”

Hoskins started her business after a divorce from a husband. With three children to take care of, Hoskins thought through her options and opted to go into the production of syrups based on a secret recipe developed by her great-great-great-grandmother, America Washington, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Her great-great-great-grandmother worked as a cook on the plantation. The family she worked for did not like molasses so she came up with a concoction of honey, churned butter and cream. It was delicious.

Before launching her company, Hoskins had no idea of how to start a business, particularly in the food industry. Just like many artisanal entrepreneurs, Hoskins started small, from her stove she cooked the first batch of her syrup and took it to local restaurants.

Eventually, she found someone who would make her syrup while she focused on marketing and distribution. “I had a company at 35th and Kedzie that made the product for me and they would deliver it in 55-gallon drums in the alley,” she recalled.

Hoskins and her daughters would fill bottles and place handmade labels on them in her parents’ basement and later take it around to neighborhood stores.

The initial phase of the business was challenging as no customer bought it and so she had to create an illusion of a movement by purchasing it herself from retailers.

Sales began to grow. Her products were in Kroger, Publix, Safeway and other grocery stores across the country. Hoskins expanded her line to three syrup flavors: butter pecan, maple crème and honey crème.

As her business grew, so was her popularity. She was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show on three occasions, including other national newspapers and business magazines. Her fame also grew her business, earning her deals at Denny’s restaurants, then Popeyes chicken as well as General Foods.

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