One of the biggest issues for everyone throughout this pandemic has been traveling and visiting the people we love and care about safely. With the lack of travel and visits, many have also unknowingly opted out of enjoying some of their favorite foods due to not getting to them. Of course, outside of food, many businesses had to accept changes and pivot as well. During that pivot, Chef Claude Booker saw an unmet need of soul food lovers and created his product, Soul Food Starter Kits, which is now placed in over 1,000 retailers today. This makes Booker one of the few Black food brand founders in America, and he did it in only nine months and during the pandemic.
Booker’s Soul Food Starters enables any home cook to create the traditional flavors of collard greens, mac and cheese, peach cobbler, and more by adding their own fresh ingredients to the starter. The products are now sold online and in over 1,000 locations nationwide, including Meijer, Stop & Shop, KeHE, Cost Plus World Market, VW Roses, and Sam’s Club. The seasoning mix flavors are mac and cheese, collard greens, candied yams, and peach cobbler. Soul Food Starters is committed to bringing families pantry-ready seasonings for soul food. The kits expand the diversity of representation in the grocery aisle and broaden the availability of soul food to those who miss home-cooked meals and want to try something new.
After losing nearly 90% of his hot food and steam tables business during the shutdown, Booker says he initially panicked when we went into lockdown. “The main thing I tell everybody is that the first thing I did was fell on my knees because I had to pray to God because I was panicking, and God gave me this vision. Then I had to strategically find out how people were now communicating with retailers and grocery stores when nobody was, you know, allowing folks to come to visit,” Booker recalls.
Aside from being one of the few minority-owned food brands, Soul Food Starters also has an all Black supply chain. After Booker perfected his recipes, he intentionally contracted other Black-owned businesses to help him produce and sell his product. Booker explains in a robust voice, “I wanted this product to start with a Black working operation and end supporting a Black cause. So I wanted to make sure that once I created recipes, I could find a capable Black company that could help me produce them. I also wanted Black companies and consulting firms to help me grow my brand, and then I wanted to support Black education, which is near and dear to my heart. Once I had that figured out and found those two components, the rest of it just fell in place.”
These partnerships help employ more Black Americans, but Booker found it essential that Soul Food Starters partner with Black-owned companies. He asks, “If we, as African-American entrepreneurs, feel that we need supplier diversity, and we’re looking for these companies and these retailers to have a robust supplier diversity program, then why don’t we have one? So I said, if not us- if not me, who else will do it?”
The chef says he was blessed with everything he needed, including retail placement but admits he did have challenges. However, he considers the experience similar to a Job blessing, referencing Job from the Bible, who was blessed again later in his older years.
When asked what one thing he learned to succeed in his industry was, Booker says, “We sometimes hurt ourselves because we’re so afraid of somebody stealing that great idea that we get in our own way. I quickly learned that that’s a myth. The reality is you can protect any great idea with legal, some type of legal action.” He continues, “And then you’ve got to say that your vision is big!”
The company believes in using food as an incentive to bring families together, and as a man of faith, Booker also believes in being a blessing to others. Each Soul Food Starter Kit that is purchased helps further the education of African-American youth. The Booker’s Soul Food Education Fund, housed in the Spartanburg County Foundation, donates to 501c3 charities that support Black education causes and programs throughout America.
Booker shared that the fund was inspired by his experiences when he could not afford the same books as his classmates during grade school. He confesses that during those times, he felt less than. Still, when he was blessed with the opportunity to attend college, he was also able to afford the same books as everyone else, which increased his confidence and resulted in him being a better student. Overall, Booker says, “I just wanted to create an education fund that spoke to uplifting Black folk, as far as youth education. So that was kind of the premise of why I wanted to do it.”
Booker’s Soul Food Education Fund will also continue after Booker and his wife Crystal are gone. “So it's kind of legacy, even when I'm gone. That's probably one of the things I'm most proud of that I can see that this product is going to be able to support a lot of organizations.”
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