Charlotte business owner Olive Stewart’s first meeting with a grocery-store buyer was a disaster.
It was 2009, and the founder of Bushelle Seasonings was excited to show the rep her special herb blend, an all-natural marinade stored in an 8-ounce mason jar.
His response, she recalls, was less than enthusiastic: The portion was too big, the neon orange label was tacky, and the whole package lacked detail. Where are the nutritional facts, the UPC and the list of ingredients? he asked.
Stewart cried on the way home.
Four years later, her seasonings are in the produce sections of Charlotte’s new Whole Foods Market, Reid’s Fine Foods, Healthy Home Market and more. But when she looks at her road from farmers market to big-box grocery, it’s that humiliating encounter she credits with her climb.
“I had some moxie,” Stewart says, laughing. “I was like, ‘Just come and get it. I’m going to make a million dollars.’”
Small producers such as Stewart know how frustrating it can be to translate their great idea into a commercial success. How do you generate buzz when thousands of patents are filed daily? How can you attract a national retailer when you work solo?
Stewart’s husband grew up in Barbados, and his stepfather, Robert Bushelle, was a whiz with Caribbean-style marinades. He always sent Stewart home with a few after family gatherings.
Stewart’s friends began swooning over the herb-based seasonings, which led to what Stewart calls her “Eureka moment.” In 2007, she started making the seasonings herself to sell at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. She named her home-kitchen operation “Bushelle Seasonings.”
Two years later, Stewart was laid off from the insurance company where she’d worked as a claims adjuster for 25 years.
She then decided to build a business around the family seasonings.
It was a gamble – Stewart’s husband was in school, and to finance the business, she’d have to take money from her 401(k).
“I just had faith,” said Stewart, 51. “I just prayed, prayed, prayed.”
Gaining thick skin, business savvy
That first grocery rep’s door was the first – but not the last – that was shut in Stewart’s face.
She had to grow thick skin. And she had to get business savvy.
Stewart took a free class at Southern Piedmont Community College to learn about the business accounting software QuickBooks.
Getting on store shelves also required using a commercial kitchen. Unable to find one she could use in Charlotte, Stewart found a kitchen in Wadesboro where space rents for $15 to $25 per hour.
Always a stickler for freshness, Stewart usually spends two days every other week making her seasonings. She spends three or four days a week giving demos at her retailers, where she networks with other small producers. She was offering samples at Healthy Home Market when she met Kitzo Wademi of KW Collards, who told her Whole Foods reps were coming to town in February.
He’d heard from a food broker in Atlanta, where Whole Foods has a distribution ⊗center.
Stewart found out on Saturday night. The Whole Foods reps would be there Monday morning.
Stewart gathered her wares. She brought some olive oil, her rosemary-and-clove seasoning and a piece of bread for dipping. She only got five minutes with a buyer.
After testing her concoction, the buyer said, “I’ve never had anything like this before,” Stewart recalls. “That’s like the golden ticket. Whole Foods will now open the door for so many supermarkets. ... I was so overwhelmed, and I said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’”
Making the grade at Whole Foods
Stewart equates earning a Whole Foods gig with getting into the Olympics.
And Whole Foods admits it’s not easy to do. Their quality standards are high – they don’t take anything that contains artificial sweeteners, artificial colors or preservatives, said Whole Foods marketing manager Darrah Horgan.
A small producer out of Wilmington even reformulated a product to make it on the shelves, Horgan said. And some categories, such as sauces and marinades, are more crowded.
Stewart differentiates her products by making them fresh, so instead of being on the jam-packed seasonings aisle, her three marinades – Green Onions & Habanero, Rosemary & Clove, and Garlic & Habanero – are refrigerated in the produce department.
A “Supporting Local” sign with her picture hangs on the shelf.
Since being in Whole Foods, Bushelle Seasonings’ revenue has increased about 40 percent, Stewart said. Her advice is to persevere, be alert to opportunities and be prepared to swing into action when opportunity knocks.
“There’s definitely going to be a lot of dark days, but there’s fantastic days, too,” Stewart said. “If you’re not committed to it, you’re not going to do your best.”
Stewart still keeps a roll of those neon orange labels that the big-box rep once vetoed. She loves to show them to her students at Central Piedmont Community College, where she now teaches food entrepreneurship classes. She and her students get a big laugh out of them. “I guess he knew what he was talking about,” she says.