NORTHFIELD CENTER – Is this too much salt? Too little pepper? How much garlic should be used?
These are questions that may run through the heads of those preparing a meal for themselves or their families. One Northfield Center couple aims to take some of the guesswork about how much seasoning is enough.
Claude and Crystal Booker launched a new business, Booker’s Soul Food Starters in July, which includes seasoning packets for macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler, collard greens and candied yams. Those buying the kits would purchase the produce they need, such as the macaroni noodles, peaches and yams, then use the seasoning included in the kits, plus the directions on the package, to make their desired meal.
“There’s incredible Indian food now, Italian,” Booker said. “But there was nothing speaking to the rich African American culinary history we’ve had.”
This is not the first business for the husband and wife duo; for about 13 years they have run Simply Southern Sides, which provides supplies for the military in Georgia and items for salad bars and steam tables in grocery stores, said Claude Booker. However, for some time, he said, they’ve wanted to offer something they could sell to customers directly.
The new venture had an unconventional start, Booker said.
“We had no idea we would be launching in the middle of a pandemic,” Booker said. “But we had to learn that we were not going to let this stop us. We were so blessed to find the right virtual platforms to really communicate to a lot of the retailers. People looking for Black brands called us a breath of fresh air from all the civil unrest.”
The Bookers had their virtual meeting in August over Zoom. Since then, they have “probably made close to 20 virtual presentations to national retailers.”
One company that the Bookers attracted was Amazon, Booker said.
“They saw us over a virtual food show,” he said. “This was a unique show. They fell in love with us.”
Booker’s Soul Food Starters can be found in several states, Booker said.
“We’ve got a chain in New England called Stop and Shop, New York and New England,” he said.
Recently, Booker’s Soul Food Starters contracted with J. W. Sales & Marketing, which is headquartered in Beachwood, Booker said. He added that he hoped to get the seasoning packets into Giant Eagle and Marc’s.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is what we think would help other brands be successful,” Booker said. “Here is a brand that speaks to the African American community, but it’s designed for everybody because everyone likes good food.”
Booker, a professional chef, said that Crystal “does the support stuff.”
“I do what I call the fun stuff,” he added.
Booker’s culinary roots started in Spartanburg, S.C., where he grew up, learning his family’s recipes. He went to Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., to study culinary arts.
“I did well enough that when the university in Rhode Island saw me, they offered a full scholarship for me to go there, in exchange for me working as a teaching assistant,” he said. “That got this country boy moving to New England.”
Booker said that he was one of the first Black teaching assistants at the Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. In all, he has an associate of science degree in culinary arts, a bachelor’s degree in food service management, and a master’s in managerial technology.
Booker said he and his wife eventually moved to Northfield Center to be closer to her family.
Early next year, Booker said that Booker’s Soul Food Starters would launch three more packets, all of them vegan. There will be vegan versions of the macaroni and cheese, candied yams and collard greens packets.
“We want everyone to be able to partake,” he said. “I think the mac and cheese vegan is just as good as the traditional.”
Helping people take the guesswork out of creating a delicious dish is not the only purpose of the new enterprise, Booker said. A part of the money from each purchase of a kit contributes to Booker’s Soul Foods Foundation to bolster Black education. The foundation, housed in the Spartanburg County Foundation, donates to 501c3 charities that support Black education causes and programs throughout America.
The initiative stems from Booker’s memories of his struggles in high school.
“I wasn’t able to take college prep courses in high school,” Booker said. “I didn’t get an opportunity to show what I could do until I was in college. Our product is good for the soul, and helps move young folks to better themselves through education.”
Booker said the timing of the new business is good, since grocery stores have had to shut down their salad bars and steam tables due to the pandemic, and since more people have been working – and cooking — from home.
“Don’t be afraid, take the leap,” Booker said when asked what advice he would give to prospective entrepreneurs. “Do whatever you think is your passion. If you don’t have a passion for it, it won’t be fun.”
A goal Booker said he had is to network and collaborate with other minority-owned firms.
“We want to create a way for entrepreneurs to be a part of our team,” Booker said. “Ultimately, I never wanted to have gatekeepers. When I needed it, I couldn’t get to the folks who were most successful to ask them what worked, what their mistakes were and what they learned. I want to help others.”
For details on Booker’s Soul Food Starters, visit www.soulfoodstarters.com online, or visit their page on Facebook or Instagram.
Reporter April Helms can be reached at email@example.com