The Syrup Queen

Michele Hoskins took a 150-year-old family recipe and turned it into a retail juggernaut.

In 1983, Michele Hoskins had hit rock bottom.

She was going through a divorce, supporting her three young daughters as a makeup artist and living in her mother’s attic on the South Side of Chicago, near where she had grown up.

This was not the life she had envisioned. But that was soon to change.

Hoskins had been reading about how the 1980s would be the decade for women entrepreneurs. She began thinking about an old family recipe forbreakfast syrup invented by her great-great-grandmother in Mississippi shortly after she was emancipated—and realized that was what she wanted to dedicate her life to.

There was one problem: The recipe, for honey creme syrup, wasn’t Michele’s to sell. It now belonged to her youngest daughter.

“When my great-great grandmother created the syrup, she decreed that the secret recipe would pass down to the third daughter in each generation,” says Hoskins. “Well, my mother was the third daughter, so she got it, but I wasn’t, so I couldn’t have it. But when my third daughter was born, my mother gave me the recipe, to basically hold in safekeeping until my daughter got older.”

Today, 29 years later, Michele Foods Inc., anchored by the Honey Creme Syrup and also Butter Pecan Syrup and Maple Creme Syrup, is a multimillion-dollar business whose products are sold in more than 10,000 stores nationwide. She has told her story to Oprah. She has also launched Michele’s Mentoring Program, through which she has helped more than 150 entrepreneurs launch products.

“I know now that the three initial ingredients my great-great-grandmother gave me weren’t just for a syrup,” says Hoskins. “They weren’t just to be a successful money-making machine, either. They were really so I can learn, grow, and pass it along.”

Diversity Woman: Tell us about the early days of Michele Foods.
Michele Hoskins: I decided in 1982 to put this wonderful syrup on market. When my mother gave the recipe to me—the agreement being I would give it to my daughter—I began perfecting it in our kitchen, then started taking it around to local restaurants in the neighborhood.

Some agreed to try it and serve it for breakfast. However, the feedback I got was that it separated and didn’t look good, and they had to keep rewarming it to meld the butter and creme.

Around the same time, I got a part-time job at the Johnson Publishing Company [publisher of Ebony magazine] and became a salesperson and a makeup 
artist. But I didn’t give up my dream. In the meantime, I decided I would learn everything I could about running a business by observing and asking questions.

By this time my mother knew what I was trying to do. She had heard about a company called Resources that had taken a family recipe for chili and put it on the market. It was looking for more products to help bring to market. I applied, and out of 350 applications, mine was chosen as the best. I had to pay to Resources, but it provided all the support, from graphic design to help with the formulation and distribution.

DW: What did you do next?
MH: In 1982, when I felt the syrup was ready, I took a leap of faith, sold everything I owned, and moved back to my mom’s home to focus on my business. I was going through a divorce and working part-time for Mr. Johnson.

I went on welfare for a while, living in my mom’s attic, and worked on the syrup. When I felt the syrup was ready, I went to Jewel Food Store, which was the largest supermarket chain in Chicago—and they found it unique. I tell you, it took a long time to get heard! I walked in the corporate office. They asked if I was applying for a job. I said, “No, I am looking to talk to a buyer.” I sat in a corner watching people walk by me into the offices all day. At the end of the day, I was sent in to talk to a buyer, a Mr. Smallman. I told him I had this wonderful syrup. He said, “My grandson loves pancakes. If he likes the syrup, I will give you a shot in a few of my stores.” The grandson liked it. That took me out of the basement [where I was hand packing the syrup], and I was able to start producing it in volume.

DW: How did you grow it to the next level?
MH: I began going from chain to chain, and by the end of year, I got into 97 percent of the Chicago-area supermarkets.

Along the way, I had read that Denny’s was in trouble with a discrimination lawsuit. So every Monday morning at 10:30 for two full years, I called Denny’s to try to get business from them. Finally, the news of my weekly call reached the CEO. He asked his staff, “Why haven’t you met with her?” At that time, diversity or affirmative action in business was not a big consideration. But he arranged for me to meet with someone in North Carolina, and in 1996, I was given a $3 million contract to produce syrup for Denny’s.

DW: Was it intimidating as an African American woman to break into the world of food manufacturing?
MH: It was very intimidating. I was raised on the South Side of Chicago. I grew up in a world that was largely African American. The food manufacturing and distribution business was built on the good ol’ boys system. Retail outlets were often built by families who began with a little neighborhood store, who then built them into chains of bigger stores. If your father was a buyer, you became a buyer and got a percentage of the business. It was a very closed world. And as a minority, I represented the consumers in this industry—we weren’t taught how to become producers.

I remember when I made my first sales calls, everyone I talked to was a white male. It was so intimidating. I hadn’t been trained to have a conversation with a white male. Everyone I saw seemed like the same person, in khaki pants and a white shirt.
After each call, I would have to do research to find out what those words were they were using. What was an SKU? A new item form?

I was in business for 18 years before I saw an African American buyer. It was another few more years before I saw a female buyer—and she was in the military. So besides learning how to build a business, 
I had to learn how to overcome that. It was a whole new world of challenges.

DW: You now have a mentoring program. What advice do you give?
MH: I tell them three things—I call them my “Three P’s.”
One, you have to have a passion. You don’t come into a business to make money. For years, I worked without making money. It was so exciting to see my product on the shelf for the first time—money couldn’t have bought that moment for me.

Second is perseverance. You have to be able to get up every day, regardless of what the day looks like and how you feel, and work on your dream. You have to be mindful of your health too. CEOs don’t call in sick. As I was building the business, I had both a brain tumor and breast cancer—and you just have to keep going.

Third, you have to be patient. Rome was not built in a day. The blueprint of what you want and where you want to go is built brick by brick.

DW: What are your plans for market expansion?
MH: I own 100 percent of the business now, and I am looking to expand and open it up to investors. I am a very good salesperson, but I need someone to market to consumers and to expand into more markets. I am carried in the top 12 retail chains in the country, but not enough people know our brand.

Every week, millions of people go into a store where my product is stocked. But there are lots of products in a store. Most consumers know what product they want before they grab a shopping cart. You buy Colgate because your mother bought Colgate.

So our challenge is to get consumers’ attention away from Mrs. Butterworth’s and to us. We need to develop a consumer awareness campaign. I tell people I am the real Aunt Jemima. I am real, I am here! Now we need to get the brand name out there. We want our product to be a household name. DW

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