Michele Hoskins founder of Michele Food Inc. (and black woman-owned syrup brand Michele Syrup) experienced a huge increase in sales since Aunt Jemima was pulled from grocery shelves and we love to see it. Talk about staying ready so you do not have to get ready!
Michele Hoskins has products in more than 10,000 stores nationwide but specifically has been manufacturing her syrups since 1984.
According to Black Business Michele Hoskins’s line of syrup products recently saw an increase in sales since the owners of Aunt Jemima decided to pull its racist brand from grocery store shelves.
Michele is not new to the industry. She began manufacturing her specialty breakfast syrups in 1984. That same year, Michele secured the top two largest retail chains in the Chicagoland area, which took her out of the basement and into 400 retail chains.
She went on to become the first minority supplier for Denny’s, the first minority supplier for Walmart, and over the years she has partnered with some of the most respected food companies in the world – General Mills and Sara Lee.
Michele laughs when she recalls her early struggles and countless mistakes. She overcame incredible odds to turn this family secret into a formula for success.
She comments, “There were no mentors for an African American female entrepreneur in the food industry in those days. I had to learn from my mistakes. Had I not been naïve, I may not have started this journey. All I had going for me was my goal and a commitment to making it work.”
Today, her products can be found in the top retail chains, more than 8,000 stores nationwide, including Kroger, Albertson’s, Jewel Foods, Publix, Safeway, and more.
About Michele’s signature syrup recipe and business
In the Chicago Tribune, Michele said her ‘life changed’ after Quaker Oats announced it was retiring the Aunt Jemima brand due to concerns about racial stereotypes.
“My life changed,” Hoskins said. “Our company changed. It brought awareness to us.” “The next day my tech guy called and said, ‘Your website has crashed,’” Hoskins said
I never in my wildest dreams thought that anything would happen that would make her do anything that would affect my company,” Hoskins said.
After building her business for 35 years, the south suburban entrepreneur 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 said.
“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 shared that she started her company while going through a divorce and moved back into her parent’s home with her three daughters.
“I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” she said. She decided to make syrup based on a secret recipe developed by her great-great-great-grandmother, America Washington.
“She was a slave who worked as a cook on a plantation,” Hoskins said. “The family she worked for did not like molasses. So she came up with this concoction of honey, churned butter, and cream. It was delicious.” “I didn’t know anything about the food industry or product development,” she said.
She cooked up a batch on the stove and took it to local restaurants, whose owners told Hoskins the syrup separated and had to be reheated. “I think at that point most people would have gotten discouraged,” Hoskins said.
“You can do anything if you put your mind to it,” she said. “I still believe that.”
Hoskins found someone to make her syrup so she could focus 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 said.
She and her daughters would fill bottles and place handmade labels on them in her parents’ basement.
“I would take it around to neighborhood stores,” Hoskins said.
Even though independent South Side retailers agreed to stock her product, no customers initially bought it.
“It wasn’t moving,” she said. “I would go in myself and buy it to create this illusion of movement.”
To expand her reach, she visited the corporate offices of Jewel Foods in Melrose Park. She asked to talk with a buyer.
“They had never seen anybody walk in like that,” she said. “I was the first minority supplier for Jewel stores.”
She expanded her line to three syrup flavors: butter pecan, maple crème and honey crème. She worked to get her products placed in Kroger, Publix, Safeway, and other grocery stores across the country. Companies were eager to do business with her, she said.
“I realized who I am made a difference because diversity was hot,” she said.
“Oprah was looking for women who had made their first million (dollars),” Hoskins said.
She appeared three different times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” she said. The first appearance led to her getting called back for a second.
“(Oprah) asked me something and I said you create your own destiny,” Hoskins said. “That’s profound, right?”
Her business continued to grow. She supplied syrup to Denny’s restaurants, then Popeyes chicken. While networking at a conference, she received another call from Harper Studios. They had learned a viewer in Texas had planned to take her own life but was stopped by something she heard on the television.
“She heard, ‘create your own destiny,’ and stopped,” Hoskins said. The woman started her own business and wanted to thank the woman who inspired her. The two appeared together.
“That was a tearful show,” Hoskins said.
“I called up the head of General Foods and said I had done research on Bisquick,” she said. “Seventy percent of people who buy Bisquick use it to make pancakes, and you only have 2% market share in the African American community.
“I didn’t have a pancake and General Foods didn’t have a syrup. I said, ‘I can get you some share in the African American community by my face.‘”
They partnered and offered a coupon where shoppers received discounts when they bought Bisquick and a Michele’s Foods syrup together, she said.
She reached out to Kellogg’s. The maker of Eggo frozen waffles and other breakfast products had no syrup brand of its own.
“They wanted a share because Aunt Jemima had 77% of the syrup market,” she said. “I helped them develop Eggo syrup. I did that because when they did that, it brought light to the syrup category.”
Aunt Jemima’s market dominance left little room for competition.
“The syrup category is a very unsaturated market,” she said. “There are certain products in retail where you don’t add to them, there’s no room for them, there’s no market share. It’s just a closed category.”
“Aunt Jemima owned that category by her image and by the perception that she was African American,” Hoskins said. “A lot of us grew up on that not understanding anything about advertising.”
Brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben perpetuated stereotypes about Blacks, she said. “People would walk past me to get to her,” Hoskins said. “For years I didn’t have my face on there.”
“I went out to one of these suburbs and told the manager that was my product,” she said. “He called (the regional grocery chain) and said, ‘I don’t want Black products out here. I don’t want anything that’s going to draw the African American community into my store.’”
Hoskins said she expanded her reach by masking her identity.
“I became a general-market product,” she said. “My product was sold in Colorado and Utah. No one knew this was an African American product.”
“We still did not have the consumer awareness that we wanted,” she said. “Right now we’re in about 6,000 stores.”
“I’m in it to create a legacy,” Hoskins said. “I feel that at some point we as a people have to understand how to build, create and pass on wealth.”
“If my great-great-great-grandmother could pass down this recipe, I surely could pass it along to her,” Hoskins said. “That becomes our legacy. It’s my legacy in a bottle. Whatever wealth is built into that, we break that curse.”