“I’m in the basement trying to fill one bottle at a time, and Aunt Jemima is upstairs with this huge, automated kitchen. One day, I don’t hear any activity, and I come upstairs and the door’s open – they’re gone. They left me the house!” Hoskins said.
Courtesy of Michele Hoskins
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Michele Hoskins founded maple syrup company Michele Foods in 1984, and the business has been growing ever since. The company’s main competitor, Aunt Jemima, was pulled off shelves because of its racist branding, which gave Michele Foods a boost in sales. Business Insider spoke with Michele Hoskins about her rise to success, and how she was able to transform her small business into a thriving company valued at over $1 million in three decades. Since founding the company, Hoskins has gained recognition from public figures like Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé. Her products are stocked in over 8,000 retailers nationwide. Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When Michele Hoskins started Michele Foods in 1984, the young entrepreneur was a newly divorced teacher with three children and no source of investor capital to start a business. Three decades later, Hoskins has steadily grown her syrup into a business that she says is worth over $1 million, with products in more than 8,000 stores across the country, including Kroger, Safeway, and Publix. Hoskins’ syrups exploded in popularity in June, when Quaker Oats pulled Aunt Jemima syrup off shelves for its racist stereotypes. Quaker Oats’ parent company, PepsiCo, announced that a rebranded version of their product will hit shelves in the fourth quarter of this year. Following the announcement that Aunt Jemima was being pulled off of shelves, Hoskins’ syrups sold out on Amazon within an hour. Public figures like comedian Rickey Smiley endorsed Hoskins, and Beyoncé featured Michele Foods on her directory of Black-owned businesses. While Aunt Jemima’s fall was the catalyst that helped Michele Foods gain a mass following, Hoskins had been expanding her brand for decades. Here’s how she did it.She started from scratch – and with a recipe passed down through generations In the early 1980s, Hoskins decided she wanted to do something other than teach – she wanted to found a business. The 80s saw female executives and entrepreneurs emerge at an unprecedented rate. This inspired Hoskins. “I wanted to be part of that movement, but I didn’t know how,” Hoskins said. The aspiring entrepreneur also had little money to start a business. But what Hoskins did have was access to a syrup recipe that had been passed down for four generations from her ancestor, America Washington, a young woman and family cook who was emancipated from slavery in the 1800s. Hoskins got to work turning the recipe into a product that she could sell in stores. She sold her belongings to fund initial costs, moved into her mother’s attic with her three daughters to work on the product, and began taking her it to stores.
Along the way, Hoskins learned how to manage a business through trial-and error. For example, Hoskins once had to temporarily halt her business after running out of syrup bottles. “Everything I learned, I learned through the school of hard knocks,” Hoskins said. Now, she mentors other young entrepreneurs to come into business prepared with a concrete idea of the inventory they will require. She grew her business with persistence After selling her product to local stores, Hoskins decided to expand her market. She went to the corporate offices of supermarket chain Albertsons, which has since merged with Safeway, to request sales space. “It was unusual to see a young, African-American woman walk into a corporate office, trying to put products on a retail market,” Hoskins said. “It just wasn’t something that had been done.” In her pitches, Hoskins touted the quality of her product, offered samples, and came in prepared with the numbers to back up her proposal, from inventory costs to profit margins. “If you are a small company wanting to approach a major retailer, you should really make sure that you have your financial backing and the systems in place to be able to support that,” Hoskins said. But one of her biggest strategies was persistence. Before becoming the first minority supplier for Denny’s, Hoskins called the breakfast chain’s corporate offices to pitch her product every Monday for two years. “I’ve had to be very creative these past 30 years, because we never had any real capital infusion,” Hoskins said.
In time, her syrup received attention from media outlets including Black Enterprise, People Magazine, and the Oprah Winfrey show. Hoskins also authored a book on entrepreneurship and went on tour to promote it. But Hoskins’ business was always dwarfed by the two biggest syrup brands in the industry: ConAgra Foods’ Mrs. Butterworth and PepsiCo’s Aunt Jemima, which used racist stereotypes of Black women to promote their products. Both PepsiCo and ConAgra have recently announced plans to update their packaging. Meanwhile, Hoskins was discouraged from including her face on her bottle. A suburban store owner in a predominantly white area once told Hoskins to remove her product from his store because he didn’t want anything “ethnic,” Hoskins said. Even Hoskins herself had grown up with Aunt Jemima’s syrup as a child. “Your mom comes back from the grocery store with a syrup bottle that has this black face on it, and you subconsciously identify some connection,” Hoskins said. “So for African-Americans, that was the syrup of choice.” She treated competitors with respect On Monday, June 16, Hoskins woke up at 1 am to an Instagram post that her daughter created comparing Michele Foods to Aunt Jemima, and a call from her tech assistant informing her that her website had crashed. Aunt Jemima was being pulled off shelves, she learned, and nearly 500 people were trying to access her site. Since then, Hoskins has been working rapidly to meet the new sudden wave of demand, and Michele Foods has been creating new fulfillment centers for shipping. “I tell people to imagine I’m in a log cabin. I’m in the basement trying to fill one bottle at a time, and Aunt Jemima is upstairs with this huge, automated kitchen,” Hoskins said. “One day, I don’t hear any activity, and I come upstairs and the door’s open – they’re gone. They left me the house!” Hoskins said she made a point to not speak negatively about other brands. “That’s not the way I’m trying to build my brand. I’m trying to build my brand because I have the best syrup in America,” Hoskins said. “But my syrup does come from the heritage they pretended they came from.”
Times have changed since Hoskins’ syrup was rejected from the suburban store owner’s shop: Hoskins now proudly displays her face on her syrup bottles. And she’s using her decades of experiences as an entrepreneur to coach other aspiring business owners. “Each lesson I had to learn – opening the door and figuring out where the light switch was – I was able to retain,” Hoskins said, “and give to someone else.”
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