At Simply Southern Sides’ offices and warehouse in Macedonia, there is a training room with eight tables and 24 chairs. In the back, a series of common workplace posters lie on a table, just waiting to be placed on a wall.
The building also has a gleaming test kitchen with stainless steel ovens, deep-fryers, gas stoves, refrigerators and freezers. There are offices with desks and phones. There is a break room with a toaster oven, a microwave, a cook top, five refrigerators and freezers packed with food, and rack upon rack of microwave popcorn, boxes of chocolate fudge Pop Tarts, crackers and chips.
There are also, at this point, just three full-time employees in this 11,000-square-foot space: founder Claude Booker III;(pictured at left) his wife and company CEO, Crystal Booker; and a receptionist.
“We’re getting it ready,” says Booker, who was in 1,800 square feet barely a year ago. “Folks want to be led. They want to have an environment that says you were ready for them. We even got lockers waiting, and they ain’t even here yet.”
Simply Southern Sides makes more than two dozen side dishes that seem like they’re coming straight from the South. In a way, they are. Booker was born and raised in Spartanburg, S.C.
Booker, who graduated from Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I., is making dishes, such as okra and tomatoes, black-eyed peas, collard greens and sweet potato casserole, that come frozen and are boiled in a bag.
“I grew up cooking all the time,” Booker says. “My mother is a great cook, but my father is passionate about it. The men in his family always did the cooking for the holidays, so we got to stay up late and help with the cooking. That was exciting.”
So far, Simply Southern Sides can be found locally at Dave’s Markets and in about 1,000 other grocery stores, most of them in the South. He is also one of the top 100 providers of military food, sending his side dishes to troops stateside as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Booker’s efforts produced almost $4 million in sales last year. But to reach the $6 million goal he’d set for 2011, things needed to change.
Johnny L. Hutton Jr., vice president of Jumpstart Inclusion Advisors, suggested he needed an infrastructure that could handle such growth and employees that could manage the company’s needs at that level of sales.
“I knew I couldn’t bring in all these people in the middle of chaos,” he says.
So Booker self-financed the expansion, something he was able to do thanks to strong sales of his side dishes. His landlord also offered an assist by not making him pay rent on the expanded space until the build-out was finished.
“Sometimes you have a great jockey without a great horse, and sometimes you have a great horse without a great jockey,” Hutton says. “In this case, you have both.”
Hutton says Booker’s attention to detail is tremendous and that he has a great handle on the most efficient way of expanding into his market.
Booker hopes to hire a lot of these people — a sales manager, a director of operations, customer service representatives and truck drivers — by the end of June, which is when he expects new accounts to be in place.
This isn’t Booker’s first crack at entrepreneurship. His first business, a food brokerage firm in Atlanta that specialized in Cajun Creole, lasted only a couple years before Booker set his sights on Ohio — Crystal’s hometown is Cleveland — and the Wang King, the restaurant he hoped to one day develop into a franchise.
Wang is a play on the way the word “wing” sounds when Booker says it with his deep Southern drawl. The restaurant served chicken wings and about 20 Southern side dishes, the latter of which came frozen in a bag and were prepared simply by dropping the bag in boiling water. Booker designed them this way so they would be easy to prepare, thereby reducing the amount of training employees needed.
The restaurant opened and thrived for almost two years in the Randall Park Mall, but then the bird flu hit.
“Everybody was runnin’ from chicken,” Booker says. “So I said to my wife, ‘It’s just bad timing.’ So I walked away from it.”
Except the side dishes didn’t walk away from Booker.
After closing the restaurant, Booker was working for U.S. Foodservice when the company sent him to Atlanta. While down south, the Alabama-based company that manufactured Booker’s boil-in-a-bag side dishes for the Wang King encouraged him to visit.
Booker had spent a lot of time developing the right recipes for the side dishes, relying both on his culinary training and the guidance he received on those late nights helping his father in the kitchen. “They convinced me,” Booker says. “The restaurant failed, but we did a great job on the side dishes. Why not just focus on that?”
After persuading his wife it was time for startup No. 3, a deal that wasn’t sealed until Crystal actually toured the Alabama plant herself, the two set up shop in their Northfield home in 2007. Their study became their office, with two desks placed side by side. Their two-car garage became a one-car garage that also held nine freezers, point-of-sale racks, sales props and sales kits.
Their first sale got them in 35 stores, and while the first couple years were lean, they kept the expenses down as well. Simply Southern didn’t move into office space until February 2010, and that was a modest 1,800-square-foot suite. Barely a year later, they’ve added the warehouse and distribution space, a will-call office, the test kitchen and a cash-and-carry area.
It’s the latter that is perhaps the most striking of the entire complex. And it’s certainly not what one would expect when walking into a company that makes side dishes that traditionally are found in the deli area of grocery stores.
It appears, at first glance, to be a small restaurant with Asian flair: bamboo plants here and there, modern-looking furniture, a flat-screen television on the wall. On another wall, there is a table where samples will eventually be offered. A large, curved customer service desk is planted in the middle of the room.
“We wanted to have a cool, swank retail cash-and-carry concept,” Booker says. “We’re calling it Got Sides To Go.”
Booker envisions people stopping by to pick up his side dishes to take home. While they wait for their order to be placed or collected, they can try the red beans and sausage or the cream corn or the collard greens or whatever it is Booker has put out for sampling that day.
“He has some very innovative and creative ideas about what to do with his product,” Hutton says.
It’s distribution, though, that Booker sees as key to his company’s continued growth. Tired of relying on distributors to take on his product, Booker is going to start doing that himself, especially in Ohio.
In a large warehouse space next to his offices, Booker has just installed two 40-foot freezers. He’s about to purchase a handful of trucks and hire drivers. He’s already purchased a forklift, and he is really proud of that.
“We got a forklift,” he says, smiling. “It’s the little things.”
Of course, a lot of little things add up to big things, and Booker thinks he’s heading there. Within five years, he predicts Simply Southern Sides will be doing $30 million in business with 30 employees.
By then, he’ll also need a few more chairs for that training room.