‘Chef Jenn’ McCullough serves up her story of small-business success
By Don Wade – Memphis Daily News (http://www.memphisdailynews.com/news/2015/sep/5/food-for-thought/) Images: Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig
If you’re shopping at Kroger or Wal-Mart, you might see Chef Jenn. She won’t be hard to miss in her white chef’s jacket, and a blue scarf around her neck, smiling out at you from inside the freezer case on a package of her buffalo-style shrimp dip or on a shelf housing a box of her new cheese grits or “hushpuppies with a bark.”
But Jennifer McCullough, aka Chef Jenn, also might see you. And speak to you. And even ask you questions, because when you’re in business for yourself, the world is divided into two groups: customers and potential customers.
Just because she’s gone from being a single mom selling her friends chili and casseroles to being her own veritable brand, doesn’t mean she is satisfied.
On a recent afternoon at her Downtown Memphis condo overlooking the Mississippi River, McCullough is going deep into the challenges of being a small-business owner. Here’s one you probably hadn’t given much thought: the Sriracha crisis.
“You know when that Sriracha B.S. was going on, when the people in the town with the Sriracha plant shut down the plant because of the fumes? I use Sriracha (a spicy sauce made with red chili and garlic), and we couldn’t find Sriracha,” McCullough said, her voice rising, again feeling the panic.
“What do we do? We couldn’t find Sriracha! You can’t go change (the ingredients on the box),” she said, holding one up. “You’ve got this and thousands of dollars’ worth of packaging. So we looked all over (as in worldwide) and bought up all we could. That was a big issue and everyone got kinda scared.”
For Chef Jenn and her competitors in the industry, this wasn’t just a quirky news story about some smelly Sriracha factory in Irwindale, Calif. It was a pressure point.
And small-business owners know pressure points about as well as anyone. As McCullough sat on a couch in her condo, a mix of clouds and blue sky beyond her terrace, she turned a jar of her new cocktail sauce in her hand and showed a visitor why the label was a problem.
“It looks old,” she said, pointing to spots where the color appeared faded. “If you’re not a perfectionist and looking out for this kind of thing, no one else is because the label maker doesn’t want to go through the process again. So now the next step is to go in stores and make sure there’s nothing like this out there.”
So, yeah, when you’re at the grocery store you might run into Chef Jenn, Label Inspector.
Or Chef Jenn, Sriracha Crisis Survivor.
Or Chef Jenn, Grocery Cart Snoop.
A brand is born
McCullough, 38, is a Memphis native who graduated from The Hutchison School. At one time, she was trying to sell products under the brand name “Uptown Grocer.” She took the concept to longtime family friend and marketing consultant John Malmo, who came up with the Chef Jenn identity.
“It really was a no-brainer,” Malmo said. “When you have somebody like Jennifer that can get out and be the brand, you should take advantage of it – everything from packaging design to opportunities through various media.”
So McCullough is just “being the brand” when she walks up to perfect strangers in the grocery store and asks about the frozen food items in their carts. Malmo calls it her “qualitative research.”
Chef Jenn is almost attorney-esque in her approach: Why did you choose this item? Are you going to cook all of this tonight? Will you freeze some?
“You learn so much,” she said. “People will tell you. I still do that a lot.”
It is all part of “wearing many hats,” McCullough explains, but she perhaps spends the least amount of time in her chef’s hat. This is not what you might expect from her resume. After graduating the University of Texas with a degree in history (she ditched photojournalism early on), she later completed the Culinary School of the Rockies and earned a master’s in education psychology at the University of Colorado Denver.
She tried working in a French restaurant in Denver because, well, that seemed like the thing to do when you’ve always had an interest in food and restaurant concepts. Her father, Jim McCullough – who runs the family business, General Truck Sales and Service – recalls that Jennifer’s mother made her baby food out of fresh fruit and vegetables and that as a child her “food awareness was very high.”
So much so that at age 10 or 11 she was riding in the car when struck by a franchise concept.
“For a wrap shop,” she said. “I thought it should go over at Massey and Poplar. I think I was always aware of brands and concepts and paid attention to labels.”
She lasted just three months in that French restaurant – “I was miserable” – and when Jennifer and her ex-husband moved to the Virgin Islands, she put her master’s degree to use by starting her own tutoring business.
When she returned to Memphis, she was divorced and raising her son Mac, now 9, on her own. Soon enough she was cooking for busy mom friends and selling them things they could have for dinner that night or freeze for later. She struck a deal to have a freezer case in an antiques shop and dubbed her meals the “Silver Spoon Supper Club.”
She got a catering license and business grew. She sold seafood dips at farmers markets. She also adopted the “Uptown Grocer” as her label. Her big break came when she did what amounted to an audition for Kroger merchandisers. By 2013, she was in their stores and lining up a co-packer in Florida to make seafood products based on her recipes. Then she wowed Wal-Mart in a similar audition-type setting.
Now salmon crab cakes are among her offerings and she essentially is a salmon swimming upstream as a one-woman business competing against conglomerates. It’s so competitive – cutthroat even – that she can’t identify the name of her outsourcing partners. A salesman for one of them, “Scott,” only agreed to speak on the condition his last name not be used.
“Anytime you’re trying to launch an unknown brand name nationally (and Chef Jenn is trying to leap from regional to national), it’s a challenge,” Scott said. “You don’t have the finances behind it like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. I’ve been doing this 25 years, and it’s harder than ever to roll out a brand name.”
If McCullough is going to be a perfectionist about her labels – and she is – then she surely isn’t going to be careless enough to help a competitor beat her on production and price.
“Here’s how it works,” she said. “A competitor of mine reads an article and they’ve really wanted to make crab cakes or mahi-mahi burgers or dips, but they don’t have the equipment. And then it’s, ‘Oh, that’s where she goes; we want more business.’ Well, you can’t really sell the same exact recipe, but all of a sudden they have something that looks a lot like my buffalo shrimp dip.
“The business piece is fun for me. It’s a game.”
Said her father, Jim McCullough: “She always had a real competitive streak in her.”
But like a great recipe, what makes Jennifer McCullough succeed at the business – and Chef Jenn as a concept and brand – is the way everything comes together.
“Uptown Grocer actually was a good-sounding brand,” Scott said. “But Chef Jenn, to have her face on the box … everywhere you go with her, people are just drawn to her. She’s a star. She really has that kind of personality about her.”
The right ingredients
McCullough has an “it” factor, a combination of just enough glitz – but not too much – and an earthiness that comes through when she talks about loving to fish with her son and asking if one day she’ll expand the product line to durables at Bass Pro Shops.
“Is Chef Jenn going to have her own waders for women?” she wonders aloud.
Whether she does or not will be a calculated business decision. At her condo, which is her office and includes a small kitchen, she trots out several slick, gourmet-style white sacks intended to be used to sell her new line of breading.
“How pretty is that?” she said.
Pretty, yes, but she discovered the bags had to be hand-filled. It was too expensive, and she wasn’t willing to pass the cost on to the customer.
So she went with the boxes – not as pretty, but less costly and they take up less space per carton on a shelf: “That’s real estate, precious real estate.”
Malmo says McCullough is a breed apart because, as in this case, she can let go.
“She’s close to unique in my experience working with entrepreneurs,” he said. “She’s very accepting of ideas not her own.”
Yet she is at her best when it is time to convince someone else that a product – in this instance, her product – is something they can’t live without. It’s a trait that was always there at some level, and her dad says of those inevitable parent-child negotiations, “Looking back, maybe she was so good I didn’t realize she was selling me.”
Now, as her business grows beyond the Southeast, McCullough vows that she is just getting started.
“I love to sell,” she said. “I go on the road, meet all sorts of people, tell the story, make up the products, do food shows.”
And if there is a little misfortune now and then, well, that’s just part of doing business. The other day she lost a lot of product when it was stolen off a delivery truck.
“I know there’s insurance, but that stinks.”
Insurance like no other, when you think about it.
Says Chef Jenn: “The one thing no one can steal from me is my face.”
The Daily News Small Business Seminar
Thursday, September 10, 3-5PM
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
1934 Poplar Ave.
Jennifer McCullough, better known as Chef Jenn, shares her remarkable story of building a brand now sold in America’s two biggest food retailers in only two years, as well as her tips for small-business success.
James R. Mulroy II, managing shareholder of Jackson Lewis PC’s Memphis office
Will Chase, president, CEO and founding board member of Triumph Bank
Bob Moore, CEO and key executive peer group chair at Vistage
MORE INFO: http://bit.ly/MEMbiz15