What becomes of a curious, nine-year-old girl who watches the Food Network, studies cookbooks and pays attention when her grandmother or stepdad prepare meals? She grows up to be the founder and CEO of Southern Culture Foods, a lifestyle food product company. Erica Barrett learned early on that failure was simply part of the learning process.
“Of course, I had quite a few horrible meals before I made a really good one. But I just kept going,” says the Atlanta culinary entrepreneur. Barrett still remembers the scrambled eggs with garlic salt she made years ago and how awful they were. She did not give up then or a few decades later when she started her first food product company in 2012 and ran into obstacles, rejections and learning curves. God, faith and courage kept her in the game. “That’s really been the winning combination for me, just not being afraid to fail because that’s how you learn,” Barrett says.
Trading Business Career for Trade Shows
As a graduate of Clark Atlanta University with a degree in business finance, Barrett already had a thriving career as a Target manager and payroll consultant. Although she made extra money selling meals she prepared in high school and college, her dream of entering the culinary profession remained on the back burner until 2010. That year Erica won a $10,000 grand prize in a video recipe contest sponsored by the Food Network and Lea and Perrins. Barrett won by applying what she had learned over the years about the art of cooking. “The art is the creativity. It’s re-inventing classic dishes, doing your own thing and giving people a new perspective on food.”
All those hours watching Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” on the Food Network taught Barrett a lot about the science of cooking. Her hairstylist mother gave Barrett essential lessons in the hard work and dedication required to own a business. That knowledge inspired the culinary entrepreneur to get in the kitchen and create a pancake and waffle mix that is now available on store shelves. “I kind of created my own niche. I carved it out by just being different and doing every single thing different that I didn’t like with national brands,” Barrett says.
Next came figuring out how to market the all-natural ingredients, non-GMO pancake and waffle mix she formulated in her kitchen. With money borrowed from her 401(k) fund and help from her husband, Barrett attended her first trade show and made $80,000 selling her pancake and waffle mixes. “Within the first year, I went to nine trade shows, domestically and internationally. I found out what worked for me and how to make money. That’s how I kept Southern Culture going and kept the company growing,” says Southern Culture’s creator.
Shark Tank Launch Pad
Barrett also figured out that she needed to find mentors and consultants who could help her learn what she did not already know about the food industry and selling food products. Another important lesson came out of Southern Culture’s 2014 appearance on Season 5 of ABC’s “Shark Tank.” “Shark Tank really taught me the importance of marketing, the power of television and the need to know your business and your numbers.”
The CEO of Southern Culture left Shark Tank with a deal offer from Barbara Corcoran and the inspiration to become a better entrepreneur. Her deal with Corcoran did not close, which is the case for about half of the ventures accepted by one of the show’s wealthy investors, according to an article from TheCheatSheat.com.
Yet Barrett’s appearance on the show is still paying dividends in the recognition and publicity that took her brand from $150,000 to $500,000 in yearly sales. “That show still airs every month, and Southern Culture still makes money from that show airing. It’s amazing. It’s like the gift that never stops giving,” Barrett says.
Her company is now making seven figures in yearly sales. The pancake and waffle mixes represent 90 percent of Southern Culture’s sales. New accounts continued to come in after they were on Oprah’s Favorite Things list in 2016 and Barrett’s appearances on “Good Morning America” and other television shows. About 4,000 retailers in the U.S., United Kingdom and Middle East now carry the company’s products. “We sell anywhere from Whole Foods to Kroger and Williams & Sonoma. We just picked up Waffle Shop and Lucky’s Market on the West Coast.”
Some of her brand’s popular products include Banana Pudding, Meyer Lemon Blueberry, Vanilla and Bourbon Salted Pecan Pancake and Waffle Mixes. Southern Culture also sells Sweet Alabama Cornbread Mix, Original and Garlic & Herb Stone Ground Grits, as well as Original and Bourbon Praline Bacon Rubs.
Barrett and her company plan to carve out a piece of the national market when ongoing talks with Target and Walmart are finalized. That is more of a challenge for small food producers with less than $10 to $15 million in annual sales. “When you’re small, you can’t really compete with national brands on price. You can only give great value and great quality.”
Growing Lean and More Productive
Southern Culture took steps two years ago to become a leaner, more productive company. Barrett moved away from manufacturing, packaging and selling all her food products. “I was able to close down my main manufacturing facility and then outsource everything. We have sales brokers that are independent contractors,” says Barrett.
The company went from 20 employees to four, giving Barrett more time to concentrate on marketing, advertising and pursuing new ventures. She did acquire another valuable lesson about running a business: hiring friends and family is not always productive. “That was the biggest mistake I made. I started a business and tried to help people versus finding employees who could actually grow my brand,” the CEO says.
Succeeding as a Culinary Entrepreneur
Creating and expanding culinary businesses has always been Barrett’s goal. She was not dreaming of cooking in a restaurant with the degree in culinary entrepreneurship she earned in 2017 from the International Culinary Center in New York. “It was an awesome program. I met a lot of friends who now own restaurants all around the world.”
Some of her classmates are providing sound advice on fulfilling a dream that Barrett has kept under wraps until now. She plans to open a restaurant in about six months in her hometown of Mobile, Ala. “I’ve been keeping it hush hush because it’s a project that’s near and dear to my heart,” says Barrett. “I’m really using my education from the International Culinary Center to open my first successful restaurant.”
The culinary entrepreneur is confident that the restaurant will be successful because she knows how to put a top-notch management team in place. Barrett will continue running Southern Culture and Erica Barrett Catering from Atlanta. She is not afraid. “Honestly, what has made me the happiest are the lessons that I’ve learned. I feel like experience is the best teacher. Failure builds character. I’m not afraid to fail. I’m very resilient,” Barrett says.
Being resilient, resourceful and ready to learn are the characteristics Barrett believes make her successful. As she embarks on the next realm of her career, the culinary entrepreneur has no regrets because she now has the freedom to think and do what she wants, write her own rules and make money from her creative ventures. “Being a boss, it comes at a cost. You have to be really, really driven but I wouldn’t trade it for the world because now I really get to enjoy this thing that we call life. I’m doing what I love to do, and it doesn’t feel like work.”
You can buy Southern Culture’s pancake and waffle mixes, fried chicken mix, grits and bacon rubs at some retail stores and independent shops or on the company’s website. Some of Barrett’s recipes, including the Fried Green Tomato Po Boy, are available on her website as well.