Indianola — Move over Tupperware. After all, just how many plastic containers do you need? Another company that focuses on holding sales parties, primarily for women, is Taste of Gourmet. The difference is, Taste of Gourmet’s products are consumable. So there is potential for a greater long-term demand for the company’s offerings.
Taste of Gourmet provides a classy alternative to fast food restaurants with packaged meals that are easy to prepare.
“We’re easy,” said the company’s founder Evelyn Roughton. “For example, with our popular Southwest Soup Mix, all you have to add is chicken bouillon and a can of tomatoes, and you have a full meal for your family. You can add meat if you want to, but it makes the best vegetable soup you have ever tasted. For our Bayou Beer Bread, all you have to add is a can of beer or Sprite. Once someone tries my Southwest Soup or Bayou Beer Bread, they understand how easy it is to fix supper for their family without spending a lot of money or going to the fast food restaurant. It is a good, healthy alternative to fast food.”
In November the company hit a milestone by signing on its 1,000th gourmet consultant. Consultants hold food-tasting parties to let customers sample the offerings before they buy.
“When you go to a grocery store, you look at a product and say, ‘I wonder what it tastes like?’” Roughton said. “Our advantage is that the customer can taste it and then decide whether or not to buy. The customer who is going to ultimately use the products has the full attention of a sales consultant. They can answer questions, tell customers different ways to use it and recipes that go with it. We’re putting fresh, wonderful food in their mouths. To reorder, all the customer has to do is call the gourmet consultant. Really, they can become a personal shopper for their groceries. We have lots of repeat customers who are doing just that.”
Business has been increasing at a brisk pace. Roughton said recent months have been the busiest since they have been in business.
“We are loving every noisy minute of it,” she said. “Our things are so easy to make that we call them ‘speed scratch.’ It is good old-fashioned home cooking without a lot of added ingredients. We have left the chemicals out.”
The company started out as the Antique Mall in 1972. In 1976, it opened a gourmet tea room, the Crown, in the Antique Mall to lure customers to the shop. That proved so popular that in 2000 it launched the Taste of Gourmet direct selling company. In 1997, the company moved from the country into an historic shop building downtown to have room to expand the food processing business. The shop/restaurant is now called Crown in the Town.
“The Crown is still very much a part of the business,” Roughton said. “It is where we do trial and error to create new products for Taste of Gourmet. Everything we have has grown out of the restaurant in one way or another. Now we have 60 different things we create and sell through Taste of Gourmet. Southern Living magazine is coming in January to feature some of our recipes in the restaurant.”
Its first product — and still one of the most popular — is a smoked catfish pate. After that, they added dry pie mixes of the types offered on the desert table in the restaurant. That expanded to soups, dips, breads, jams, sauces and other products.
“One of the appeals is the quality of the products we offer,” Roughton said. “We also have extremely good customer service.”
Many of the consultants for Taste of Gourmet are stay-at-homes moms who want to be stay-at-home moms. But, they also like a way to make some income that is compatible with having a primary focus on family.
“They love the fact that we have children in our office here, and we understand how important family is,” Roughton said. “A huge part of how we have grown is that people love the products that can make their lives easier, and the fact that they can sell them while staying at home with children. They can make food to take to a tasting to make money and feed their family at the same time. The family part of Taste of Gourmet has been terribly important.”
While there are some couples and men involved, the workforce is primarily women. Young women in their 20s, 30s and 40s are common. And the company also has some very successful women who have retired, and do Taste of Gourmet as a way to keep socially active while making a little extra cash.
One of its consultants, April Savell of Brandon, grew up in Indianola and frequently ate at the Crown restaurant.
“I knew I wanted to stay home after starting a family,” Savell said. “When I moved to Jackson, and Ms. Evelyn started Taste of Gourmet, I thought, ‘I can have fudge pie in my house anytime I want? Sign me up!’ At first it paid for diapers and formula, and now it is paying for tuition. I have two boys, four and two years old. My four-year-old is attending Pine Lake Christian Academy.”
She said Taste of Gourmet is a great opportunity to be in control of her time, while still being at home with her family. When she has a taste testing in the evening, she leaves the boys with their dad while she gets out and has some adult conversation.
Savell said food is a staple for every family, and Taste of Gourmet is a great choice for gifts — especially when you are stuck and don’t know what to give someone who has everything.
“When I do home shows, I like to tell people, ‘You’re spending your grocery money,’” Savell said. “These are things you can use to feed your family, or take to Sunday School parties and school functions. The food sells itself. The whole concept of taste before you buy works. They taste it, and then you have a customer for life.”
A favorite with Savell and her customers is a sweet potato muffin mix. Other especially popular offerings are corn chowder and cheesecake ball mixes.
“Peach pecan pepper preserves is great to pour over cream cheese and serve with crackers, or you can rub it on pork tenderloin and put it on the grill,” she said. “Our products are very versatile. You can take one product and do 20 things with it.”
Roughton said their customers like to be able to touch, feel and taste the product. Customers also get to discuss trying new things with their consultant.
“Relationship building is a tremendous part of Taste of Gourmet,” Roughton said. “Consultants are building relationships among themselves, and customers love what you are offering them. This shopping at home instead of walking yourself to death is a retro way of doing things. To shop this way is tremendously enjoyable.”
Roughton said they are a little different from some of the other similar companies in that they direct ship to individual customers. “If you are here in Jackson at a tasting visiting from Omaha, we can send your order directly to Omaha,” she said. “That has been great help for Christmas orders. We also have a number of our consultants who are going into assisted living homes where people have little kitchenettes. Our consultants consider this a community service. The ladies don’t buy a lot, but they enjoy the tasting so much.”
The signature offering, the 16-ounce catfish pate, is $16.95. While some people may think that is expensive, Roughton said they sell hundreds of pounds of it.
“You would pay more for it in a store-if you could find it,” she said. “It contains very high quality ingredients. It isn’t like any spread you would buy at the store. It is made with smoked catfish mixed with cream cheese, wine and butter. It is an expensive product to make because of the smoking. But people think it is worth it. If you had a party for 25 people, one would be enough for them.”
As for pies that run around $6 to $7, Roughton said you can buy cheaper at Sam’s. But it won’t be coming fresh out of your oven. Soups run $7 and make six to eight servings.
“We think our products are really a good value for the money,” she said.
The idea for Taste of Gourmet came in 1996 and developed slowly until 2001, when the business got a lift with the hiring a direct sales consultant.
“We really launched it in 2000, with a superlaunch in 2001,” Roughton said. “But there was a lot of trial and error with the product mix since 1996.”
Roughton is the gourmet cook in the mix. Her daughter, Jennifer Schaumburg, is the business wiz. She takes care of the financial end of the business.
Taste of Gourmet is providing jobs in one of the most economically depressed areas of the country, the Mississippi Delta. In the next five years, Roughton sees the business growing to more than 5,000 consultants — which would increase the employment at the manufacturing plant in Indianola.
“We’re growing so quickly now,” she said. “New consultants are coming in almost daily now. This is going to be big business. We look for tremendous growth.
“Once you eat my Mississippi Delta Fudge Pie, you really have to have it on your shelf. We give people alternatives. You don’t open the can and get the same food out every time. It is for people who love to cook or hate to cook. If you love to cook, Black Bean Chili can turn into enchiladas with cheese sauce. If you hate to cook, you can just have Black Bean Chili.”
Roughton said they are looking forward to the time when they can expand out of their one building and hire more people. That is the dream of her, her husband, Tony, and her daughter.
“We provide good jobs by manufacturing excellent products,” she said. “We employ people who are right here, and need jobs. I just don’t think anything could be better than that, not for us.”
Ocean Springs-based freelance journalist Becky Gillette writers regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.