By JACK WEATHERLY
Six Mississippi startup companies went to Bentonville, Ark., last week, and all came back as certified suppliers for the international retailing giant.
“The potential for these Mississippi startups is incredible,” said Tony Jeff, president and chief executive of Innovate Mississippi.
Billy’s Original Foods is indeed a startup. “We just opened our manufacturing facility about a month ago,” said Mani Chansparith, chief operating officer.
“You can imagine the high we’re getting,” she said Tuesday.
That exhilaration was already fueled by hitting the shelves of 68 Kroger stores in five states, including stores across the Jackson metro area and in north and south Mississippi, she said.
“As soon as we opened the doors (to the manufacturing facility), we were in the (Kroger) stores, she said.
Billy Lieberman and Chansparith had been working on the Kroger deal before they heard of the Wal-Mart “open call” for suppliers, Chansparith said.
Wal-Mart asked them how many stores they wanted to be in. “We decided let’s start small with a hundred stores and work our way up,” she said.
Lieberman is hardly a newcomer to the food business.
He started Billy’s Italian Restaurant in 2001 at the Outlets at Vicksburg mall. He had come to Vicksburg in 1993 from his native Silver Spring, Md., by way of the casino industry, via Las Vegas and Natchez.
He sold the successful eatery – licensing the name to the buyer – in October 2015 and chose some of his favorite dishes to sell in stores: lasagna, meatballs with sauce and cheese, and chicken salad. The restaurant has no connection with Billy’s Original Foods, she said.
“We are pursuing other nationwide retailers this year and next year,” she said.
The facility is certified as a food facility by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and soon are pursuing certification by the Global Food Safety Initiative so the products can be sold internationally, she added.
Billy’s Original Foods has 12 employees now and expects to have 25 by the end of the year, Chansparith said.
The scale of the food business has grown exponentially.
Lieberman said that in the restaurant he’d make 100 meatballs a day, and now the production facility can turn out 4,000 in a morning.
Scale is no challenge in terms of quality, Lieberman said. “There’s not a product that goes out that I don’t visually see before it goes out.”
Four of the other Mississippi businesses qualified as online suppliers on walmart.com: are Beck’s Confections of Gulfport, DeerScaping of Ackerman and the MaxBit of Clinton and United Plastic Molders of Jackson.
Aside from Billy’s the only other one thus far to qualify for the stores is R2PG, which makes mittens called Finger Slips for microwave use.
R2PG is literally a mom-and-pop business.
The idea for Finger Slips was Margaret Reid’s, who with her husband Maj. Kendrick E. Reid (USAF, ret.), had moved to Florida from Port Gibson.
“This started as a hobby, and they started selling it at crafts shows” and the demand swamped them, said Milton Chambliss, executive director of the Claiborne County Economic Development District.
“They developed a whole kitchen textile line,” Chambliss said.
The little firm is “an opportunity to establish a real industrial level,” said Chambliss, formerly of the Mississippi Development Authority.
Port Gibson, which is located on the Mississippi below Vicksburg, suffered devastating losses with the recent recession and loss of jobs to Mexico, Chambliss said.
“There is a synergy with the quilt-making tradition that’s already here,” he said. “I think that that was one of the things that was attractive to the Reids.”
The couple actually had started the business and it was growing, said Paula McLamb, media director of the Kendrick E. Reid II Revocable Trust, which owns the firm.
Mrs. Reid died about three years ago and the endeavor stopped.
“Part of the legacy that Major Reid wants to leave is bringing jobs back to Port Gibson” and back to America, McLamb said.
Being in 150 Wal-Mart stores is a good start down that road for one little company.
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