Aiken Area SBDC client Belinda Smith-Sullivan, or Chef Belinda as the cooking world has come to know her, has gone from food writing and being a personal chef to building a spicy empire, Chef Belinda Spices.
After starting her company, Chef Belinda realized she needed a little guidance on the business development end. She found the Aiken Area SBDC and met Laura DiSano, who became her private consultant. Chef Belinda had three food-oriented businesses going at once, but she wasn’t sure where to focus her energies. To determine which of her businesses held the most potential, DiSano gave her an assignment to write about the money, time, energy and financial benefit involved in food writing, being a personal chef, and creating and selling her spices.
“Laura was a godsend,” Chef Belinda said. “She helped me focus on what was going to get me the farthest. I know I can always call Laura and if she can’t help me she will find somebody who can. The entire SBDC family has been great. They give great encouragement.”
Often the SBDC uses a team approach to counseling and Chef Belinda’s project offered the opportunity to bring in consultants with different areas of expertise. While Laura DiSano helped with business focus, Tom Lauria of the Charleston Area SBDC looked into exporting into Canada and Nancy Williamson worked with her on her website and social media.
“I had three phases of a business and wasn’t sure where to focus. But after I completed the assignment, product development and the sale of my spice blends was the clear winner,” Chef Belinda said. Happy to focus on inventing spice blends, she started with four savory blends, Everyday Blend, Mediterranean Steak Spice, Grains of Paradise and Grilling Rub. She later added four more herb/spice blends to her product line including Herb Sea Salt, Blackened Spice Blend, Seafood Spice Blend and Greek Spice Blend. Her newest addition to her product line is what she calls warming spices, which include three varieties of coffee spice blends with international flavors like Turkish and Moroccan.
With an initial personal investment, Chef Belinda Spices went through packaging and on to the marketing phase. In the beginning, online sales were steady but not enough to sustain her business, so she reached out to the SC specialty Foods Association. At her first meeting, she met a representative from Whole Foods who encouraged her to send her product in for consideration. Chef Belinda Spices was a hit and soon she had expanded into 23 stores in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Chef Belinda Spices were also welcomed in the three Southern Seasons Markets in the Southeast.
Delighted to find her products on the shelves of specialty groceries, she realized that she also needed to grow her online sales. She learned that she could connect with Open Sky, an online store that maximizes the connection between small businesses and potential customers. Chef Belinda has seen a significant increase in her online sales after connecting with Open Sky.
As business picked up, Chef Belinda was able to hire a full-time business development manager, as well as a part-time spice lab assistant. She is also a full-time employee, and as such she often is in stores doing demonstrations.
“My favorite thing is doing in-store demos. I love talking to customers about my products,” she said. “Especially the coffee spices. They are wonderful to demo. Great in coffee, but you can also bake with them.”
Chef Belinda, who has served as the Regional Advisory Board Chair of the SBDC located at USC Aiken, said that people often come up to her while she is demonstrating her products and confess that they too would like to start their own small business. That is when she shares her own story of developing her small business including her experience working with the SC Small Business Development Centers.
“I am always telling people about the SBDC,” she said. “When I’m out demoing, people come up to me and say how they want to start their own business. I always say, ‘Honey, go to the SBDC. If they can’t get you up and going nobody can.'”