How to Turn a Family Recipe Into Big Business

Learn how these two food startups turned unique family recipes into thriving companies.
July 08, 2013

What was your favorite dish growing up? Chances are, you and your family have a favorite recipe that's been passed down over the years. There's also a good chance that more times than not someone has taken a bite and uttered, "This is so good, we should sell this." That's exactly what Samantha Swan and Sassy Henry did: turned family recipes into a successful business.

With Relish

Samantha Swan didn't know anything about running a business when she decided to start selling spicy pepper relishes. Armed with a degree in art history and her great-grandmother's recipe, she forged ahead anyway and created Cottage Lane Kitchen.

"The recipe goes back for generations ... it was my great-grandmother's," Swan says. "It's something we always had on the table but when my husband really liked it, and he was outside the family, we thought we needed to investigate this."

Swan is the fourth generation to prepare spicy pepper relish in the family kitchen on Cottage Lane in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 2010, she worked with her father to perfect the "bit of this and bit of that" recipe, then threw herself into researching food businesses by poring over books and websites.

"I'm lucky enough to be in North Carolina where we have a fantastic Department of Agriculture," Swan says. "North Carolina State University also has a food entrepreneurial website, which helped me tremendously. It was my first port of call and they advised me on how to test it and how to can it."

The Department of Agriculture also guided her on getting the testing required for nutritional labeling facts.

Swan brought her relishes to market as quickly as possible and began selling jars through farmers markets. A year and a half later, she has also moved into retail locations and is revisiting her business strategies.

"We did it really fast, it started to do well and now we are backtracking," Swan says. "We're doing a new logo and I'm having to do some of the startup things." She recently completed a course on business plans and created her first one. "It's extremely helpful and it's going to help you no matter when you do it," she says.

What's the secret to her success? "The main thing for me is believing in your product," Swan says. "The magic about it is just having a good recipe—a simple and trusted recipe."

The Big Cheese

Sassy Henry knew her way around classic Southern food. In the 1990s, she perfected her version of pimento cheese, a spread made of sharp cheddar, mayonnaise and pimentos used on everything from crackers to hot dogs.

Henry served her pimento cheese at Atlanta Braves tailgate parties, and when her family purchased the Sea View Inn in Pawley's Island, South Carolina, the cheese spread was added to the weekly appetizer menu. From there it grew to a product named Palmetto Cheese, with inn guests taking containers home. Southern grocery stores started stocking it on their shelves and now Henry has a contract with Walmart.

"We attribute Palmetto Cheese's success to it being a food evoking thoughts of a mother's or grandmother's recipe," Henry says.

She sells millions of containers a year without large-scale advertising. "Palmetto Cheese's growth has been by word-of-mouth, using social media and product demos in stores," Henry says. "As a small business, we rely on nontraditional and less expensive means of marketing to get our brand in front of customers. We try to connect with the people who buy our products to provide new serving ideas. When people are passionate about a product, they help spread the word to friends and family."

Read more articles on how to grow a business.

Carla Turchetti is a veteran print and broadcast journalist with a passion for money matters and the stories behind the world of small business and personal finance.

Photos: Thinkstock