Jennifer McCullough, the white chef’s coat behind the brand Chef Jenn, began cooking up a dream in her home kitchen.
Jennifer McCullough has created a new gourmet brand, Chef Jenn.
The recipe for success would take equal parts culinary expertise and marketing savvy, and since the end of September her selection of gourmet seafood dips can be found in 116 Kroger stores throughout Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.
And she isn’t finished yet.
“I’m working on line extensions now,” she said. “I have two products ready to go and others I’m developing that are still seafood-based, entertainment-based.”
It’s a heady and exciting time for McCullough, who grew up in Memphis and attended The Hutchison School for 14 years. She left home for the University of Texas at Austin
and a bachelor’s degree in history, followed by a master’s in educational psychology from the University of Colorado at Denver.
She came of age around great cooks and was always in the kitchen as a child. It was while in Austin, though, that she says she “fell in love with the restaurant culture.”
Back in Memphis, and without a business background but with a passion for food, McCullough began preparing soups in her kitchen and selling them to friends, which evolved into a supper club of premade dinners that families could reheat and serve.
She decided to focus on those “entertainment-based” offerings for customers who were foodies, she said, with experienced palates. She found that as they put all of their efforts into the main course for a dinner party, they were going out to purchase the hors d’oeuvres, and they were looking for a more sophisticated offering than the standard Ro-Tel dip.
“They’re just unique and flavor profiles that people haven’t experienced before, and it just gives people another choice,” she said of her selections.
As demand grew, and the time and ingredients – she was chopping 50-pound bags of onions by hand – threatened to take over, she moved into a commercial kitchen with a manufacturing permit and her clientele included shops such as Palladio Antique and Art, Miss Cordelia’s, Bluff City Coffee and local farmers markets.
She was operating then under an exemption by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under the regulation and inspections of the Food and Drug Administration and Tennessee Department of Agriculture. But she had a vision and was being held back by those regulations and by not being able to wholesale or sell across state lines.
“It wasn’t really, long term, a model that made sense,” she said. “But my whole goal was to establish enough of a brand and figure out what people wanted so then I would, hopefully, be able to take it retail like I’m doing now.”
To realize such growth, her production would have to become larger, a bit more industrial, and regulated. “This kind of business, it’s about volume. In order to really make a living … it was going to be hard to do the kind of volume I needed to do, first of all, out of my kitchen and, second of all, meeting the requirements of the regulations.”
Representatives from Kroger had seen her featured segment on Channel 3’s Live at Nine, which runs the first Monday of every month, and consumers were calling Kroger’s toll-free number to ask about the product. Based on such recognition, McCullough was able to meet with Kroger and make a presentation at the grocery chain’s headquarters in Cincinnati.
“It was a little bit intimidating, but they were extremely helpful,” she said.
McCullough learned about this next step in retailing and that “the opportunity for me as a really small brand was not to compete side-by-side with another large, established brand. So that’s where I found my niche. This product line is innovative and there’s nothing that competes side-by-side with them.”
She now works with a processing plant and has the wide distribution she’s longed for through Kroger while still in independent markets through the distributor Off The Docks. The packaging is easily recognizable with Chef Jenn in bold letters, a picture of her smiling face and the tag line – Dip, Crackers, Bottle of Wine. Done. – emphasizing the quality, yet convenience, of her brand.
McCullough, a single mother to 7-year-old Mac, also sees the benefit in giving back to the community and works on fundraising, awareness raising and developing cooking and healthy living classes with The Church Health Center.
Her dream is being realized and it’s one with a strong and flavorful brand.
“It’s very exciting to me, and there’s a lot of moving parts,” she said. “It’s about food, it’s about recipes, it’s about developing products, it’s about the branding, it’s about social media, it’s about selling, it’s about relationships, and all of that’s fun for me.”