Mabel and Wale Akinlabi discovered a gap in the South African market for corn dogs after serving homemade versions at their daughter’s birthday party in 2019. Seeing the potential for a new product, they founded Browns Foods later that year. Today, the company supplies some of the country’s major retailers. In an interview with Jeanette Clark, CEO Mabel Akinlabi discussed the challenges and successes of starting and growing the business.
From homemade to supermarket shelves
The corn dog, a popular snack in the US made by deep frying a sausage in a thick layer of maize flour batter, has recently gained popularity in South Africa thanks to the efforts of two entrepreneurs.
Mabel Akinlabi and her husband Wale hosted a children’s party in 2019 where they offered homemade corn dogs from a recipe found online. According to Mabel, “it was a hit and one of the girls asked me where I had bought them. That’s when I realised: If we produce these, I would be solving a child’s and her mother’s problems, so maybe I am onto something here.” Encouraged by the positive response, Wale urged his wife to turn the idea into a business.
The Akinlabis, who also run a broadcasting business called UrbanTV, quickly got to work on their new venture, which they called Browns Foods. Mabel focused on product development and building retail relationships, while Wale handled the operational side, researching equipment and production facilities.
Mabel began calling the head offices of major retailers. Their first informal meeting through a friend’s contact was unsuccessful, but it didn’t deter them. Mabel continued calling and eventually got through to a buyer at Shoprite. She sent an email with their product idea and details, and a meeting was set up with a senior buyer. The only problem was that they didn’t yet have a product to sell.
Wale quickly designed a mock-up box, had it printed at a local copy shop and assembled it with double-sided tape. Mabel cooked up a batch of corn dogs, chose the best ones and placed them in a freezer bag in the box to take to the meeting.
The buyers were immediately interested as no other food manufacturer in the country had corn dogs in its frozen foods category. Mabel says, “In that first meeting, we were asked when we could deliver. If I had died that day, I would be happy. I felt so accomplished.”
Browns Foods asked Shoprite for a couple of months to get its house in order. During this time, the Akinlabis searched for funding sources, secured a production facility, obtained necessary food certifications, and completed the process of getting their product listed for sale
Then Covid-19 hit. The pandemic presented significant challenges for Browns Foods as it tried to establish itself, but it also provided an opportunity for the company to secure funding. “The pandemic created an economic environment where financial services providers and institutions were offering short-term payment breaks on instalments,” explains Mabel. “We were able to use this to our advantage, using a few months of not paying certain creditors to secure the funding we needed.”
The duo secured a factory space with the help of a realtor, ordered basic equipment from the US, and sought further funding from friends and family. They also assembled a team to start production as soon as all the certifications were in place.
Browns Foods delivered its first batch of corn dogs to 56 inland Shoprite stores in November 2020. Each outlet received six cases, as agreed upon with the head office. Thereafter the stores ordered as and when more stock was needed.
Navigating the complexities of the food industry
One of the challenges the company experienced in the first year was getting to grips with the correct way to do merchandising. According to Mabel, “It wasn’t even a term we were used to. Naturally, I had assumed that if a retailer buys from you, you simply had to provide the product and they would get it on the shelves and manage it. Boy, was I wrong!” Manufacturers must also consider the presentation of their products in store, including marketing materials, display designs, and discounts.
In the early days, Browns Foods struggled to find a logistics supplier, as they were still an unknown player. They eventually struck a deal with a logistics company that typically transported refrigerated, not frozen, goods, and the owner agreed to lower the temperatures in his trucks to accommodate Browns Foods’ products. Today, Browns Foods has a national partner that handles both its merchandising and logistics needs, and the company has also purchased its own truck.
Browns Foods is now also available in Pick n Pay, Checkers, Food Lover’s Market, SPAR, and selected Fresh Stop fuel station convenience stores. In addition, it has a branded kiosk at a shopping mall in Johannesburg.
Expanding manufacturing capabilities
The company recently received a grant from the South African Small Enterprise Finance Agency (SEFA) to purchase new machinery and equipment, and aims to produce all of its sausages in-house by February 2023. Previously, the company had its pre-mix and sausages manufactured by contract suppliers. The sausages would then be cleaned, dried, skewered, and the pre-mix powder mixed for the batter at its factory. The corn dogs are then deep-fried, flash-frozen, and packed.
In South Africa, controlled power cuts, known as loadshedding, have been a challenge for businesses, including Browns Foods. To address this, the company invested in a large generator to keep production going during outages, as well as smart freezers that can maintain a temperature of -36°C for up to 18 hours without power. These freezers are equipped with alarms that alert staff if the temperature rises above -18°C , at which point the generator is started to bring it back down. “I shudder when I think of the cost of diesel, and what it costs to keep the generator running, but I’ve seen the power situation cripple businesses around me and I am thankful that we can still produce,” says Mabel.
Diversifying product line
By the second quarter of 2023 Browns Foods will have seven different types of corn dogs on the market. In addition to these options, the company is also launching cocktail-sized corn dogs and plans to offer a 2cm shorter version at a lower cost and with differentiated packaging for lower income groups. In addition to expanding its product line, Browns Foods also sees potential in contract manufacturing for other companies, providing packaging services, and exploring private label opportunities with retailers.
Browns Foods CEO Mabel Akinlabi’s contact information
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