Soul food is at the center of many African-American family holiday dinners, reunions and cookouts. Many wish they could have these home-cooked meals for dinner every day. But let’s face it -- everyone can’t throw down meals reminiscent of special gatherings in the kitchen after a long day of work. That takes time many don't always have.
When Glory Foods founder Bill Williams realized there were no major companies selling greens "like your grandma used to make them" on supermarket shelves, he saw a void waiting to be filled. He envisioned a quicker way to make the southern specialties many grew up on. This aha moment led to the founding of Glory Foods in 1989 with co-founders Dan Charna and Iris Cooper.
Currently, Glory Foods is a national product line offering a variety of seasoned canned and fresh greens, southern peas and beans, yams, sweet potatoes, corn bread and corn muffin mix.
The visionary’s son Bill Williams Jr. continues his late father’s legacy as a sales director. Williams joined the company in 2001 after working with Kraft Foods and Coca-Cola.
“He really just emphasized get out and go work for other companies first. Cut your teeth with them and then when you come on board you'll be bringing a richer experience. I didn’t understand it at the time but it was hugely beneficial to me,” Williams said of his father.
While he was alive, the senior Williams worked to help the future of African-Americans in the agricultural business by raising millions to help minority students studying the field at Ohio State University. He also worked to form a Minority Produce Business Development Program and was a major advocate in supporting the African-American farming community.
Recently, Bill Williams Jr. spoke with H.I.S. about watching his father’s transition from popular restaurant owner to Glory Foods president and working in a business catering to African-Americans' taste.
H.I.S: How is Glory Foods doing today as a company?
Right now we're really just trying to build our awareness and let people know we have a full line up available, and we really got you covered when it comes to the southern food specialty.
I was reading that before the company, your father owned a restaurant, The Marble Gang. Do you have any memories of it?
I remember it vividly. I worked there probably in sixth grade all the way through to when I graduated from high school. I worked pretty much every job in there from washing dishes, serving to cooking, to waiter. It was a great experience. It really taught me that hard work is the only way to get it done. But it was fun working with my family. My uncles worked there, my aunts worked there, some of the waitresses and wait staff, and I still consider them family till this day. The restaurant was going well, but then Glory Foods started going well also, so my father couldn't spend time between the two. The restaurant business is very hands on and he had to pick one and so he picked Glory. So he sold the restaurant in 1997.
It was a great place. It had Thursday night jazz night. Most people in Columbus would visit on Thursday nights -- enjoy seeing friends, hanging out so it was great. Saturday jazz breakfast was well known. We had a fantastic menu, from catfish to pretty good steak. The ribs were good. It was just a great spot.
How did your father get into this business?
My father was a Culinary Institute of America grad. So he went to school to be a chef and then after graduation he went on to the University of Massachusetts and got his degree in hotel management. After that he managed several hotels and restaurants in Columbus. He managed old Lazarus, before it was Macy's. They had kitchens and dining facilities and he managed that. Then from there he decided to go out and start his own restaurant.
What made him go forth to create his own product, Glory Foods?
My father would have these round-table sessions with business partners -- just other people he trusted and respected their opinion. And it started around a conversation about what they wanted to do for the holiday. I think Thanksgiving was getting ready to come up. They started talking about what they were going to cook, what recipes, and from that conversation, they started talking about the supermarket and how no one was really catering to southern seasoned vegetables. Like if you go out and buy a can of Del Monte corn, I think 99 percent of people are going to put something in it. Maybe a little salt, a little pepper, a little butter; you know, I'll put a little bacon in mine. But at the time, no one had all those ingredients in the can. So you know that was his aha moment, if you will, and he said, hey I think there's an opportunity there.
So he took the idea down to a packer at McCall Farms, and then prior to them got a co-packer. And then he took the idea to Kroger and just sold them on the idea and said, I think you're missing an opportunity here to service your consumers. And Kroger loved the idea from the get-go, and he was just up and running from then on.
How was he able to take Glory to a national level?
He was lucky Kroger was right there in his backyard of Cincinnati, but even when you say Kroger, you still have to go to each supermarket and store manager and say this item will work for you and here is the reason why. So it's really just going store to store and convincing them to give you a shot. "Work with me and I'll work with you. Here's when it'll work well: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter time. But it's also a solid item on a Wednesday night when somebody just wants something good to eat." A lot of our competition has come after us but couldn't duplicate it. It's a lot of those early relationships we formed with those supermarkets that really sustained us.
Did you see your father go through any particular challenges because he was an African-American business owner?
You could always count on your hand how many African-Americans you see in any industry. And in the supermarket industry, you have to do what you say you're going to do. For Kroger to take a chance on you, for that buyer to take a chance on you and bring your item in; his job is on the line. Kroger's reputation is on the line. That was his biggest thing, just making sure that everybody understood. From making sure the farmer produced what we needed, making sure the co-packer produced what we needed, to the trucker. You just constantly have to work with everybody to make sure everybody's on the same page. And not just as an African-American; he was a successful businessman. It was a brand new industry for him, so it was a lot. The big boys like Kraft foods, they get to walk in and say, Hey, I got a new item and put it on the shelf but he didn't have that. He just had his ability to sell.
(Photo: Glory Foods)
Health is a huge issue for the African-American community? How does the company keep that in mind?
The company has a line called Sensibly Seasoned. It has half the sodium. It's meatless. So we absolutely are aware of health and the fact more and more people are aware. But the biggest thing is getting people back into the habit of eating green vegetables. The big boys are on the job of marketing quick fast food. If you can just get back to just sitting down at the table and getting your portions right and eating your vegetables -- we're absolutely committed to health.
Do you have a favorite product?
I love our butter beans. They are fantastic. It's a quick snack for me. We've also got green beans with potatoes. They're so good I can eat them cold, straight out of the can. They're just fantastic.
I'm curious about how close the actual products are to what your dad made in the restaurant?
The problem is the difference is cooking in a restaurant and making it so that it's available in a can; you have to tweak it a bit. But the recipes are authentic to how it should be prepared southern style. We constantly get emails about, "this is how my grandmother used to make it." The fact that they trust our brand Glory really speaks volumes.
How important are businesses catering to Black people or that are Black-owned?
Absolutely. We need more. We definitely need more. The African-American dollar is very strong. And the African-American shopper is a loyal shopper. Our shoppers have been very loyal to us. African-American shoppers are out there. They're vocal. They're very passionate. They support brands they really love. There are not enough African-American businesses out there, and there aren't enough businesses out there catering to African-Americans.
What would be your advice to a young person who is thinking of getting into the food industry?
I mean just working in a supermarket. Supermarkets are an amazing place. If you want to sell coffee, start working with someone who sells coffee. Anything you can do to get some intel on the industry is huge and as early as you can. If you're working at McDonald's, that's still an amazing opportunity to go and see how they do it. Because down the road there are McDonald's franchises that are available to you. So whatever you're interested in, before you invest your time and money and your effort, it's great to get that background.
(Photo: Courtesy of Bill Williams Jr.)