By Donna Cornelius
You’ve got a great salad dressing/pickle/strawberry jam recipe. It’s so good, in fact, that your friends are always saying you need to sell the stuff.
There’s just one problem: You’ve got no clue how to get your delicious food from the stove to the store shelves.
Enter Bamawise, a Birmingham company that specializes in helping small food vendors make the leap to the retail market.
“Somebody will come to us and say they’ve got this great barbecue sauce or cookies – but they (don’t) know anything about, for example, UPCs or expiration dates,” said Jeff Gentry, who heads up Bamawise with partner Bobby LeMoine. “That’s when we put things together for them and get them retail-ready.”
Gentry, a Vestavia Hills High School graduate, worked for about six years with Atlanta-based Gourmet Foods International, a leading specialty food supplier.
“I worked with specialty cheeses, meats and other high-end products,” he said. “When I was with GFI, I had vendors from our state wanting us to sell their products throughout the country. About three and a half years ago, I started putting together Alabama products to sell retail. I started with Piggly Wiggly and Western; they’re the No. 1 retailers for small, local producers and have been our biggest supporters.”
LeMoine, who’s from Jacksonville, Fla., came to Birmingham to attend Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law.
“Jeff and I have been friends since 2005,” LeMoine said. “We’ve coached our daughters in T-ball together. I’d been in the large law firm life.”
A conversation between the two dads on the ball field led to their partnership, which started out as an attorney-client relationship. Now, Gentry and LeMoine have a thriving business representing Alabama food vendors such as Belle Chevre goat cheese, Mook Mills Cheese Straws, Holmsted Fines Chutney, Kettle Brothers Popcorn, Eastaboga Honey, Cookies by Donna, Salsa Señorita, and Super Turnip Green pepper sauce and Sriracha sauce.
“We have dry groceries, produce, seafood, coffee, beef and pork,” LeMoine said.
In addition to Piggy Wiggly and Western Supermarkets, Bamawise also works with Publix, Winn-Dixie, food services companies and restaurants. The company takes its vendors’ products to shows such as Junior League of Birmingham’s recent Market Noel. Bamawise also has its own retail store at Regions-Harbert Center Plaza in downtown Birmingham.
“Winn-Dixie and Publix reached out to us to do their local programs,” Gentry said. “All these larger retailers are seeing that customers like to buy local products. People want to know where their food comes from.”
While Bamawise has been focused on vendors from its home state, the company is expanding its boundaries.
“We started doing just Alabama, but we now have other vendors from throughout the Southeast,” Gentry said. “We handle Goo Goo Clusters, which are made in Nashville, and Stumptown Coffee from Oregon. And some local retailers have talked with us about handling local products for their out-of-state stores.”
Bamawise doesn’t just give local vendors a helping hand. It also helps support two Birmingham charitable organizations.
The company has a dry warehouse in west Homewood and leases a cold storage space from the Christian Service Mission in Avondale.
“It’s a ministry that works throughout Birmingham,” Gentry said. “They bought the old Wood-Fruitticher facility. We’re grateful to them for letting us lease space. We’d rather pay money to them to warehouse our products than to someone else.”
Bamawise has gift trays for the holidays available through its retail store and its website. The gift trays are assembled by Workshops Inc., a Birmingham nonprofit organization that employs people with disabilities.
“The boxes are made in Clanton from trees from Maplesville,” LeMoine said.
The partners said they want to handle the business end of food production and distribution so their vendors can concentrate on cooking. Jennifer Lee, owner of Jennifer’s Kitchen, said she signed on with Bamawise to do just that.
Lee, whose company makes pepper jelly, said starting her own business was “gradual.” The idea that she might sell her jellies commercially started in 1998, when she gave her father a jar of his grandmother’s cranberry conserve.
“When I decided to go commercial, it was a big leap,” said Lee, who lives in Homewood. “I was selling nationally and at the Atlanta and Dallas gift marts. I was super busy and constantly traveling.”
Then serious health issues caused her to slow down, she said.
“I stopped and rebooted,” she said. “I have three children who are 18, 16 and 10. I wanted to focus on them while they’re all still at home, so I decided to go a different route.”
That’s when she signed on with Bamawise.
“I decided to let them deal with the craziness,” she said. “For now, it’s nice to sit back and let them handle things.”
While their booming business means a lot of work, Gentry and LeMoine aren’t complaining.
“Any time it gets crazy and hectic, I think, this is why we exist,” LeMoine said. “We’re bridging the gap between mom-and-pop vendors and large retailers.”
For a complete list of Bamawise vendors and outlets, visit bamawise.com.