MACEDONIA, Ohio — The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the restaurant industry and made people steer clear from buffets and catered events.
Chef Claude Booker, the owner of Simply Southern Sides and Booker’s Soul Food Starters in Macedonia, made the switch to pre-packaged goods to keep his company afloat, delivering flavor safely to people all over the country.
“My father, when I was a little boy, would let me get on a step stool because I was fascinated about cooking,” Booker, who was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina, said. “I actually turned down a football scholarship to go to culinary school. And so, it's just my passion.”
Back in 2007, Booker and his wife Crystal started Simply Southern Sides in Macedonia and began shipping southern comfort to buffet-style restaurants and events all over the country.
“Being an African American, I wanted to open a business that I felt could speak for us,” Booker said. “We created a product for us, by us, but we wanted to be enjoyed by everyone. And that is what inspired me to take the risk and to have support from so many folks that say, I think you got something, let's do it. And we haven't looked back.”
Simply Southern Sides proved to be a huge success, even being chosen as one of the official caterers for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016.
“10,000 people a day we fed at the RNC for seven days,” Booker said.
But then came the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“I don't know how to classify it as a percentage, but it was bad,” Booker said of the company’s financial losses.
“No one wanted to eat at buffets anymore, because of the pandemic,” Booker said. “So, I started working on a way to deliver my soul food sides at your home.”
So Booker started working on transforming his family recipes into premade seasonings and powders, called Booker’s Soul Food Starters.
“After the whole George Floyd thing and just seeing all the civil unrest. I wanted to try and find an African American food science team that could help me. And they're hard to find, but I was blessed to actually find a great team,” Booker said. “And they helped me take my recipes, pull out all of the water and the liquid, keep it all-natural, and turn those mixes into powders.”
Booker’s Soul Food Starters currently has four seasoning packets for collard greens, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, and peach cobbler.
“You can have soul food, very easily with your own hands in your own kitchen,” Booker said.
The starters launched in December after a six-month development period. Booker said in January, the company racked up nearly $10,000 in sales with orders coming in from all over the country.
“It’s been amazing. I've got 200 orders going out today,” Booker said.
Part of the proceeds from each starter kit sale is going towards Booker’s Soul Foods Foundation to help bolster education for black students. The foundation will then donate those funds to organizations that offer scholarships to black students.
“We weren't blessed, me and my wife, to have kids. So we feel like this foundation, Booker’s Soul Food Starters, we get to be a part of everybody else's kid in going to school,” Booker said. “To ensure that no African American student does not have the opportunity to go to school.”
The rest is helping to strengthen Booker’s business and the community for years to come.
“We believe we're going to create jobs in Ohio, and we're excited,” Booker said. “Also what we want to do is have people learn that if I can do it, you can be a maker too. Because when you're making something, it gives you the ability to create jobs. So we want to inspire people to be makers, as well as being employed.”
“I am proud, I am proud, it was lemons and now it's lemonade. With a little sweet tea, because I'm southern,” Booker said.
More information about Booker’s Soul Food Starters and how to use them can be found here.
This story is part of The Rebound: Northeast Ohio, News 5's initiative to help people through the financial impact of the coronavirus by offering one place to go for information on everything available to help and how to access it. We're providing resources on:
Getting Back to Work - Learn about the latest job openings, how to file for benefits and succeed in the job market.
Making Ends Meet - Find help on topics from rent to food to new belt-tightening techniques.
Managing the Stress - Feeling isolated or frustrated? Learn ways to connect with people virtually, get counseling or manage your stress.
Doing What's Right - Keep track of the way people are spending your tax dollars and treating your community.
Do you have an idea for a Rebound story? Email us at email@example.com.