The Supply Side: Chef Jenn creates gourmet seafood for Wal-Mart

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 365 views 

Memphis native Jennifer McCullough – aka, Chef Jenn – is reeling with excitement as her signature seafood entrees have found their way into 800 Wal-Mart stores just seven months after she first pitched the products at Wal-Mart’s Open Call in July 2014.

McCullough told The City Wire that culinary creativity has long been her passion, but the long nights of being a restaurant chef got old after six years. Seeking to avoid the long nights led her to entrepreneurial ranks.

“I began selling soups and catering fresh prepared meals out of my home. As a small caterer I got the necessary permits and started selling my food locally throughout Memphis in small retailers and farmers markets through a business I branded ‘Uptown Grocery.’ I never dreamed that I could do business with Wal-Mart,” McCullough said.

Last summer she said a friend emailed her a news piece about Wal-Mart holding its first Open Call in Bentonville looking for new suppliers and products made in the U.S. With no expectations, McCullough reached out to Wal-Mart about her product and within a few days she got an email with suggestions about places to stay and things to see in Bentonville. 

“It still didn’t dawn on me that I would get an appointment with a buyer, because those appointments are so hard to come by. Out of curiosity I called Wal-Mart and they told me I was chosen to present and I would be getting an appointment time, which was completely unexpected,” she said.

McCullough met with Catherine Johnson a seafood buyer at Wal-Mart and still had no expectations that the retailer would want to stock her seafood entrees, which included frozen shrimp- and crawfish-based dips as well as stuffed crab cakes. Johnson told The City Wire that the meeting lasted about 30 minutes and the merchants were impressed with the quality of the food as well as the sustainable packaging the small business was already using. 

“We wanted Wal-Mart to sell Chef Jenn products and immediately began working with Jennifer to figure out the details. She made a few trips back to Bentonville and we launched in 300 to 400 stores to start,” Johnson said.

McCullough ended up outsourcing the production to a seafood manufacturing facility in Florida that already does business with Wal-Mart, which helped establish more trust in the supply chain as well as reduce the cost of production because more scale could be added.

She has no qualms about outsourcing the manufacturing phase of the business because she is in charge of sourcing and quality control of the product at each step of the process.

“It’s interesting because when I was making these items out of my kitchen I was given some food safety and other manufacturing exemptions because of my small scale. Now Chef Jenn product meets all the dietary and food safety protocol,” McCullough said.

When possible McCullough said she sources the shrimp and crawfish from the Gulf of Mexico. The product bares the U.S. Flag, an indication that it’s “American Made.” She is also a woman-owned business and member of WEBENC — Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

McCullough said outsourcing the production also gives her time to create new recipes and expand her product line which she expects in the next few years will include shelf stable items like breadings, seasonings and sauces that can be used to create seafood entrees. She’s also looking into cookware and other table items hoping to expand Chef Jenn to include more than heat-and-serve appetizers.

“Since I have become a Wal-Mart supplier I have been able to do so much more than just survive. I have been able to invest into new product development because I know food and tastes are always changing and chef’s must stay ahead of those trends,” she added.

In late January, Wal-Mart extended Chef Jenn products into 800 stores that stretch across the Southeastern region of the U.S. from Texas to the Carolinas, with the exception of Florida.

McCullough said she has between 7 and 9 items which are all frozen products sold in the specific seafood areas in the grocery sections of Wal-Mart’s larger stores. She said the products retail between $4.47 and $5.49, a price point she could no way duplicate when she was selling the frozen items locally in Memphis.

“I used to put deep freeze units in high-end nail and hair salons and sell my dips and crawfish and crab cakes out of there. (It was) one of the best methods I found for moving my product before I got into Wal-Mart,” McCullough said.