The Supply Side: Michigan retiree finds new career selling gumbo into Walmart U.S.

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 741 views 

Ed Mueller, founder of Carolina Gumbaya, rekindled his food passion after retiring and relocating to Myrtle Beach, S.C., five years ago from Michigan.

Mueller told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal his two-person business is growing beyond expectations and Wal-Mart Stores of Bentonville is the big reason why. Carolina Gumbaya recently landed in 234 Walmart U.S. stores in eight southeastern states, as well as Publix and Harris Teeter grocery stores.

Mueller, a former restaurant owner growing up in the food business, said flavors always intrigued him, and when he relocated to Myrtle Beach in 2012 he began experimenting with gumbo made from locally sourced fish, shrimp, sausage and fresh vegetables. New Orleans has somewhat been the standard for gumbo over the years, but his research found the dish could also be traced back to South Carolina in the 1600s.

He and partner Laura Spencer came up with their own version of gumbo which could be sold into retail. He said Carolina Gumbaya has less preservatives including salt, and the rue is blonde, not dark. He said the gumbo is thick, almost stew-like, and the product does not contain rice, like other products on the market.

“It’s a base product, but consumers can cook their own rice and add it to the gumbo for serving,” Mueller said. “Some people also like to add chicken. Our recipe doesn’t burn the tongue, but the diverse flavors in the dish explode on the back of the tongue as it’s eaten.”

Mueller said his gumbo was selling well at festivals and farmer’s markets, so he waltzed into his local Walmart U.S. store in December 2013 and asked to talk to the manager. He was hoping for 10 minutes of his time, but what he hadn’t expected was immediate interest from regional manager Steve Harvey. About 45 minutes later the managers told him they would help him champion the product.

“They turned me over to Katherine Johnson, the seafood buyer at the time who worked closely with me to align production so that the product could go into retail stores,” Mueller said. “I outsourced my manufacturing to Duke Productions that already makes products sold at Wal-Mart. This helped to streamline the process. About 18 months later Carolina Gumbaya made its way into 17 Walmart stores in South Carolina.”

He said it was baby steps at first and that was exactly the right strategy for his small operation. About a year later the product was expanded into 137 stores in five states. In September 2016, new buyer Tom Thurow expanded the footprint to 237 stores in eight states. The product is frozen and sold in the fresh frozen cases in the seafood section.

“It really has been an amazing experience, to see so many people embrace this recipe I created in the kitchen of my own home,” he said. “People told me doing business with Wal-Mart could be a mistake, but that simply hasn’t been my experience.”

Mueller has expanded his product line and plans to offer a vegetarian version of the gumbo as well as spiced rub. With Wal-Mart’s Open Call slated for June 28, Mueller is hoping to pitch his ideas to buyers, well ahead of the next scheduled product review meeting in September.

Wal-Mart considers Carolina Gumbaya part of its initiative to buy more products made in the U.S. and further the expansion of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Mueller has not added additional personnel, but his manufacturer has added 23 new full-time jobs to meet the increased demand, according to Scott Markley, corporate spokesman for Wal-Mart.

“Our customers tell us that where products are made is most important second only to price,” Markley added.