A Tasty and Growing Business
by Elizabeth Cogar for the Richmond Times-Dispatch
Bonnie Adelman delivered 10 cases of her homemade cheese spread to the Kroger store at The Shoppes at Bellgrade in Chesterfield County in late November 2006.
By the end of the day, shoppers had snapped up all 120 jars.
"We had nothing left," recalls her husband, Ron, of their inventory of Miss Bonnie's Gourmet Pimento Cheese Spread. "Thanksgiving was the next day, but we had to postpone it [for ourselves] until Friday so that we could make more."
Miss Bonnie's successful debut was only the beginning.
Since that first batch was sold nearly three years ago, distribution has increased to more than 50 stores in Richmond, Roanoke, Charlottesville and Hampton Roads. Sales have soared.
By late fall, Miss Bonnie's will begin a national rollout to all 1,200-plus Kroger stores. And this year, the Adelmans will move production to a plant in Front Royal and introduce a third cheese spread flavor.
Plenty of pimento cheese spreads are on the market, but Bonnie Adelman claims hers stands alone in its ingredients. It's a recipe she's been serving for years.
"No sugars, no trans fats, no carbs, just incredible flavor," she said. "It's all a blend of naturally aged cheeses - no artificial anything. It's different from most because it's chunky and old-fashioned."
They may know how to make cheese spreads, but neither she nor her husband have any professional background in the kitchen. He's had a dental practice in Amelia County for 32 years. She's spent most of her working years as a makeup artist. (She still does makeup for various public figures, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who she said is a fan of her cheese spread.)
Aware of their inexperience, the Adelmans did their homework before entering the food production realm. They thoroughly researched the cheese market and production processes before talking with the deli manager at Kroger's on Huguenot Road about sampling their wares. They contacted the health department about code requirements and built a commercial kitchen above their home's garage.
They also signed on with Produce Source Partners, a distribution service, so they no longer have to deliver their products to grocery and specialty food stores, including Ukrop's.
Although the company now has employees, Miss Bonnie's remains a family business, with Ron and Bonnie Adelman in charge. Their grandson, Christopher Anderson, 17, puts labels on the jars after school.
In June 2008, the Adelmans introduced a new flavor, jalapeño pepper cheese spread.
Each month, from their inconspicuous home headquarters in Chesterfield County, they manage to fill about 6,000 eight-ounce jars with their two cheese spreads, up from about 2,400 jars a month a year ago. About 60 percent of sales are pimento cheese spread.
Ed Southern, store manager of the Kroger store at the Ivymont Square Shopping Center, said that between eight and 31 units of a rival cheese spread were sold during one month in the fall of 2007, while 359 Miss Bonnie's jars were sold during that time. Now Miss Bonnie's sells between 900 and 1,000 units per month at that Kroger store, he said.
Kroger's corporate office contacted the Adelmans in March 2008 and told them that Miss Bonnie's jars were outselling Alouette in the Richmond market 3-to-1. Alouette is the country's top-selling cheese spread.
"In my 41 years in the grocery business, I have never ever seen a single item take off like this particular cheese spread," Southern said. "I have sold as many as 420 jars in a week."
Jars sell for $7.29.
The company's sales are up 150 percent this year compared with the same time last year.
The Miss Bonnie's marketing strategy has been minimal - word of mouth, a couple of ads, radio interviews, a Web site and, most recently, a Facebook page.
With the Kroger national rollout on the horizon, the Adelmans realized they needed to grow.
"We needed to partner with someone who has a network of contacts. We've had one offer to sell, but it was too soon. . . . We could have walked away then, but we decided to keep going," Ron Adelman said. The couple formed a partnership with Front Royal businessman John Good, who owns a refrigerated plant that was no longer being used.
As her products have gained in popularity, Bonnie Adelman has become a local grocery store celebrity. Customers spot her in the supermarket and some even track her down for an autograph in the parking lot.
"We just keep going every day," Ron Adelman said. "We like to think we're a shining star in a dim economy."