Many people dream of taking a favorite family recipe to “The big time,” turning it into a product that hundreds will enjoy by selecting it from the shelves of a major retailer. Ed Mueller (a.k.a.The Gumbo Guy) and Laura Spencer have made that dream come true with gumbo through their company, Carolina Gumbaya www.carolinagumbaya.com.
Mueller and Spencer moved to Myrtle Beach from Michigan five years ago where they had worked in the restaurant field. They anticipated that panoply of seafood offerings would await them in markets and restaurants. While they did find a wonderful variety of fish and shrimp delicacies, it seems that Mueller’s favorite dish — gumbo — was not widely available on the Grand Strand.
“So, I began to research gumbo,” says Mueller. “I looked at the history of the dish.”
He learned that actually gumbo has a “rich local heritage.” South Carolina gumbos, fish stews with okra, pre-date the more famous Louisiana version by more than 200 years.
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Mueller adds, “I developed my own recipe using all local fish and shrimp.” He wanted to utilize and showcase local products. “The shrimp in our gumbo are high quality and possesses superb flavor. Our gumbo contains whole shrimp, whitefish, andouille sausage, okra, other vegetables, and a perfect blend of spices, all in a velvety-blond roux.” No MSG. Their tasters confirmed the success of his efforts.
Always large-scale thinkers Mueller and Spencer, wanted their marvelous product to be shared with as many gumbo-loving people as possible. So the pair began to canvas local restaurants to see if they might be interested in placing his product on their menus.
“That effort was not a success,” Ed says. “Local chefs already had their own way of preparing gumbo or were not excited about adding my product to their listing.”
Mueller and Spencer regrouped. While working on their “Plan B” they went into the North Myrtle Beach Walmart one day on their regular food-shopping excursion. They decided to approach the manager about carrying their gumbo. That simple initial conversation in 2013 initiated a flurry of official Walmart paperwork and a quick trip to Duke Food Productions in Easley, S.C., one of the top private label food manufacturers in the country.
Catherine Johnson, senior buyer, Walmart Seafood says, “I was introduced to Ed in March 2014 when our regional team in South Carolina referred him to me.” She was excited that Carolina Gumbaya fit into the Walmart design to carry more locally made items.
Johnson says, “Ed’s passion for his gumbo is what caught my attention in the beginning. He knew he had a great product and knew our customers would love it! Their product is locally produced and Ed was building a strong customer following to his product. He just needed a larger retail footprint to bring his product to more customers in the South Carolina area. His customers shop at their local Walmart, so the partnership made perfect sense.”
She continued, “The gumbo meets all of the requirements that we look for in an item. It has great taste, eye appealing packaging, sustainably harvested seafood ingredients, produced here in the USA and an everyday low price for our customers.”
Mueller and Spencer worked with Duke’s to ensure that the flavor in each batch of gumbo would be just right. “Their quality control is excellent.” Mueller says. While he of course could not give away any of the secrets of the ingredients in the gumbo, he allowed that one of the secrets to its good taste right out of the package is something that is left out. The rice.
Mueller advises, “You have to add your own after heating up the soup. Putting rice in the mix, means starch seeps into liquid making it gelatinous.”
Carolina Gumbaya is going strong. From the first year’s entry into stores along the Grand Strand and in Charleston in 2015, the gumbo is now sold in more than 130 Walmart stores up and down the East Coast. Always alert to the value of personal marketing, Mueller and Spencer have been traveling to locations where their gumbo is on the shelves to meet the managers and the local public.
Johnson adds, “The personal touch that Ed and Laura provide has definitely made a difference. Our store managers are excited to meet the owners of the products that are sold in their stores, especially when the products are from their local markets. Our customers are always looking for local, made in the USA items. This personal contact (on the part of Mueller and Spencer) helps build awareness of the products and enables store associates to make recommendations to our customers.”
The product is available locally in pints (at both Walmart and Publix) and in pints quart-sized containers at Walmart and online from Carolinagumbaya.com. As Mueller says, “It’s a quality, premium product sold at a value price.” As Catherine Johnson adds, “It’s wonderful. Everyone needs to try it. It’s delicious.”
Mueller is proud that he and Spencer are highlighting and using Carolina products and sharing the delicious taste of their gumbo through the success of their product.