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Community News: Southwest

CRENSHAW : Finding Success in Their Salad Days

August 21, 1994|ERIN J. AUBRY

As temperatures were hitting record highs in the city last weekend, a group of student entrepreneurs were busy turning up the heat to promote their salad dressing at the latest market chain to sell their product: Mrs. Gooch's health food stores.

Ten Crenshaw High students wearing Food From the 'Hood aprons and bright smiles offered up tastes of their creamy Italian dressing on pita bread squares to shoppers in Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Redondo Beach, Sherman Oaks, Thousand Oaks, Glendale and Northridge.

Proceeds from sales of the salad dressing, "Straight Out the Garden," benefit a scholarship fund for the nearly 30 students who co-own Food from the 'Hood, a produce business they launched on campus nearly two years ago.

The verdict on the dressing from health-conscious Westside and Valley customers: "They liked the taste a lot, but everybody asked if we had a low-fat or no-fat version," said 17-year-old Natasha Proby, who worked at the Beverly Hills store, selling 24 bottles of dressing.

"That's what we're going to talk about at our next meeting."

The venture, which started as a project to rehabilitate a weedy patch of land near Crenshaw's football field, has mushroomed into a salad-dressing business with nationwide distribution in nearly 100 supermarkets and stores.

Though they won't reveal sales figures because of concerns about competition from other dressings, students say they are on target with fiscal goals this year.

And in January, Food From the 'Hood established an office in a converted biology lab on Crenshaw's campus to keep up with all the business.

"We're just growing by leaps and bounds," said biology teacher Tammy Bird, who helped students launch the business and gave up coaching soccer to devote more time to it.

"We had the vision. . . . We just needed someone to believe in us enough to give us the money to really get going."

After getting a combined $100,000 in cash and in-kind donations from the city and RLA last December, Food From the 'Hood set up its salad dressing line.

With the help of food manufacturer Sweet Adelaide and salad-dressing entrepreneur Norris Bernstein and other professionals, the group was able to make, bottle and get its salad dressing onto grocery shelves via food brokers and distributors.

After students settled on a recipe, the Hawthorne-based Sweet Adelaide made and packaged the dressing and local food brokers got busy selling "Straight Out the Garden" to supermarkets and other stores.

The business was flying so high that even the Jan. 17 earthquake proved something of a blessing: The week that Crenshaw High shut down gave students time to put their office together without distractions.

With the help of public relations executive Melinda McMullen, who now works full time with the business, students cleaned out a room used to house animals for a traveling zoo project and set up $8,000 worth of office equipment.

The office features a row of computer terminals, a phone, printer and fax machine, and a long marble-topped table where students gather for board meetings and ad presentations.

"It's moving real fast, faster than I thought it would," 16-year-old Ketric Jenkins said of the business, which still holds to its original tenet of regularly donating at least 25% of its garden-grown produce to charities such as Helpers for the Homeless and Hungry, a Crenshaw-based food bank.

All profits from dressing sales go to a college scholarship fund, and student owners receive shares of the pool based on academic performance, college preparation work and the amount of work they put into the business. They do not receive salaries.

For Jenkins, a senior this year, the scholarship money will help keep him on the track to college. "I'm still tired from working all those stores last weekend, but it's worth it."

Proby, reviewing a set of mock-up ad cards for Food From the 'Hood, said it's been gratifying for a cooperative run by young people in the inner city to get so much attention.

But she hopes people won't lose sight of an even more significant fact.

"We want people to focus on our dressing--it's good," she said. "We don't want them to just say, 'Oh, look at these poor kids, let's help them out.' We want to be judged by our product."

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