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She's been "savoring the flavor" of her late grandmother's cooking all her life, and now Carolyn Hodge is taking the business Betty Lee Brunson began shortly after her retirement to the next level.
Savor the Flavor is a locally and family owned business that sells its line of packaged rice and grits mixes developed from old family recipes handed down by the generation. It started when Brunson retired from teaching and started a small catering business. When she found it was too much, she decided to leave the cooking to the customer.
The business has been running by repeat customers, tourists and word of mouth since starting in 1991, Hodge said. Now in the hands of the granddaughter and her husband, Jay, Savor the Flavor is set to get a crash course in entrepreneurialism and running and expanding a startup.
Savor the Flavor is one of three veteran-run startups in the nation selected to take part in an incubator program with Chobani.
Partnering with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University to create the program aimed at helping veteran entrepreneurs in the food industry, the one-week program will take the Hodges to New York City for the first time to meet with Chobani and IVMF team members and top executives. They will be exposed to consulting, networking and administrative support, a "critical start-up environment," according to Misty Fox, director of entrepreneurship at IVMF.
Hodge said a big area of expansion they think will benefit from the program is in their packaging.
"We want to sustain our family. We want to carry on the legacy that my grandmother created because she worked really hard on it," Hodge said.
Hodge entered the Air Force as a 19-year-old in May 2001 to support her country. Her four years of active duty took her to post-9/11 Iraq, where she served as a medic.
"Four months later, and I'm like 'what in the world have I gotten myself into,'" she said. "I always loved my country, but there was a sense of pride when we were actively protecting ourselves. But it was scary, for sure."
She still helps people in her retirement from the Air Force. She is still a nurse. Feeding people helps them, too.
Hodge said her grandma used to get calls from all over the country complimenting her rice mixtures.
"She was always surprised people liked her stuff. She'd say," Jay Hodge said, reminiscing about an incredulous grandmother, "'you're calling from where?!'"
'She continues to inspire me.'
It all started with a recipe for Charleston red rice.
The side dish, traditionally getting its color from tomatoes, is still one of the business' bestsellers. Simmons Seafood in Mount Pleasant was the first commercial business to carry the clear bags of the rice, simple directions on the label. Boil, simmer, eat.
"Bubba Simmons is still one of our largest clients," Hodge said. "He said tourists 'eat it up.'"
Brunson started developing recipes for other rice dishes - there are now 10 different varieties, each named for a location in the Lowcountry. Grits dishes were added later.
All the side dishes were developed from old family recipes, Hodge said. Savor the Flavor products are now sold throughout the U.S.
Hodge and two uncles inherited the business when Brunson died, keeping it a family business.
Hodge had already been introduced before she officially was handed the reins.
"I grew up helping my grandmother," she said. "I've been sealing and packaging grits since I was very young. When I started driving, I took deliveries to customers. Cheese grits have always been a bestseller, and people looking to make shrimp and grits love it."
After she moved to Sumter and when her grandmother could no longer run the business, Hodge took over the financial and other business aspects while she continued to make the dozen or so mixes. She also works full-time at Prisma Health Tuomey Hospital.
"When Mimi couldn't do it anymore, I worked with [my grandmother's best friend] Ella June. I've known her since I was a child," she said.
Almost the entire local family contributes to making, packaging and distributing Savor the Flavor products. Her husband, her stepfather, Bill Stack, and even her two daughters. The 9-year-old and 2-year-old help with such tasks as labeling the bags.
While the mixes are self-contained dishes, Hodge said they can be used in recipes. She recommends pork chops with the Isle of Palms Curried Rice and kielbasa or Boston butt cooked with the red rice, "but most of the mixes are just a side. My favorite rice is the curry. My husband's is the Hilton Head Parisian Rice. It's brown rice with almonds and mushrooms."
Hodge said each side dish can be prepared in about 30 minutes. Each is low in fat and cholesterol, and she said her "vision is to make something for everyone," such as gluten-free products. Pimiento cheese grits and perhaps bleu cheese grits may be added to the line.
She said she is interested in barbecue sauce, which her grandma used to make and bring to family reunions.
"I found a letter from my aunt that said, 'Hey, Betty Lee, make that sauce. You bring the barbecue sauce and the aspic,'" Hodge recounted.
With the new packaging, Hodge said, "we plan to add nutrition information. It will still be 'Southern, delicious and nutritious.' The new bags will reduce the labor a lot and double the output."
She is also contemplating, because Brunson was "a Gamecock fanatic," Cocky Grits.
Might there soon be a Sumter rice?
"I love Sumter," Hodge said. "I love it. I loved coming here on the weekends. We had Sunday dinners. There is a real sense of family."
What would a Sumter rice be called?
Hodge laughed and suggested she might call it "Gamecock City Dirty Rice."
"Betty Lee Brunson was one of the first of her kind," her granddaughter said. "She continues to inspire me."
Her inspiration is taking her to New York to join the likes of a barbecue sauce line out of Biloxi, Mississippi, that creates products targeted to diabetics and a company out of Chantilly, Virginia, that produces all-natural agave nectar-sweetened artisan gelato and sorbet.
While the trip to the Chobani offices in SoHo are meant for business, they said they will have at least one day to explore the city.
"We've never been, so we're excited," Hodge said. "The 9/11 memorial is at the top of my list."
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