“I couldn’t believe I could make a living out of this”, Stephanie Perry says about her company, Sweeties-Southern&Vegan Catering.
In Stephanie’s case this is not the trite expression you use when you are blessed by success. In her case, disbelief is almost an understatement. When no matter the talent and the dreams you have, you end up—like she did—homeless with four kids, all you can hope for the future is probably mere survival. Certainly not to become a successful entrepreneur.
I first met Stephanie after reading an Indyweek profile on her company. This emerging black business from Pittsboro, NC, caught my interest, with their cool mix of vegan and soul food.
But what I found really surprising, in talking with her, is that when she looks back at her life, she can’t remember ever feeling any desire to become a businesswoman at all.
Actually, Stephanie Perry always felt she was a writer. Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, raised by a—mostly—single mom, Stephanie’s favorite space was the library, where her mother would drop her off while busy on errands. Had her life’s circumstances been different, Stephanie thinks she could have easily become an academic.
As a natural writer, she told me, she always felt she was absorbing the energy around her. She never liked New York City, because the energy was so deafening that it overwhelmed her. Later on, after moving and raising a family in Pennsylvania and Florida, her kids recalled Stephanie often absorbed in thoughts, as if she were somewhere else.
She might have written about all the experiences, and the visions she was shaping. She might have written about all the conversations she heard in the family— her grandfather was the president of the NAACP in Goldsboro, NC. But circumstance didn’t allow her to live off writing.
Instead she started doing, things.
As a stay at home mom, she started experimenting with healthy recipes. Her family had always had health issues, and it helped having a Muslim husband, who was observing a vegetarian diet. She soon became really good at cooking and baking, reinforced by her passion for reading cooking books, and by the memory of the lush Sunday meals her grandma—Sweetie, was her nickname—used to fix in Brooklyn. Eventually she took her homemade recipes to the local healthy stores, and began baking on consignment. At one point, in Tampa, she was even baking for offices.
She also always had a knack for selling. She sold for Mary Kay, Tupperware and several others. Then after her divorce, while still living with her four kids in a shelter in Tampa, she found a job at Marriot as a sales coordinator. She was so good at it that one day the manager told her she wanted to take Stephanie as her assistant to a business party at night on a yacht in the bay. The company was trying to convince wealthy clients to close millions of dollars of contracts. The manager didn’t know Stephanie was living in a shelter. The curfew schedule wouldn’t allow her to be out at night, even for work, unless there was a request from the company. Stephanie had to tell her boss. It was humiliating, but the manager proved to be very understanding. She brought Stephanie to Nordstrom, bought her a dress, and took her to the yacht party. There, Stephanie realized she had to drink alcohol—which she never does—to fit in with the rich business people. The only drink she could think of was a Martini, something she had seen in movies. She only had one (but she enjoyed it.)
The experience of the shelter was spirit breaking. She had never seen a more depressing, shabbier place than the first shelter she was sent to in Tampa. The food was the most disgusting they had ever eaten. When the weather was good, she would take her kids to the beach, until curfew, and have a sandwich there for dinner.
It took her a whole year to finally be able to get out of the shelters. At that point she and her family could afford to pay a modest rent in a girl friend’s house.
“I know what if feels to feel like a failure”, Stephanie told me. At the bleakest time in her life, she remembers telling herself that she would always remember what it felt like, so that if she ever climbed out of it, she would have compassion for people going through hard times. “And I would try to remember what changed in me to change it, so that I can share it.”
When one day, months later, after having rejoined her extended family in North Carolina, she accidentally bumped into a meeting of Justice United, an organization that was fighting for living wages for hotel workers, she felt she had found her calling. All the past experiences, the anger she had accumulated, and the moral drive to fix the system: all these thoughts and emotions congealed, and she realized she wanted to be an activist. It wasn’t long before the director of the Durham chapter asked her to become a paid organizer. She worked full time for the organization for four years. Her life seemed having changed for good. But more was to come.
Now she knew what her mission was. Even after the grant that was paying her salary expired, and she had to go back to work for hotels, she kept volunteering as a community organizer. In 2009 she found out about O.A.R. (Organizing Against Racism), a North Carolina organization promoting workshops for activists, students and scholars. Since then, Stephanie has become an O.A.R lead community organizer.
At one of their workshops, the definitive life-changing event happened.
The contract caterer canceled two days before the workshop. The organizers didn’t know what to do. Stephanie had an idea: “I can do that.” Nobody knew she was a cook and a baker. But they trusted her.
This wasn’t the first time, at decisive turning points in Stephanie’s life, that people trusted her. Is it because she has that intangible thing we call charisma? Sure, but charisma wouldn’t have been enough if she hadn’t had persistence, and if she hadn’t had something to give. Without her years experimenting recipes, her attempts in catering for bakeries and offices, her working in sales for Marriott, she wouldn’t have been ready at the right time at the right place.
The time came when she catered for the O.A.R. workshop. People were enthusiastic. They couldn’t believe they didn’t know she had this cooking talent, matched with the planning, organizational skills you need to cater for big groups. They soon started asking her for other catering gigs. The word spread, until she realized she could really start a business.
She created Sweeties, a Southern & Vegan catering company operating from Pittsboro, North Carolina. She had experience in vegetarian recipes, and like—she said—many African-Americans in this country she had been brought up on Soul food. She had the idea of putting together Southern flavors and vegan ingredients. That would be a winning brand in the Triangle. But she would still cook Southern meat dishes (minus the pork).
She had had the first true epiphany when she became a community organizer. Now, the writer in her felt she could create a form that could contain all her visions, all the experiences she had accumulated all along.
Her company, Sweeties, became that form. The company is an L3C, a form of social entreprise. L3Cs are still for profit entities, but they need a social mission. Sweeties’ mission became equality, which it tries to pursue by hiring people who wouldn’t normally find other work, and by paying them a living wage. The company is also transparent about their production costs, leaving the client to determine a fair price. It also envisions, for the near future, forms of profit-sharing with the employees.
In Sweeties, Stephanie Perry had put together two of her true passions: healthy soul food and social justice.
And then another “miracle” materialized, when she met a man who “had the kindest, happiest eyes” she had ever seen. Serendipitously, Michael Terry also happened to be a chef.
In Michael, Stephanie found the partner she needed to streamline her production. With him on board the company tripled their customer base and is on the verge of further developments.
Right now Sweeties caters for all sorts of events around the Triangle. They also cook three days a week for the food bar of the Chatham Marketplace in Pittsboro, and for the “Meatless Mondays” at the Durham Coop Market.
Stephanie’s story is growing.
It is a survival story, and a story of desire. She had always wanted a life rich of sensations, as rich as the luscious Sunday meals grandma “Sweetie” (from her comes the company’s name) would cook for her family when she was a kid.
She wanted this for her, for her family, for her people. And now that she is succeeding, she can’t forget how it was when she was at the bottom. And she wants to lead for change.
“If I was talking to a child, right now (…) the one thing you must discover is your power. (…) Along the way with lots of help from wonderful people, I learned what power really is and how to be powerful. (…) Believing in what you are thinking, putting faith in whatever it is you are dreaming about, and then acting from that place, will create whatever experience, whatever thing that you want.”