Field Report

Spice and tradition

February 27, 2007

Located in Charleston, SC, USA, in the heart of the coastal Low Country, the Gullah Gourmet gift shop and mail order business serves up a bountiful offering of colorfully labeled and tasty unusual foods. "We've been in business 12 years and have continued to increase sales each and every year, thank the good Lord!" says owner Debbie Nelson.

The "Gullah" part of the store name refers to the dialect spoken by the original settlers of the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coastal lowlands and Sea Islands. It is the language Nelson used to hear some of her neighbors and friends speak while growing up and is based on a blend of English, West African Krio, Jamaican Creole, and Bahamian dialects. Krio is still spoken in Sierra Leone, West Africa and is sometimes referred to as patois.

"When we first started our business, we were primarily a gift shop featuring large collections of baskets and cookbooks and other sundries," Nelson says. "This inventory underwent a major change when a steady stream of visitors to the store kept asking for cookbooks with recipes similar to the meals being offered in the local area restaurants, especially the popular 'shrimp 'n' grits'." Amazingly, she says, not one of the cookbooks the store carried at the time had that recipe.

Because visitors were truly enjoying the Gullah fare at local restaurants, Nelson set out to offer not only the recipes but the fixin's as well. And she made it possible for customers to take home a bit of history and the local language flavor as well as delicious packages of easy-to-make entres and desserts. While brainstorming at the kitchen table with her artistic niece, they came up with an illustration of a shrimp that served as the centerpiece for the first package.

Nelson says, "We wanted our packaging to reflect local customs and sayings as well as the food itself, so we decided to make the hand sewn bags for the dry mixes." The background of newspapers on the bags came from the practice by local fish markets of wrapping their products in newspaper for customers to carry home. The business has grown tremendously from the first four products in 1994 to a total of 72 at the end of 2006, including 25 bottled or jarred or canned products with colorful and fanciful labels like "Hot On He Tung" and "Some Dat Stuff".

"Labels mean everything!" Nelson says. "Packaging is really it! If there are two similar products on the shelf, one with run-of-the-mill labels and one with ours, it's 99.9 percent that we'll sell first."

The bottles and jars were added just four years ago, Nelson says, "and they now account for about 25 percent of the business already." Some of the labels are hand applied, while others are machine applied, depending on the product and the quantity of the run.

Gullah Gourmet uses two basic label formats. One is a clear oval with the store name, contact info and web site, used for repacked or nonfood items in the store, and is supplied by Carolina Retail Packaging in Lexington, SC. Second are the colorful labels for the bottles and jars which also contain the nutritional information. For example, there's an "Amazin' Grazin" raspberry mustard dip with an illustration of a church. All of these labels are supplied by Consolidated Label of Longwood, FL, USA, a converter who has won the Best Managed Company award from the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute four years in a row.

So the next time you have a hankering for "sum a dat good stuff", take a look at You might just fall in love with "Tomato Splat", a Vidalia onion/tomato dressing, or "Up Popped da Debel" hot sauce!

Safe and healthy

Mother Earth Sundries is a company based in Dayton, OH, USA offering a complete line of "earth friendly" products for people and pets. Owner Donna Walls says the mission is "To provide safe, effective products using only people and earth friendly ingredients." After working for years as a registered nurse, Walls was accustomed to working with and using natural products. About six years ago she began teaching about the value of environmentally friendly products. "It almost goes without saying," she says. "If a product is environmentally friendly it will be people friendly."

So how did this career nurse, who is also trained in holistic medicine as an herbalist and aromatherapist, get into the business of manufacturing and selling a line of products? "I've always been interested in natural products, and last spring a friend of mine said, 'You ought to start a business," Walls recalls. And last May she did just that.

"Being right-brained," she continues, "I came up with a list of 40 'must have' products." She relied on her son-in-law's brother for assistance in designing and setting up her web page ( and initially wanted to have a photo of every herb and all other natural ingredients on each label for the 40 different products.

A conference with a local design service/printer, Schuerholz Graphics of Kettering, OH, USA, quickly led to a decision that taking actual photographs of all the plants involved would be an extremely expensive undertaking for a startup operation even if their digital plateless printing processes were used. Walls says, "Schuerholz Graphics was extremely helpful in coming up with our final label design, which incorporates photos of lavender and calendula and a gray space for printing the detailed ingredients of each different product.

"I love the labels," she says. "They convey the image of what we're offering."

Another issue that arose early on was the requirement for waterproofing or water resistance, because some of the products - like body or bath washes - are used in the shower, and others are used on or near the kitchen sink, etc. "Schuerholz selected a material which at least is semi-waterproof," Wall says. She even submerged the labeled products in water to check out the label's durability and they passed with flying colors - no ink smearing or bleeding, no degradation of the labels.

Many of the product names are whimsical and/or very descriptive, such as the "Clean with a Conscience" all-purpose cleaners, or "Soothe Baby's Bum Cream", or "Eucalyptus Sinus Soother". Asked how long it took to come up with 40 different product names, Walls says, "Not very long - I just sat down and started putting them on paper and it turned out to be very easy."

A believer in "packaging helps sell," Walls observes, "If the labeled product looks nice, it makes all the difference in the world between selling or not." And maintaining high quality ingredients is another critical requirement. "We can't afford to cut corners - our demographics are clients who are looking for natural, paraben-free products. If they like what they try initially, then they will use other products in our line."

Mother Earth Sundries is currently offered in local chiropractor's offices, massage clinics, Olympia Health Food stores, and two large, upscale Dayton-area independent grocers, as well as through the Mother Earth Sundries web site and cross-marketing with other natural/organic product web sites.

Larry Arway recently retired from Standard Register, where he worked for 35 years in a variety of positions, among them sales promotion manager, product manager, label marketing manager, and technical consultant. Over the years he was involved in the design and development of new products, and has worked closely with many of the major consumer and industrial products companies in North America. A resident of Dayton, OH, USA, Arway can be reached by e-mail at