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Turning To Baking In A Tough Economy

Lavinia "Big Boss" Hensley
Leoneda Inge

The current state of the economy has shaken up countless careers, especially if you were in the housing construction business. But in a neighborhood outside High Point, one woman who used to build homes now uses her own home as a bakery. She said it was time to do the one thing she knew best and Big Boss Baking Company was born. Leoneda Inge has this report for our series, “Breaking into the Food Biz.”

Lavinia Hensley:  Hey come on in, how are you. You found us. See you weren’t too far.
Leoneda Inge: I know. I found it.
Hensley:  What do you think about my kitchen?
Inge: Oh my!
Hensley: Not bad for something in your house right?!
Inge: The sweet smell of granola, honey and vanilla overpowers you when you walk in Lavinia Hensley’s garage. Yes, I said garage. Two years ago, Hensley and her husband Rodney Hensley started Big Boss Baking Company, converting their 800-square foot garage into an industrial kitchen.
Inge: Well, it smells good.
Hensley: Thank you, we’ve been making a product for the Fresh Market today. And it’s these, it’s like a granola bar and they call them Granola Break-ups. They’re basically granola bars and they’re just broken into irregular pieces and they sell them in their bulk section. So we’ve been doing that this morning.

Lavinia Hensley, the Big Boss in Big Boss Baking, has been working with Fresh Market grocery stores in North Carolina for about eight months. Now she’s ready to send a test batch of her “Break-ups” to Atlanta for a more regional distribution. This is a whole new world for Hensley. The UNC-Greensboro graduate started out in financial services and insurance. Then she and her husband got into the housing business when it was booming. She remembers finishing a large townhome project in 2006.

Hensley: And we were really looking around for something else to do as far as building. And, ah, one door shut after the other, after the other and it just wasn’t working out for us to start new houses.

Hensley says they were very lucky they weren’t on the hook for another big project when the housing market tanked. She says it was time to move on.

Hensley:  So, I’ve always loved to bake and I turned it from a hobby into a business. I would bake and give away to friends and family, neighbors and they would all just rave about how good everything was. I got a lot of enjoyment out of baking.

A wide array of food-inspired businesses have opened in recent years across the state. Annette Dunlap is a Food Business Specialist with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. She says North Carolina has a reputation for being one of the most helpful states in the country for small food entrepreneurs.

Annette Dunlap:  We have some regulations that help encourage that with ability to use a certified home kitchen for a shelf-stable product. NC State University offers the acidified food school, so anyone who is making say a pickle or a salsa that becomes acidified, they can take the school and learn how to do that safely. And we have several co-packers in the state that will take your recipe and modify it and make big batches of product for you to sell.

Now the Big Boss bakes all the time. Hensley has gone from selling granola only at the Farmer’s Market to selling at Whole Foods, $5.99 a bag.

Hensley: Sampling our granola ma’am, you’re welcomed to try. Got three flavors new to Whole Foods. Honey Almond Cranberry, Honey Vanilla and Blueberry Walnut.

Female shopper:  Thank you.

Hensley:  My pleasure.

A couple of Saturday’s ago, Hensley was invited to attend her first food vendor fair at the Whole Foods in Winston-Salem. She stood right across from where her granola is now sold on store shelves.

Inge: So are you happy?

Hensley:  That’s a loaded question. You know it’s exciting to own a company that is growing. It is stressful to own a company that it is growing. Did I mention it was stressful to own a company when it is growing. We are happy but it does have its moments because where we are pulling our hair out because we just don’t know what to do next.

Well, Hensley is getting something right. Soon, there won’t be a lot of empty five and ten pound Quaker Oats boxes on her kitchen floor in the garage. The Big Boss has to get a big warehouse where 10-thousand pounds of oats can be delivered at a time. That’s a whole lot of granola.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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