Topping O' the Mornin'
Hoskins did get to that place—and it turned out to be downright cozy. Thanks to a dogged work ethic, years of sacrifice and an old family recipe for breakfast syrup that was first created by her great-great-grandmother, a slave in Mississippi, Hoskins has made her fortune. The Chicago native now supplies Michele's Honey Creme Syrup—a sinful confection of cream, honey and churned butter—to 5,000 stores across the country, including Kroger and Wal-Mart.
Last year Michele Foods Inc. took in $8 million in revenues. "She's the most tenacious person I know," says Ray Hood-Phillips, chief diversity officer for the restaurant chain Denny's, which awarded Hoskins a six-year, $3 million contract in 1993, after she called every Monday morning for two years to lobby for a deal. Says Hood-Phillips: "She believes if you can dream it, then it can happen."
In 1982 dreams were all she had. Newly divorced from law-office administrator Arnold Hoskins, now 47, Hoskins took inventory. What could she do for a living? After making breakfast for friends one morning and getting raves for the syrup, Hoskins realized she might literally have a recipe for success. Her great-great-grandmother, America Washington, first concocted it back in the 1800s for her plantation owner's family, and it had been passed down through five generations of daughters. "I decided to become an entrepreneur," says Hoskins. "Instead of giving my daughters a recipe, I'd give them a business."
Enlisting the help of a company that assisted fledgling entrepreneurs, Hoskins perfected the syrup's ratios and designed a label. Having quit her job as a makeup artist to pursue the venture full-time, she went on welfare to support daughters Rosalyn, now 35, a sheriff, Christale, 32, and Keisha, 26, both of whom work for their mother. Desperate for capital, Hoskins sold virtually everything she had—"my condo, my raggedy Audi and all my furniture"—and moved in with her parents. At night she and the girls would painstakingly fill bottles of syrup by hand. "My feet would be sticking to the floor," she recalls. "It took us an hour to fill 12 bottles."
Hoskins peddled her elixir across Chicago store by store. "People kept asking for it," says Angelo Kamberos, one of the first grocers to stock her product. "I still keep it on the shelves." By the end of 1984, 80 percent of the city's grocery stores carried Michele's Honey Creme Syrup. In 1994 she went national with two more flavors, butter pecan and maple. The syrup is now made at a plant in Broadview, Ill.
Not that Hoskins's parents, James Russell, 85, a retired butcher, and Audrey, 84, a retired postal worker, are surprised by her achievements. The second of three siblings—Roderick, 60, is a butcher, and Jeffrey, 48, is a computer programmer—Hoskins, who majored in philosophy at Chicago State University, "had an explosive mind," says her father. "Whatever she set her mind to, she did."
Although still deeply involved in her business, Hoskins has tried to ease off lately. She golfs, keeps in shape with a trainer and spends as much time as she can with her daughters and her 8-year-old granddaughter Lindsey. "I was a workaholic," says Hoskins, who shares her three-bedroom South Holland, Ill., home with her shih tzus Lady and Gismo. "Now I try to delegate." In 1997 she launched Recipes to Retail, a mentoring program for aspiring women entrepreneurs. "I learned from the school of hard knocks," says Hoskins, who travels the country delivering motivational speeches in her spare time. "I want to guide others."
Barbara Sandler in South Holland
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