Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
With a recipe her family has used to treat friends and family members for more than 50 years, Doreen Gardner is trying to do something her father always wanted – create a legacy for his family.
“They always made peanut brittle and gave it away,” Gardner says of her mother and father. When that tradition was passed down to her in 2020, she says with a laugh, “I didn’t intend to do it. I didn’t want to do it. But it’s been a family tradition.”
She says friends would start contacting her parents in October to make sure they were on their list to get peanut brittle by the end of the year. It was provided to them in little cellophane bags or small tins. “And everybody kept saying how good it was, how good it was,” Gardner says.
With that in mind, she did a casual online posting in 2020 about the peanut brittle to see if it would sell. And it did.
“It was crazy,” she says. She sold about 200 pounds of the sweet treat so fast she had to take down the post. She sold the confection for about $10 per pound and feared she would not be able to fill more incoming orders.
Papa’s Peanut Brittle is being sold at several local stores including Midtown Fresh, where company founder Doreen Gardner is shown standing next to a display.
Leaving the family with a legacy of success was something her father, David Smith, talked about a lot during the months before he died at age 88 in January of 2021, Gardner says. A chemical operator at The Upjohn Co. (now a part of Pfizer Inc.), he retired in the early 1990s as a supervisor. He left the world with an already commendable legacy — three successful adult children, seven grandchildren, one great-grandson, six great-great-grandchildren, and a wife of 68 years to cherish his memory.
Gardner’s mother, Jacqueline Smith, worked in the treasurer’s office at Kalamazoo City Hall.
But during the months before her father's death, Doreen Gardner says, he would repeatedly say, “'All I ever wanted to do is leave a legacy and I wish I had done something.’ … It’s something he always wanted to do.”
Doreen Gardner says her family has an entrepreneurial spirit. Her grandmother Celestine Haws-Barnes was a well-known cook who helped get Meals On Wheels started in Kalamazoo. And her husband, Clarence Gardner, owns C’s Perfect Tie & Accessories in downtown Kalamazoo.
So, with all that in mind, she started Papa’s Peanut Brittle in August of 2021. An ordained minister and former candidate for the Kalamazoo County Clerk, Gardner left her job as pastoral outreach coordinator at Mt. Zion Baptist Church to run the new business.
Papa’s Peanut Brittle is named in honor of David Smith, of Kalamazoo, a family patriarch who died in January of 2021 at age 88.
A novice in business, she took a 12-week class last spring led by Sisters in Business, a 5-year-old initiative of African-American women. The course was part of their Black Entrepreneurial Training Academy, an educational project intended to help women of color who are aspiring entrepreneurs and thought leaders to connect with others.
They provided a wealth of information and mentoring as did Kalamazoo’s Can-Do Kitchen, a food business incubator that is in the process of expanding to provide support for entrepreneurs of all kinds, Gardner says.
A friend suggested that she call her family’s peanut brittle “Papa’s” because he was always involved with it.
“I was calling it Granny’s Brittle because it was really my mother’s recipe although my mother and dad always did it together,” Gardner says.
Her decision to change the name was reinforced when she noticed there were already too many products named for grannies, Nana’s or Jacque’s (her mother’s name).
Papa’s Peanut Brittle is being sold at the Midtown Fresh supermarket, Park Street Market, Food Dance Café, C’s Perfect Tie, and The Homemade Shop. Although the product has received sales through connections people have made with Gardner on Facebook, a website for the business was just launched this week
She is in the throes of taking on two part-time workers to help her cook, fill orders, and make deliveries. Their first big challenge is preparing enough treats to sell at Southwest Michigan First’s upcoming Catalyst University event. The organizers have asked for 1,700 bags to sell. That annual business empowerment event is scheduled for Jan. 26 and 27 at the Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites in downtown Kalamazoo.
Doreen Gardner holds a bag of Papa’s Peanut Brittle that she’s producing at Kalamazoo‘s Can-Do Kitchen.
Using space at Kalamazoo’s Can-Do Kitchen has been essential for her young business – allowing it to relocate the cooking, spreading, and cooling process of their product from the kitchen and other rooms of Gardner’s home, to a professional setting with more elbow room.
“Can-Do Kitchen is a great point of connection to resources in the community,” Gardner says.
She says Sisters in Business taught her the fundamentals of business such as the basics of accounting, marketing, bookkeeping, how to craft a business plan, and how to pitch her business. Can-Do Kitchen, which is in the process of expanding to support entrepreneurs of all industries, taught her the nuts and bolts of what she needs to know to operate a food business. It also provided her with connections and resources to do it.
It is helping her with practical tasks such as creating packaging that is imprinted with the product ingredients, finding a source to determine the nutritional value of her product, and determining the shelf-life of her product.
Asked how big she’d like her company to grow, Gardner laughs and says, “Global.”
“I want to get this into Walmart,” she says. “I’d love to get it into Target. I would love to get it into Meijer. So those are some key stores right out of the box. But I’d love to have a company that is serving a global market because what that means is that I’m in a position of providing jobs and I’m helping the economy here in Kalamazoo, Mich. So, yes, I’d love to see it go global.”
What would she tell others about going into business?
“I really believe that there’s safety in numbers,” she says. “A lot of times we’ll jump up and we’ll try to do something. We’ll try to do it on our own, research it on our own. But I would say (it’s better) to utilize the resources that we have. And I think that’s one of the reasons Papa’s Peanut Brittle has taken off to the extent it has, is because of the resources, and utilizing the resources, and making those connections with people. It’s like gold in your hands when you connect with the right people, get in the right places, (and) the right spaces. Then you can grow.”