When Alicia Clemens’s family thought about the best way to keep their deceased father’s memory alive, they had to look no further than their kitchen.
Gary Clemens, an asphalt worker who passed away in January of 2012, never wrote down the recipe for his signature blend of spices, known only to family and friends. His family had to re-recreate the ratios of spices–similar to Lawry’s Seasoned Salt–by memory, taste and a little luck.
"He was always putting it on pork chops," says Alicia Clemens, 25, one of Gary’s four children. "Everyone he gave it to just raved about it. We figured, why not let the world know about it? It’s our way of honoring our dad, and spreading his love."
And so, "Gary’s Classic," based on the original recipe, was born, initially sold door-to-door and at their place of worship, Valley Family Church, under the name of their new business, Season for a Reason
, which launched a few years ago.
But Alicia, and the two other family members–Aaron, 23, one of his three sons, and Lori, his wife–didn’t stop there. Currently, there are five different varieties of seasonings, including "Gary’s Classic", ranging in spiciness from the mild "Delicious Dash" to the mouth-tingling and aptly named "Fiery Flavor." Sizes range from 2.82 oz. to 3.52 oz., depending on the flavor. All retail for $3.99.
The recipes are proprietary, and Alicia says the ingredients are all natural and gluten free. Instead of sugar, the business uses a heat component to "kick-up the flavor."
"People tell us they use the seasonings on popcorn, steaks, chicken, pork chops – even spaghetti sauce," she says. "They are really versatile. We hope it helps people eat better, too. Being healthy can sometimes mean bland tasting food. We have people using our products and posting their own recipes on our Facebook
site. It’s a good way to market. They’re like a family to us and encourage us to keep going."
Season for a Reason got a boost from Western Michigan University’s Starting Gate
program, which Alicia learned about while a student there.
Starting Gate is a fast-track student business accelerator that provides students with the resources to develop their startup companies. Located in the Park Trades Center Building in downtown Kalamazoo and operated by the Haworth College of Business Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in partnership with the WMU’s Office of Community Outreach, the program is open to all WMU students through a competitive application process in which students must demonstrate a promising idea for a product or service, which can be launched within a short period of time.
"They helped us come up with ideas for marketing of our products. We didn’t really know what to do initially," Alicia says. "The program was a big help moving forward."
The Can-Do Kitchen
saw potential in the business, too.
Lucy Dilley, executive director of the local nonprofit small business incubator, says there is a niche for small batch, locally produced specialty items like Season for a Reason. Alicia and Aaron can be found in the Can-Do Kitchen’s Lake Street facility every few weeks, using the commercial kitchen space there to mix and package their seasoning blends.
"People still want to know where their food is made," Dilley says. "People want to engage with a local company. As long as these small businesses can keep connecting one-on-one, they will have a place. I have their seasonings on my table at home."
Perhaps more than that, though, Dilly says Season for a Reason’s personal, emotional narrative connects them to customers.
"They have that deep connection with their product," she says. "Everyone and every small business person has a story. Some are more at the forefront, like Alicia and her family. They learned quickly to use that as a marketing tool, which we encourage. We tell all our clients to seek out a story that illustrates your product and why you make it.
"They are a joy to work with, kind people who listen a lot. That they are centered around doing what their dad did would make him proud. It’s really admirable."
Customers seem to be taking to Season for a Reason.
In addition to their weekly stint at the Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market, Season for a Reason can be found in several area food retailers, including the People’s Food Co-Op, Natural Health Center and the Harding’s locations on South Westnedge and West Centre avenues, with Lori constantly visiting shops and stores to try to convince them to carry their products.
Still, for as local and organic as the process has been, the Clemens’s have been in talks with larger retailers, including Hyvee, a Midwestern grocery store chain with more than 240 locations in states west of Michigan.
But no matter how large they may grow, it will always come back to Gary, Alicia says.
The real reason for Season for a Reason, she says: "This is a healing process. Being able to share some of him with the world, it helps us. It’s like therapy. It feels good to talk about him and do something he’d be excited about. His (Gary’s Classic) mix is still the most popular.
"When we get into a new store, and people who knew him see the product, they say to us, ‘your dad would be so proud.’ I think he would be, too."
Chris Killian has been a writer and journalist in the Kalamazoo area for over 10 years. His work has been published in multiple local publications, including the Kalamazoo Gazette and WMUK. You can find more about Killian, his work, and projects he’s working on by visiting chriskillian.net.