By Susan Marquez
When Bruce Parker and his brother opened a convenience store on a dry county line on the west side of Tupelo in 2003, he never dreamed he would one day sell their house made chicken salad and pimiento cheese to over 500 retailers in 12 states. The brothers were selling beer to folks across the road, and like most convenience stores, they served food. “We came from a food service background, and we wanted our offerings to be better than most gas station food.”
Parker says they cooked their own plate lunches and had seating in the store. “One Sunday a pharmaceutical rep came in with his family for lunch,” says Parker. “He asked me if we could cater to doctors’ offices. We had never done anything like that before, but I didn’t think it would be that hard.” They went to Sam’s and bought containers and began a catering business on the side. “We started catering for weddings and other events,” he recalls. “We called the catering business West End Catering, because people were paying us a lot of money to cater their events and we didn’t want them to know it came from a gas station.”
While they had a set menu, Parker says they would ask what people really wanted, explaining, “We could do anything, from petit fours to a whole hog.” One of their regular catering clients was a hospital that sponsored a monthly meeting of a women’s group at the First Baptist Church in Tupelo. “There would be anywhere from 200 to 500 women at the events,” says Parker. “One month we got a call saying they wanted chicken salad on a bed of lettuce with crackers and a croissant. Afterwards, ladies began coming into our store asking if they could buy the chicken salad; they loved it.” The chicken salad is a sweet relish-based recipe. They began packaging it in one-pound containers and selling it in a deli case in the convenience store.
“My mom began making desserts for us. We sold pie by the slice and other treats.”
Parker’s “aha” moment occurred when a woman came in and ordered six pounds of chicken salad. “I said, ‘that’s a lot of chicken salad, what kind of event are you having?’” The woman told him she was taking it back to friends in Oxford, a 45-minute drive away. “I was shocked that someone would drive 45 minutes to buy chicken salad. I realized then that we should probably get it into other stores.” Parker’s first stop was Palmer’s on the east side of Tupelo. “I asked if they’d stock it, and they said yes,” he recalls. “So I went to another store, and they said they had heard it was good stuff, and they’d love to carry it as well.
Seeing the potential in a wholesale business, Parker soon split off from his brother and set up shop in an empty restaurant to start making chicken salad. They were rocking along until a call from the Department of Agriculture. “They told me we couldn’t do what we were doing. But they helped us get into compliance, a complicated process. We got licensed to sell products outside the state and picked up stores in Memphis and Alabama.” West End Fresh Salads are now available in Kroger, Piggly Wiggly, Cash Saver, Food Giant, Food Rite, Mac’s Fresh Market, Foodland and other stores in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana Florida, Georgia, Texas Tennessee, and Illinois.
With business booming, they had to move into another building, allowing the company to expand to nine products. “We have the original chicken salad, and a dill relish-based chicken salad. My wife introduced her pimiento cheese recipe, and we’ve also added a jalapeño pimiento cheese. We also have a grab-and-go snack kit with either chicken salad or pimiento cheese, Captain’s wafers, and a wooden spoon.”
Since they’ve been through the process of learning about mass production, distributors, food brokers and such, Parker says his company is now working with other food manufacturers.
“We are co-packers for several food products, including making bagels for Dave’s Bagels in Memphis; Arbo’s Cheese Dip, which is sold in several different states; Oxford Falls Bloody Mary mix; and products for Pimento’s, a restaurant chain in Memphis. “I love being part of making dreams a reality by developing and manufacturing other products and getting it into stores. There are a lot of people trying to get into the food business, so we are happy we can help.”
For more information on West End Fresh Salads, visit the company’s website at westendfreshsalads.com.