Inner-City Students Hit Spot With Salad Oil in Post-Riot L.A.

TWO years to the week after the costliest riots in United States history, seeds of hope in one community here are finally sprouting green.

From what began as a small vegetable garden behind inner-city Crenshaw High School, a volunteer-run coop to help the needy has blossomed into the nation's first student-run natural foods company: Food From the 'Hood. With the promise of providing college scholarships for students at this predominantly African American and Latino school, 40 budding teenage entrepreneurs this week unveiled their first retail product - salad dressing - to no less than a national market.

``We realized the best thing we can do for our community is get an education,'' says Jaynell Grayson, a founding student owner who helped concoct ``Straight Out' the Garden,'' a basil, parsley, and garlic-flavored condiment unveiled this week in over 2,000 outlets here as well as stores in Seattle, San Francisco, Iowa, Missouri, and Colorado.

The nonprofit business selling the dressing has projected earnings as high as $200,000 a year, to be divided among co-owners upon graduation. The group is following in the footsteps of actor Paul Newman, whose ``Newman's Own'' line of dressings provides millions of dollars for 400 charities.

``What the students have done here is phenomenal,'' says Russell Landreth, president of Bromar, the food industry marketing firm that has advised the group. Mr. Landreth insists his firm has shown the students what to do, but has not done it for them. ``They have made one of the most successful product launches possible in one of the largest supermarket industries in the nation,'' he says. Projected earnings are conservative, he says, based on selling only 12 bottles at $2.59 each a week at each outlet.

``It was [the student's] planning, their initiative, their passion, and their enthusiasm that sold it,'' he says. Once they had decided on ingredients, title, and packaging, the students themselves had to convince supermarkets to put the product on their shelves by making in-store presentations.

`IT looks good, it tastes good, and we expect to see repeat sales,'' says Kevin Davis, senior vice-president of Ralph's Grocery Co., one of Southern California's largest chains.

``I learned that not only am I selling a product, but myself and the integrity of all my colleagues,'' says Ben Osborne, a participant. ``Having such a large stake in the outcome and promise of all this has really been an empowering experience.''

The students have had help. Rebuild L.A., the coalition of government agencies and businesses that sprang up after the riots to help spark investment in the region, donated $50,000 to create offices out of a run-down biology lab that used to house rabbits and hamsters. Other investors include Southern California Gas Company and area-based foundations.

A Los Angeles public relations professional left her job a year ago to work full time on the project. Eager to generate community healing after the riots, Melinda McMullen met Crenshaw High's biology teacher, Tammy Bird, who had already helped students create a garden from a weed-infested lot behind the biology lab. Students were growing fresh produce, which they donated to local homeless shelters and sold to keep the garden going. Because profits were so limited - they made $600 the first year - students and advisers decided to turn the garden into a business.

``We wanted to empower the students by giving them a stake in the results of the project,'' says Ms. McMullen. ``Since the garden was full of lettuce and herbs, we decided, why not make the stuff that goes on top?'' She says she knew the kids were on the right path when they came up with a mission statement to be printed on the salad label: Create jobs for youth; prove that businesses can be environmentally friendly, socially responsible, and profitable; show what young adults can accomplish; use this experience to prepare for the future.

``I told them that if other companies were as committed to their community, America might not be in such trouble now,'' she says.

The group of students started linking up with area professionals for guidance, among them Norris Bernstein, whose family ran a restaurant and salad dressing business in Long Beach for three generations. Paula Savett, president of a local salad dressing packer helped students decide on ingredients. Her company manufactures the dressing and packs it into 12-ounce bottles. A minority-owned Los Angeles investment banking firm helped the students write a business plan. Each co-owner must participate in an intensive employee development program which includes tutoring in math, Spanish, science, English, and computer programming.

``I've learned all about business to the point where I want to make business my major,'' says Osufu Washington, a junior who wants to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., the year after next. Students have had to calculate per-unit expenses on manufacturing, shipping, marketing and sales, and brokerage as well as general administrative fees.

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