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California Couple Starts Thriving Business During the Recession

Updated on July 5, 2016

Down and out Los Angeles family finds that the recession was the perfect time to start a business. Here's how they turned disaster into prosperity.

When Mark Sleeper (Los Angeles) was laid off in 2008, his wife Christina had been out of the workforce for five years. She was a stay-at-home Mom raising the couple's small child. The young family was in crisis at a time when jobs were disappearing and opportunities few. Their response to their predicament holds valuable lessons for others. Christina Sleeper spoke to Hubpages about their journey back to prosperity.

Rising From the Ashes

"It's always some sort of catastrophe that leads you to something greater," Sleeper explained.

The Sleepers road the first wave of lay offs in the real-estate industry. Christina describes their situation as "really scary." They started taking little steps which ultimately led to the creation of Sleeper's Magic Gourmet Foods. Their company offers artisan jams, cakes, cookies, gift baskets and more, along with Sleepers Magic Rubs, Christina's signature spice blends.

Spice rubs are a Southern barbeque tradition. Rubbing spices into meat, forces the spices into the fibers of the meat, where they have a chemical reaction, breaking down and tenderizing the flesh. It is also a cooking technique with multiple applications.

Preparing and Launching a Small Business

Christina has degrees in computer programming, communications and journalism from the University of Cincinnati. She worked in journalism for years. She also has a wealth of experience working in restaurants and private catering. She thought, "What can I do?" The question led her back to her journalism roots, "write what you know."

She realized that she already knew how to create newsletters and flyers -- necessary skills for launching a new business. Mark had managed a five star property and worked as a cook. Between the two of them, they had more than 40 years of professional experience in the food industry.

But, a new company requires more than past experience. It takes a passion that provides the drive to push through the murky waters of developing a successful business. What Christina loved was preparing food. For years, she had been making Sleepers Magic Rub, her original spice blend, which the couple had been giving to friends as holiday gifts.

"At Christmas," Sleeper explained, "people think of sweets, but this was a way of giving a food gift that could be used throughout the year."

Sleepers Magic Rub was a hit with friends, who were always asking for more. The couple wondered if they would be willing to buy the product. In six weeks, Christina had put together a business plan and marketing material. Before they knew it, they had the package. Combining their professional mailing lists, they prepared an e-mail about Sleeper's Magic Rub. 3000 people received their first mailing. Friends were supportive, excited and made purchases. The business was on its way.

Growing a Business on a Small Budget

"We needed to grow the name," she stated, "and Los Angeles is the second largest city in the country."

With little monetary capital to invest in growing their new business, the Sleepers looked for local opportunities to get out there in the real world with their product. They started displaying and grilling at grassroots events and fund-raisers. Handing out free samples brought in new customers. They had soon expanded their following to 7000. In late 2009, they started doing boutiques.

When Sleeper exhibits at boutiques, she can't always grill. She generally serves Sleepers Magic Rub on popcorn or blends it with cheese and serves it on crackers.

Expanding the Product Line

Spurred on by the popularity of her original blend, Sleeper developed Fowl, a rub for poultry. She markets it with the catchy phrase, "The Magic word is Rub Your Bird."

Another expansion to the business came after a trip to Yosemite. The Sleepers stopped at a roadside market selling nectarines for $5 a case. Christina bought a case of nectarines and another of plums. Sleeper had been making jam for four years but hadn't thought of selling it.

"I learned from my mother-in-law," she explained, "She had acres of raspberries and blueberries. My Italian grandmother used to can as well."

Taking advantage of every name-growing opportunity soon resulted in a customer list blanketing 20 states, Europe and Japan. In 2010, she landed a contract to make 200 jars of jam. That time, she used the customer's recipes not her own. The Sleepers also created the private label.

"Packaging is everything," explained Christina, who Helps her husband with graphic design, "if a product doesn't visually entice the buyer, they may not want to taste it."

The popularity of her spice rubs is growing in part because of the way she continues to innovate the recipes. When she visits boutiques, she gives away her recipe for veggie black bean chili which won a prize at a regional chili contest.

Growing a Small Business

The Sleepers are in the process of "re-branding" to make the major push to retail shelves in 2012. Their company name is now sleeper's gourmet. In November they launched several new products including Ole Ole, a new blend of Magic Rub with a south-of-the-border flavor. Magic Nuggets, a new snack, are sour dough crisps seasoned with Magic Rubs.

"They work great in salads or in our signature stuffing," Sleeper explained, "Also, our culinary coaching services are expanding, and we hope to unveil our new website soon."


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