Serial Entrepreneur Debra Griffin Turns Her Favorite Condiment into a Food Business
“Do you know what cha cha is?”
Debra Griffin is standing behind a table draped with a black tablecloth and a gold table runner. Two bowls of corn tortilla chips are placed behind a row of 2oz paper soufflé cups, containing samples of her signature product. A two tiered tower of jars are stacked opposite a poster advertising in bold text Hot, Medium and Mild, over a list of ingredients and an image of the product, Leo’s Southern Style Cha Cha.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and Debra is one of five vendors at the Detroit Made Market, a new pop-up market held at the Grand River Annex in the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood of Detroit. Today is the kickoff of the pop-up, which features local small businesses, and is held on the 3rd Saturday of every month from March until October.
Debra walks to the front of her product display table, looking around the room. She’s hoping that foot traffic picks up. She walks back behind the table, analyzing and rearranging the row of paper soufflé cups. She didn’t set out too many samples so that she could interact with people, she says.
Soon enough, a man and a woman walk up to Debra’s table.
“Would you like to try some?” Debra asks, motioning towards the samples at the top of the table. “You know what cha cha is?”
The woman takes a cup and a tortilla chip.
“It’s sweet!” the woman says, after biting into the chip with a scoop of cha cha on it. “It’s not what I expected. It’s like a sweet salsa, but it has the texture of salsa.”
Her companion, who says that his father is from the South and remembers cha cha from when he was younger, purchases 2 jars.
Another customer approaches.
“Have you heard of Cha Cha?” Debra asks the potential customer, who slowly walks by surveying her product. “It’s a condiment that was made in the South. It’s not a pickle, it’s a relish. You can put it on hot dogs, collard greens, cabbage…”
How a Family Recipe Can Turn into a Food Business
Although this is Debra’s second time as a vendor for a public event, she is by no means a novice when it comes to making and selling cha cha. She’s been pounding the pavement for at least 20 years.
Cha cha is known as a relish typically made with green tomatoes, cabbage, onions and peppers, and can be made hot and spicy, or sweet and mild. It was traditionally used in southern cooking as a condiment to enhance the flavor of greens, meats like salt pork, dried peas or beans. Debra was exposed to it as a child, when she and her parents would travel once a year to visit family in Arkansas. As she got older and noticed that fewer people were making the condiment, Debra would buy it from the store and bring it back with her to Detroit.
Twenty-four years ago, Debra learned from a relative that she didn’t need to travel outside Detroit to satisfy her craving for cha cha.
“I told [my cousin] that I couldn’t wait to get down there [to Arkansas] for our family reunion so I could get me some cha cha to bring back,” Debra says.
Her cousin, who found Debra’s comment to be funny, replied, “Girl, you ain’t gotta wait to go down there. I’ll show you how to make it.”
Debra, now being the only one in her family who makes cha cha, says she initially made it to pass it out to her friends to try. As folks came back asking for more, Debra decided to start selling it. She named her product after her father, whom she says would have liked it.
Cha cha hasn’t always been Debra’s main focus, though. Her journey is one of trial and error and exploration. She continuously pushes to expand on her knowledge and education, and tap into her creative, hustle- minded spirit. An example of the city’s long-standing, robust eco-system of side hustlers and local entrepreneurs, Debra is a licensed cosmetologist, a licensed realtor, a jewelry and bowl maker. From 2009-2013, she went to school full time, while working, to earn her bachelors and master’s degrees, intent on leaving her job as a city bus driver.
Black women are the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs. In fact, nationally the number of businesses owned by black women grew 67 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to The Nielsen Company's "African-American Women: Our Science, Her Magic" report, and they own an estimated 1.2 million businesses. Debra says she wants to be a part of the movement, so she takes advantage of the city’s resources for aspiring entrepreneurs, taking classes and participating in programs like Tech Town, ProsperUs, and FoodLab Detroit.
“I’m trying to work with everybody,” she says. “ I want to get to know people and collaborate. There’s enough money to go around. We can all help each other.”
One group she wants to collaborate with is local growers. Though she has her own garden on the side of her home, where she grows greens, tomatoes, peppers and okra, Debra says she won’t be able to grow all of the ingredients for cha cha herself as she did a year ago. As of now, she currently makes the cha cha alone or with friends in her home kitchen. Since cha cha includes green tomatoes, which are only in season between August and September, Debra wants to collaborate with more people to make as much product as she can. With help, she can participate in markets and sell through out the year until the next season.
Cha cha is only a catalyst for what Debra is striving to do. Besides making cha cha, Debra also wants to be a co-packer. As a co-packer, she wants to convert her equipment to help other people, as well as have a commercial kitchen to assist other local entrepreneurs. In front of the commercial kitchen, she envisions a small retail store where people can sell their products.
“I want to be an all-round entrepreneur,” Debra says.