Before the housing bubble crashed in 2007, Florence Karp was happily ensconced in her career as a mortgage broker. Then one day, two scheduled closings abruptly fell apart. Soon after, so did the longtime Brooklyn Park resident’s livelihood.
“It was terrible,” she recalled with a smile, now able to laugh over the setback.
Karp is no stranger to dramatic life changes. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, she worked as a teacher, a seamstress, and a caterer, before immigrating to the U.S. in search of more opportunities. After an initial pit stop in Philadelphia, a place that struck Karp as harsh and unpleasant, she questioned her idealized notions of life in the U.S.
Then in 1997, friends invited Karp to St. Paul. Despite the shock of the cold climate, Karp quickly took a liking to the Twin Cities. After completing the requisite classes and a two-year apprenticeship, she obtained her mortgage broker’s license.
Following the collapse of the housing market, Karp pivoted and reinvented herself as a life coach and motivational speaker. In 2015, she published a self-help book, My Choices: Start Taking Action and Create the Life You Want.
At a business convention, Karp ran into an old mentor who inquired what she was up to. Karp told him about her work as a life coach and then showed off her book.
“He looked at it and he said, ‘This is great. I’m just wondering, do you think you can retire on this?’ I said, ‘No. And I don’t think my children want to start a life-coaching business,’” Karp recalled. “He said, ‘Why don’t you go into the food business?’”
Karp had long been reluctant to take that plunge, mainly because she worried that running a restaurant in the U.S. might entail unforeseen legal hassles. “I thought if anybody gets sick, you get sued,” Karp said.
“Then my friend told me: You can get in the food business in many other ways. Go do your research.”
That suggestion flipped the light switch. Growing up in Lagos, Karp had helped with her mother’s buka–the informal (and wildly popular) restaurants in Nigeria that sell street foods to the masses. Cuisine was always central to her life. Even when Karp was in the mortgage business, she loved to prepare African feasts for co-workers to enjoy at lunchtime.
So in 2016, Karp incorporated Chef Flo-K foods. It was a few more years before she officially released her product, Afric Sauce: a hearty blend of tomatoes, peppers, and various spices that can be paired with a wide variety of entrees.
One of her big setbacks: The first iteration of Afric Sauce required refrigeration.
“I made little samples and sold it at farmers markets. People loved it,” Karp said. “But when I went to the stores, they said, ‘We have no place to refrigerate it. You will have to bring your own refrigerator.’ I said, I can’t afford that.”
Ultimately, Karp reformulated her recipe and hired an outside company to manufacture a more shelf-stable product. She launched the business with a combination of personal savings and a grant.
“That process took me almost three years,” she said. “But if you are in love with something you’re doing, you don’t care.”
Karp now sells Afric Sauce—hot and mild—online and at several local retailers, including Kowalskis, Hy-Vee, North Market in Minneapolis, and Seasoned Specialty Food Market in St. Paul.
Karp told Sahan Journal that the pandemic has created challenges for her fledgling enterprise. She is still avoiding the kind of in-person demonstrations and food-market appearances that are key to her expansion plans. While business is good, she added, it could be better.
Even if you are the CEO, you might also be the delivery driver. “I do this on my own. I deliver to each store on my own. They place an order and I will drive there and give them the invoice.”
Adjust your plans to fit your financial realities. “To me, the biggest obstacle to growth is funding. If I had enough money, I would have built a commercial kitchen of my own. My other option was getting a contract packer, which I did. My goal is to work with distributors who can help me go nationwide.”
It’s not just about getting a distributor. Marketing agencies don’t work for free. And there are fees that stores charge you. Finance was challenging at the startup of the business and still challenging now, as I need more working capital to grow and expand the business.”
Know what your goal is. “My vision is to bring people together to better understand African culture and cuisine. I cannot take you to Africa but at least I can bring the taste of Africa to your kitchen. Afric Sauce gives an emotional connection to African food. It’s very convenient and it’s big step up from a TV dinner. But you can use my sauce in sloppy joes.”
And don’t quit until you reach it. “The advice I have for anyone who is looking to start a business is to make sure you start a business that you are passionate with. Be persistent and never give up.”