Entrepreneurs Kzoo Kitchens

Papa’s legacy is a sweet taste for a new entrepreneur and her customers

Doreen Gardner quit her job of 15 years at her church and is turning her family's peanut brittle recipe into a family business.

In just over a year, Doreen Gardner went from a Facebook post offering up 200 pounds of the peanut brittle that she and her mother made to her new Papa’s Peanut Brittle business turning out 30 pounds a night during the peak demand a few weeks ago.

“People were looking to buy the peanut brittle to give as gifts,” Gardner says. “A lot of them were repeats because they bought the peanut brittle as gifts, but they ate the gifts and had to replace them.”

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That was a whirlwind year for Gardner, learning entrepreneurship as part of a support network for Black business owners and using tools from a local commercial kitchen incubator. 

This year, she’s picking up the pace. The half-century-old secret family recipe may have made a name for itself as a staple of holiday gifting, but Gardner has bigger plans for the for sticky sweet-and-salty treat.

She now has three weeks to finish up 850 pounds for a local entrepreneurs’ competition, packaged in her signature shiny blue eight-ounce bags adorned with her father’s picture on the logo.  

a blue package of Papa's Peanut Brittle

At the end of 2021, she retired from her job at her church to pursue what she calls a passion that she inherited from her parents.

“They made it to give away during Christmas time to family and friends. It wasn’t just the peanut brittle. My mom made little chocolates and cookies, little tins, as a way to express their love,” Gardner says. “And we would watch them and laugh at them as kids because they would be so doggone funny in the kitchen.”

When Gardner’s mom asked her to help make the family’s peanut brittle in 2020, whether they knew it or not, it was time for the legacy to be passed on.

In January 2021, her father passed away. That same month, she was offered a spot in a new Black Entrepreneur Training Academy, organized by two small business support groups Black Wall Street Kalamazoo and Sisters In Business. Something told her it was the right decision.

Initially she named it Granny’s Brittle, but in the Academy’s marketing class she found out just how many products there were with that name in it. Nana’s didn’t work, either. Neither did Jackie, her mother’s name. Then an instructor reminded her that it was both of her parents in the kitchen making memories for the family and candy for loved ones.

“And then the legacy part connected, and that’s how it was called Papa’s,” Gardner says. “I just bawled in class when she made that connection.”

With these classes under her belt, Gardner was brought into the Can-Do Kitchen, a food business test kitchen for entrepreneurs, where she now makes her peanut brittle nearly every night.

“I went in and met with a couple of the ladies there and analyzed what I was missing and things I needed to know to be successful and meet the laws of food handling and regulating,” Gardner says. “From there it was on.”

She got connected with wholesalers and distributors, and customers found her candy at Food Dance restaurant, at a kiosk at Crossroads Mall, grocery stores Midtown Fresh Market and Park Street Market, and as far away as Purple Porch Co-op in South Bend, Ind.

“I feel like I have gotten support from the entire community, and it feels like I matter to the entire community,” says Gardner. “I am very grateful for that just to know there are people who want to see me as a Black woman succeed in business.”

doreen gardner cleaning pans
Doreen Gardner greases pans for preparing peanut brittle.

As an associate minister at Mount Zion Baptist Church, Gardner recalls teaching that “your passion will take you places other things can’t keep you because the passion is who you are.” 

As an entrepreneur, it was a lesson she had no choice but to take to heart as well. 

“There were some days where that’s all I would think about from sunup to sundown: what could I do next with the peanut brittle,” Gardner says.

She hasn’t set up a formal website yet, concerned she would get more orders than she could fulfill but has taken steps to get to that point.

Gardner has entered Catalyst University’s Makers’ Mart, an annual event organized by Southwest Michigan First, for which she has the help of her two daughters as well as her granddaughter to make 1,700 bags for the Jan. 26 competition.

“My goal would be to get it in stores like Target, Walmart, Meijer where it’s actually sitting on the shelf for nine months of the year,” she says, the candy being too sticky to stay fresh in the summer.

She’s not telling anyone the recipe save for the family she has enlisted in her business, though at this pace she thinks she’ll need to hire outside staff soon, as she focuses on expanding her product lines and customer base.

“I do have cashew and I have pecan,” she says, and this year “there’s one more surprise that I’ll bring out.”

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