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Wholesome foods, philanthropy are products of entrepreneur's life experiences

By Vicky Newman
The Commercial Dispatch - Columbus, MS
Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Healthful junk food. Having earned a degree in English and writing, Columbus native Leigh Oliver Smith Vickery knows that the term is an oxymoron, something that's completely contradictory. But that's exactly what Vickery strives to offer with her new line of “all natural fun foods,” Leigh Oliver's, which is sold through Whole Foods Inc. and Central Market locations.

Vickery is convinced that providing delicious, natural and nutritious foods - “good food for all mankind” - is a major purpose of her life. She has been venting her creativity in the kitchen since she was about 5.

“As far back as I can remember, I have been in the kitchen,” she says. “It was my playground. A room full of possibility and imagination. My parents are truly a big piece of the puzzle. Mom and Dad allowed me free rein to do stuff in the kitchen.”

Dr. Perrin Smith, Vickery's father, remembers how, as a little girl, Leigh experimented, creating everything from cookies to casseroles, and even her own gelatin flavors. “She would always come up with her own recipes. Some you could eat, and some you couldn't,” he says, laughing. “They were always unique - something different. Both of our girls loved to cook, but Leigh would stir up whatever we had in the pantry.”

That penchant for cooking was honed when the young Vickery worked for Elizabeth Proffitt at Proffitt's Porch, and at other restaurants. After graduating in 1986 from Heritage Academy, she earned a degree in English and writing from Baylor University, but cooking never was far from her mind. The interest would only intensify when she married Ron Vickery, and had children - sons, Will and Smith.


Vickery, who now lives in Tyler, Texas, says, “I love to imagine new wonderful tastes and share them with my friends and family. I have a passion for cooking, and I could never find quality all-natural food. I lived and worked at home. I wanted to do my own thing. I had two boys, and I thought when they got old enough, I could do more.

“Over the last few years, as I was raising my children, I would try to feed them better. I am not obsessed with health foods - I love junk food, but if you cook food fresh, it automatically tastes better.”

Friends and acquaintances thought so, too. In fact, Vickery often was told she needed to market her foods. She found the idea appealing.

Cooking up a business

“A couple of years ago, I met with a business and grocery manufacturer that markets all - natural fun food. My kids were growing up so fast. I hired a manufacturer out of Austin and gave him the formula. We worked to come up with a recipe to go from a small batch to mass production in a huge manufacturing plant.”



At that meeting, Vickery's first and foremost question concerned the manufacturer's maximum capacity. “I knew I wanted it to be big from the beginning. I wanted it to be more than just Texas - to be able to grow.”

Vickery envisioned a line with national distribution, and she educated herself on what would be required to make it happen. “I researched like crazy. I talked to people in the industry. I learned about shelf life. The money part. Ted Berry, my cousin from West Point who had worked for Bryan Foods helped me a lot. I was curious to learn. I knew I wanted to do it right. Everyone was so nice and helpful to me, and I learned through trial and error.”

Fortunately, Vickery had the full support of her attorney/accountant husband, and her two sons. All played a part to launch the business. “My husband took on a second job at night. I feel sorry for him. He does all the billing, inventory and the invoices. I do the creative side and he does everything else.”

Vickery needed a name for her products. One of the things she learned early on was that people identify with a person's face. “I came up with the name Leigh Oliver's. I decided to call it Leigh Oliver's because Oliver is my middle name. It is my mother's maiden name, that I am named for. And, it is my grandmother's name.”

Vickery's grandmother, Eva Belle Oliver from Grenada, passed on her recipes to her granddaughter, and helped to fuel her passion for cooking in the beginning.

With lots of help and support, along with hard work, Leigh Oliver's became a reality this year.

“The biggest part was to get it out of my head. It's a whole different ballgame to get it on the shelf. I really wanted to do this, but it is a huge undertaking. I got positive feedback. I am 40 this year. I thought, if I don't try it I will never do it.”

A higher purpose

For Vickery, the Leigh Oliver's food line is about more than simply providing a product. It is her way to give back, she says, and have a positive impact on society.

“My mom and dad are very generous and they raised us that way, giving to charities. Then, for three years I was a writer for a faith-based philanthropic group. I was immersed in it. I witnessed generosity like I have never seen before. I guess that's why I feel called to do this.”

The Leigh Oliver's line of fun foods launched at all Central Market locations Jan. 21 and hit the Whole Foods Southwest Region Feb. 1. The first three products to hit the stores are specialty white queso dips: White Queso with green chiles, White Hot Queso with roasted jalapenos and Spinach and Tomato Queso. Online sales are available through the company Web site at www.leigholivers.com.

The three products are just the first of an entire line of “all-natural fun foods” in the works.

Vickery earmarks 50 percent of all profits from Leigh Oliver's for charity. The philanthropic mix of Leigh Oliver's uses charities already in place with their vendors, coming alongside to be a part of their mission. For example, Whole Foods' Whole Planet Foundation will receive 50 percent of the profits from sales in all Whole Foods stores. The Boys and Girls Club of America will receive 50 percent of the profits from sales in HEB's upscale Central Markets. The Modest Needs Foundation is the recipient from all online sales.

By creating a way to help others, Vickery says she feels she has identified her purpose in life. A positive impact on society is more important than making money. “It's neat to see the dots connect in my life, and my purpose become clear. I get to cook, to sell food, and the profits will help others. I am so excited to get a shot to do what I want to do.”

Distribution agreements for Leigh Oliver's products are being finalized, and Vickery is working to introduce her foods at various locations. Already they are in California, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The closest store to Columbus that carries Leigh Oliver's is the Whole Foods store in Birmingham, Ala. “I would love to get them in Columbus, in my hometown,” she says.

Last weekend, she was committed to demo her products at a store in Little Rock, Ark., when her children got sick with the flu.

“Mother and Daddy came to help me,” she says. “I have wonderful parents. They help all of us when we need help. They have been wonderfully supportive.”

Vickery says she enjoys an opportunity to interact with customers and talk to them about Leigh Oliver's.

B.J. Smith, her mother, says she cannot express her pride in her daughter's accomplishment. “It's been a lovely thing to watch. This is just another extension for her. She has always been creative, and loves to serve.”

For more information, visit the Web site at www.leigholivers.com. Contact Vickery by e-mail at leigh@leigholivers.com or call (903) 245-9183.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 


 

 
 
 

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