Browns Corn Dogs. Image Supplied.
Browns Corn Dogs. Image Supplied.
  • A Joburg couple started their booming frozen convenience food business after a spontaneous corn dog recipe was a hit at their daughter's 11th birthday party.
  • Although the pair had no experience in retail, persistence, confidence, and belief in their product paid off.
  • They secured a deal with the Shoprite Group to list their frozen corn dog product in 117 stores.
  • And more retailers - even those who initially rejected them - have since taken notice.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

A spontaneous catering decision during her child’s 11th birthday party helped Mabel Akinlabi and her husband Wale develop a frozen convenience food that’s now stocked in over 100 Checkers supermarkets around South Africa.

It was late into the 2019 birthday party when Mabel decided to taunt the children with one last treat - a homemade corn dog.

This quintessentially American food item, in its most basic form a Vienna-style sausage on a stick covered in a yellow maize batter, which is then deep fried, dates back to the United States in the 1940s. Since the mid-1900s, the corn dog has earned a place in popular culture as the ultimate fairground and sporting event fast-food snack, and has become an established item in many US frozen food aisles as well.

Today, the corn dog is a small but pivotal player in a global hot dog and sausage industry that’s worth an estimated R131 trillion - and yet until now it’s had little to no widespread local presence.

In spite of their local absence, Mabel had a basic knowledge of corn dogs and wanted to give it a try to woo the already well-fed party attendees. So she made her first local versions using a few ingredients she hobbled together at home - she poked standard Vienna sausages onto kebab sticks, and with no yellow maize in the house, she turned to crushed Corn Flakes for the batter.

The result was an instant hit among the party goers, and when she did a snap survey of the children if it was something they'd coerce their parents into buying, the resounding “Yes!” was enough to make her and Wale suspect they were onto something bigger than positive playground gossip.

The pair both have strong backgrounds in broadcasting, but with little experience in the food or retail industries, they started researching the vast complexities around creating a food-based business that manufactured and sold corn dogs in South Africa. 

“When we decided to go with the idea we did research into which equipment to use, and we eventually tracked down one small video about how they make corn dogs in the US,” says Wale. 

Mabel says they didn’t realise just how closely guarded the recipes and manufacturing processes of corn dogs are, which meant “persistence was key” to finding a manufacturer. 

“We found that one video on a random farm somewhere in the US where they were making corn dogs, and the process just seemed like it would work for us. So we started doing researching into the equipment - what we needed to buy, and how much money we needed to buy it,” adds Mabel.

In the interim, they registered a company called Browns Foods, and set about trying to secure a retailer, before they even had an actual product to present.

Browns Corn Dogs. Image Supplied.
Browns Corn Dogs. Image Supplied.

“When we decided this was an awesome idea, I started calling retailers. And I honestly think Shoprite Checkers entertained us because we were blowing up their switchboard,” says Mabel.

“We joke about it now, but we went to the retailers and we sold these guys a dream. We didn't have a product, we didn't have equipment, we didn't have a factory. We had our stove. But we sold the idea, and they were like ‘OK then, we'll give you an opportunity. Go with it. Bring samples, let's see what you can do’.”

The samples they put together for the crucial meeting were anything but refined, says Wale.

“We literally went to Checkers with a bought Vienna that we put batter on, and then put onto a chopstick. But they liked it!” he says.

Off the back of this meeting, the duo decided to formalise and scale up their operation - they developed a recipe for their own sausage, came up with three flavour variations, and formulated a batter that would have a consistent taste and texture.

Wale says going from a concept on a chopstick to a full-scale food manufacturing business was a long and complicated process, that was frustrated by the coronavirus and hugely capital intensive. But they were determined to make a success of it, and with assistance from their Shoprite buyer - who helped them with everything from pricing to product development - they were able to set up a factory in the Johannesburg industrial suburb of Kya Sands and begin rolling out their product.

Browns Foods
Mabel Akinlabi, whose birthday party corn dogs started their operation. Image: Supplied.

They had scaled up production of their corn dog, and were eventually able to negotiate a deal that saw them listed in 117 Checkers stores in December last year - more than a year since the famous eleventh birthday party. 

Now, with the success of the product in Checkers stores, other retailers, some of whom initially rejected the idea, have came back to Mabel and Wale with new offers in hand - and the products will be appearing in competing supermarket chains later this year.

True to the pair’s family- and children-first mentality, Mabel says children are to thank for much of their success in stores as the main drivers in the purchasing decision of their products. And as a nod to their origin, the daughter whose birthday party prompted the idea has taken a central role in the business’s marketing collateral.

“She's busy earning her equity in the company,” Mabel jokes. “But she loves it. It's weird for her to know that she's advertising a product that honestly just came out of us playing around at her birthday party.”

All three children in the household are onboard - every time they walk into a Checkers store, Mabel says the children head straight to the frozen food aisle. 

“They’ll check the temperature and see if they're fully stocked. They'll come back and say ‘Ma it’s at minus 18, the babies are safe!’.”

Although the Akinlabis say the process has been “extremely challenging”, they’re doubling down on their new-found knowledge and success in the frozen convenience food sector with hints of new related products on the horizon, starting with a vegan corn dog range. And in spite of the many technical processes and new learnings that saw them shift from broadcasting to frozen foods, Mabel’s advice for other entrepreneurs in a similar position is to be persistent - and never give up on the idea.

“Once we'd made the decision to take this to retail, I made myself accountable to somebody who pushed me. He said ‘If you reach out and they say no, then they say no, and then you know what? You reach out again!’,” says Mabel. ”And that's been a really crucial element to our success.

Receive a daily news update on your cellphone. Or get the best of our site emailed to you

Go to the Business Insider front page for more stories.