Paula Deen is back, y’all.
The embattled Southern celebrity chef is staging a comeback, and she’s doing it in partnership with Clarence’s Nanco Group, the Nanula family group of companies that was behind Wilson Farms.
“I felt like I’d known them all forever,” Deen said in a telephone interview. “They are the kind of people you almost think don’t exist anymore. I’m so blessed to have crossed paths with them.”
Deen will be at a ribbon-cutting today at the Paula Deen Foods store on Main Street in Clarence and a 3 p.m. appearance at Samuel’s Grande Manor in Clarence.
She also surprised customers Friday in Dash’s Market on Main Street in Clarence.
The Nanula family has been in the grocery business for decades, beginning with patriarch Savino Nanula, a former meat department manager who helped found Tops Friendly Markets grocery chain in the 1950s.
So when mutual friends of Deen’s said she was looking for someone to develop a line of specialty food products for her three years ago, Nanco threw its hat into the ring.
“We flew down to Savannah and spent about a day and a half at her house,” said Steven Nanula, CEO of Paula Deen Foods. “Before we left, she turned to her manager and said, ‘I want to partner with these guys.’ ”
Nanula brought in a team of food technicians to replicate her home recipes – such as chicken seasoning and her signature ooey gooey butter cake – for mass production.
“They thought they would be in a lab, but we were in her kitchen and her pantry,” said Nick Gallegos, a partner at Paula Deen Foods. “She wouldn’t let these guys go. She’d say, ‘You almost got it, honey, but here’s how you do it.’ ”
The result is a diverse line of packaged and fresh foods – spices, barbecue sauces, salad dressings, tortilla chips, packaged cake mixes and, of course, butter.
Deen is known for decadent recipes drenched in butter, but a 2012 diabetes diagnosis prompted a change in course with a focus on moderation.
That created an opportunity for Paula Deen Foods, which revamped her signature ingredient by developing several flavors of finishing butters. Her finishing butter is real butter meant to be used sparingly at the end of the cooking process to add flavor.
The company also came out with a line of sugar-free chocolate, produced mainly by Buffalo’s own Landies Candies.
Nanula sees another huge opportunity in branded perishable foods (think Dole brand lettuce, Jennie-O brand turkey), which is a fast-growing segment of the grocery industry. Its main foray is with Springer Mountain Farms Chicken, a line of vegetarian-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free packaged chicken out of Georgia, which Deen uses in her Lady and Sons restaurant in Savannah.
“We said, ‘What’s going to work on the shelf?’ That’s our expertise,” Nanula said. “The perishables and fresh meal solutions categories are perfectly aligned with Paula because Paula is all about fresh, she’s all about good ingredients and tasting good.”
Paula Deen Foods is initially making its major push in Southern grocery stores, such as Publix, Winn-Dixie and Food Lion. Deen’s store in the Clarence Hollow neighborhood opened in November and houses Paula Deen Foods’ offices. It also serves as a showroom for retailers in the Northeast. Over the next two months, the company’s national sales team will begin making calls to place the items in stores here.
The company’s early line of chocolates and salad dressings had been carried at several local grocery stores until June, when news broke that Deen had used racial slurs in the past.
At the same time, the Food Network dropped her cooking show; pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk stopped employing her as a spokeswoman; and Target, Walmart and Home Depot stopped carrying her non-Nanco-affiliated line of cookware.
But while those companies were very publicly dropping the ax, Savino Nanula sent out a statement in full support of Deen.
“I personally know Paula to be a woman of compassion and fairness who is committed to treating all people with respect. Furthermore, I believe that everyone is entitled to make mistakes and to be forgiven,” he said, in part.
Many fans also continued to support Deen, pushing her cookbook “Paula Deen’s New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up” to Amazon’s best-seller list months before it was even released. Hundreds of her fans are expected at Samuel’s Grande Manor for a 60-minute appearance by Deen following a high-priced VIP luncheon.
“We love Paula, and she loves us,” Nanula said. “We’ve been with her through thick and thin.”