PONTOTOC – Joe McGonagill has been in the grocery business for 35 years, and he’s seen many pitches and products come his way. Some have been successful, others have not.
“I’ve seen a lot come and go,” he said.
But he says one particular product stands out above all the rest, and he believes it has staying power.
That wonder-product is chicken salad, and it happens to be made by Bruce Parker of Pontotoc, owner of West End Fresh Salads.
But it’s not just any chicken salad, McGonagill said. It stands out in a field of mediocrity, as proven by sales at his store alone.
“We started selling $175 to $200 worth, then it went to $300 and $400 and then to $700 a week in less than a year,” said McGonagill, the store manager of Piggly Wiggly in Amory. “Now we’re selling $80,000 worth in a year.”
Parker has only been selling his now-famous chicken salad for three years, which includes a nearly six-month span in which the company had to await state approval for selling his products in stores.
The chicken salad, as well as pimento cheese, are sold in nearly 60 stores in Northeast Mississippi, and last week, Parker began selling in a couple of Memphis-area stores.
Parker got the entrepreneurial bug early in life while growing up near Rankin Elementary in Tupelo. In a neighborhood full of kids, he saw an opportunity to make a little money.
So what did Parker do?
“I would go buy things like Pop-Tarts and popsicles and sell them out of my bedroom window,” he said with a laugh. “I always thought it was the coolest thing – you buy something, you sell it to somebody else and you make a little money. It’s crazy! But that was my first food endeavor.”
Maybe part of the secret to his early success was using the 1950s-era classic toaster his mom got for a wedding gift that was the secret to toasting and selling those Pop-Tarts.
“It’s round, it has two slots, and it still works,” he said.
But it’s not toast that pairs best with chicken salad – it’s a good saltine cracker.
McGonagill took his first bite of Parker’s chicken salad with a cracker and was sold on it almost immediately. After suggesting he make a slight tweak to the recipe – “I told him to use just a little less celery,” McGonagill said – Parker came back with another sample.
“We just put it on the shelf. We didn’t sample it or anything, and it just started selling like wildfire,” McGonagill said.
FINDING HIS WAY
Parker didn’t get into the food business right way. He moved from Tupelo in 1992, moving to 10 cities in 10 years with his job with a wireless company. His stops included Charleston, South Carolina; Augusta, Georgia; Asheville, North Carolina and Columbia, South Carolina.
He loved the traveling, if not necessarily the job. Overseeing 20 or so sales representatives selling cell phones and pagers, Parker said it became a numbers game that made his job less enjoyable and fulfilling. Having to fire somebody who didn’t meet his sales quota was not something he wanted to do.
“I thought, ‘there has to be something better than hiring and firing people the rest of my life,’” he said.
“But the only thing I thought of that I really liked to do was working in the kitchen,” he said.
Opening a restaurant wasn’t ideal, however, having been warned by many friends not to get into the business. But with little experience with food, he wasn’t sure what path to take.
“I thought about what I could do, so I thought, well I could sell food, since I have plenty of experience in sales management,” he said.
His first attempts a landing a job didn’t go far. Most people in the business have some related experience already, such as being former restaurateurs.
“I wanted to be in the business, but I didn’t know anything about the business,” he said.
Persistence paid off after a few months, and Parker eventually landed a job with U.S. Foods, one of the nation’s largest food suppliers and distributors.
The job eventually led him back to Tupelo, but U.S. Foods bought another food supplier that already had a handful of sales representatives here. The company offered to move Parker to Fayetteville, Arkansas, but he demurred.
“If I was in just another town, sure, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but this was home.” he said.
So he left the company, with no clear plan in place.
A store on the Pontotoc and Lee County lines came up for sale, and Parker bought it. So now he was in the convenience store business.
“It was a beer store basically,” he said. “We sold a lot of beer and a lot of food. Then one day, a pharmaceutical rep came in and asked if we could deliver some food for him. So that’s how we got into the catering business.”
THE CHICKEN SALAD
The catering business grew quickly, with Parker serving groups around the area.
It might be chicken spaghetti, pork loin or barbecue – whatever a customer wanted.
“Then one day, I was asked if I could do chicken salad on a croissant, maybe some chips and pasta,” he said. “So I said, ‘sure, OK.’ The next day some of these women were at my store and asked if I has any chicken salad for sale. I said, no, but I could make some and put some in the cooler for sale the next day. I started doing that and people started selling chicken salad.”
At first, the chicken salad was just another item to sell at the store and for catering. Then one day, a customer came from Oxford just to buy the chicken salad.
“I thought this is crazy. What kind of person drives 50 miles for chicken salad that you can get anywhere?” he said.
But the proverbial light bulb went off in Parker’s head, and he decided to see if he could get some local stores to give it a try.
He went to Palmer’s in east Tupelo, with a promise of buying the product back if it didn’t sell.
Co-owner Damon Palmer, who said he doesn’t like chicken salad, had a change of heart after tasting Parker’s version.
“I became a fan of it,” he said. “It’s a good seller ... it was a really good product right out of the gate.”
Parker then approached Todd’s and Piggly Wiggly. Within 20 months, he was in some 40 stores.
A BUMP IN THE ROAD
Parker’s business was going along nicely, and he got out of the catering business along with the convenience store business.
Then came a call in late 2015 from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce that complicated life and business for Parker.
“I was delivering to Iuka, when I got a call from the department, and they said I couldn’t sell without their approval,” he said.
But the process wasn’t easy or fast.
Parker wasn’t able to make chicken salad to sell, which meant he had no income, no cash flow.
It wasn’t until April 2016 that he was able to get going again.
“I about starved,” he said. “I had people calling me, customers calling me, asking me for chicken salad. After that, once I got going, it was wide open.”
The state certification allowed him to sell anywhere in the state. Distribution is the biggest challenge. Parker makes all the deliveries himself, which limits him to the north half of the state. He’d like to find a reliable delivery company in the south half of the state, but hasn’t found much success.
He recently received USDA certification, allowing him to sell anywhere, and West End Fresh Salads has now entered a couple of stores in the Memphis area.
Joey Cole, the store manager of Todd’s Big Star in Tupelo, said West End Fresh Salads’ signature chicken salad, “is the best-selling chicken salad we’ve got. As a matter of fact, we used to carry a couple of others in our deli, but we don’t sell them anymore.”
Parker delivers to stores at least four days a week. On Fridays, he tries to catch up on paperwork, but sometimes it’s a day to make additional deliveries as needed.
Chicken salad accounts for nearly three-quarters of Parker’s sales, with pimento cheese accounting for the rest.
The chicken salad recipe is simple but Parker didn’t share it, of course. But he did say one key component is chicken tenders. Not just chicken breasts.
“Some people have asked why not use chicken breasts which are cheaper, but it doesn’t taste the same,” Parker said.
And Parker uses a lot of chicken tenders. He buys roughly 1,600 pounds of it per week.
As for the pimento cheese – in regular and jalapeño – it’s his wife’s recipe.
But he doesn’t do all the cooking and packaging anymore since the business has grown. He has three people working at the cooking and processing facility in Pontotoc.
The chicken salad is made daily, with deliveries made typically the day after it’s made.
“I wouldn’t mind getting a little bit ahead, but we can’t seen to do it because we’re selling so much of it,” he said.
That’s a good problem to have – which means West End’s products are growing in popularity.
But, Parker said, “we don’t want to take on more than we can handle. ... I don’t wan’t to screw things up by moving to fast. It’s hard to build it, but it’s easy to screw it up.
“It’s easy to get grandiose thoughts, but really, right now, it’s one day at a time. Keep doing what we’re going and do it well.”