In a small commercial kitchen on Highway 182 west of Starkville, Amber Peoples spends her Sundays hustling to prepare as many as 250 meals each week, double the number she made a month ago.
This week, she cooked chicken enchiladas, buffalo chicken wraps and chicken and broccoli stir fry. Aside from the enchiladas, she said her most popular meals are grated spaghetti squash with marinara sauce and lasagna rolls. All of her meals her have less than 400 calories, are low in sodium, high in protein and mainly composed of vegetables.
All also feed her primary mission: putting healthier food on more dinner tables.
Demand for meals from Peoples’ company, Peoples Choice, has spiked following her win in The Pitch, a competition for new businesses sponsored by Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation.
Peoples Choice provides Starkville-area customers with five-day supplies of healthy, consciously portioned meals at the cost of about $6.50 per meal each week. The company serves about 24 customers each week.
On Aug. 16, Peoples was one of 17 entrepreneurs to pitch the merits of their startups to four successful area entrepreneurs, whom each selected a contestant to mentor.
Josh Mabus of Tupelo’s Mabus Agency chose Peoples and helped her prepare a business plan to be judged by a panel on Sept. 19. As the competition’s winner, Peoples received $500 in seed funds, incubator space in the Renasant Center for IDEAs in Tupelo and other business resources such as business counseling and pro-bono accounting and legal services.
“Peoples’ goals were to grow in northeast Mississippi, so this will give her an opportunity to help market herself,” said Judd Wilson, CDF director of Small Business Development.
Peoples said she began preparing meals for herself and her family after her doctor instructed her to change her lifestyle.
Peoples said she weighed 300 pounds and had third-stage hypertension when she started exercising and avoiding processed foods. She wanted to make sure she was there for her young daughters, she said. Once she added healthy eating to her regimen, she lost 60 pounds and no longer requires blood pressure medication.
“Being a better role model for my kids so they don’t fall down the same path that I was (on) has pretty much been my journey,” Peoples said.
From there, she turned her labor of love into a business.
Mabus said he was impressed by the groundwork of success Peoples built for her business before the competition. He chose Peoples to mentor because he also found her story compelling. Now, he’s helping Peoples develop a three-year plan.
“This wasn’t a manufactured idea for a business,” Mabus said. “This was something that was very personal, near and dear to her, and entrepreneurs really put effort into their ideas when they have a personal connection to it.”
Peoples said the competition prepared her for growth, and exposure through word-of-mouth and through the media has drawn new customers to her healthy-option service company.
“I’ve pretty much doubled my sales on a monthly basis, so it’s definitely up and running and rockin’ and rollin’,” Peoples said. “The first thing I need is a bigger kitchen. I’m cooking food for a heck of a lot more people.”
Peoples said she is looking at ways to facilitate a larger customer base and find a larger permanent facility. Peoples Choice shares a kitchen with tamale company Juke Joint Tamales.
“Step No. 2 is developing a website in order to have e-commerce, so my clients can order their food online,” she said.
She is also looking to use her incubator space to one day serve meals in the Tupelo area.