MUSKEGON — Kaja Thornton-Hunter unknowingly laid the groundwork for her young business several years ago when she hosted a crab boil at her home.
Born and raised in Muskegon before spending her college tenure in Savannah, Ga., Thornton-Hunter wanted to bring the southern taste she enjoyed back to her hometown.
“I fell in love with the culture and cuisine,” Thornton-Hunter said about her time in Georgia. “No one had that taste when I moved home — that southern, cajun taste. I thought that I had to recreate this in some kind of way.”
Thornton-Hunter would end up building a business around that southern taste. And, this fall, her product will be available at select Meijer Inc. stores.
Passion and purpose
Thornton-Hunter debuted her signature seasoning to 150 friends and family during a New Year’s Eve crab boil, long before establishing Kaja’s Flavor LLC. In fact, that initial crab boil was such a hit that she continued the tradition on other holidays.
At the same time, Thornton-Hunter — with a background in social work — was organizing her nonprofit called Overcoming Barriers Inc. The organization, which operates group homes throughout the Muskegon area, helps people with disabilities and mental illness to live independently.
Thornton-Hunter leveraged the popularity of her $25-per-plate crab boils to financially fuel her nonprofit.
Finding it increasingly difficult to carve out time to host crab boils, Thornton-Hunter decided to package the key ingredient so that others could enjoy the same taste at their own crab boils.
“I was doing the crab boil parties here and there when I could. But I was thinking to myself that I can’t do this all the time, so why don’t I package the seasoning?” Thornton-Hunter said. “I can teach everyone how to make the crab boil, but they still have to come to me for the taste.”
In December 2019, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Thornton-Hunter launched Kaja’s Flavor. Kaja’s Flavor Packs are available in garlic lemon pepper, cajun and spicy cajun flavors.
Thornton-Hunter started by selling the flavor packs directly to family and friends. Local markets like BoomTown Market and Fish Monger’s Wife in Muskegon also showed interest in carrying them. A major breakthrough followed when Meijer in Norton Shores expressed interest, leading to a recent deal to bring the product to Meijer shelves.
Three Muskegon-area Meijer locations plan to carry Kaja’s Flavor Packs as test markets with the possibility to expand to additional stores.
“It was huge,” Thornton-Hunter said of the Meijer deal. “It was like, whoa, this is bigger than me. It’s putting Muskegon Heights on the map. It’s showing other residents and friends that your dreams are possible.”
The pandemic ended up being instrumental in helping Kaja’s Flavor Packs gain momentum.
“Everyone was at home,” Thornton-Hunter said. “They wanted to cook something different because they were home all of the time instead of the same old dishes. That’s when people were telling me everything they were putting it on — from roast to ribs.”
Thornton-Hunter sold all 1,000 of her flavor packs during her first month in business in December 2019. In 2020, she sold tens of thousands.
Thornton-Hunter still treats her work with Overcoming Barriers as her primary job, and even sinks a portion of the profits from her flavor packs into the organization.
“It is kind of like my passion helping my purpose,” she said.
New kids on the FARM
Earlier this summer, Kaja’s Flavor — which is staffed by friends and family — became the second tenant of the Food, Agriculture, Research and Manufacturing (FARM) food processing accelerator, an 8,000-square-foot facility that opened in March adjacent to Muskegon Community College. Michigan State University became the new manager of the facility earlier this month.
Kaja’s Flavor — after moving to the accelerator from her Muskegon Heights home — joins Lively Up Kombucha LLC as a tenant in the facility, which provides its members with a variety of resources to scale their businesses.
“They surround you with support and resources,” Thornton-Hunter said of FARM. “They were like, ‘Hey, send us a list of the equipment you need. If we have it in our surplus warehouse, we can get it for you.’”
Clarence Rudat, a former program coordinator at MSU’s Institute of Agricultural Technology in Muskegon, will serve as the MSU FARM manager, bringing with him more than 30 years of experience in food, agriculture and natural resources.
Marty Gerencer, executive director of the West Michigan Food Processing Association, said having MSU at the helm with its proven infrastructure will benefit both large and small local food businesses.
“While any company could reach out to MSU at any time, to have them so close at hand and readily available at FARM just makes it much easier,” Gerencer said. “Some of the small companies really did not know the resources that were available to them, and now they know. They have those resources and a full-time manager there every day.”