Local businessman turns ‘Southern Chef’

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For a man who is not a good cook businessman Kenneth Hennings has been preparing southern style meals for over three decades.

For a man who is not a good cook businessman Kenneth Hennings has been preparing southern style meals for over three decades.

It was 39 years ago that Hennings, an entrepreneur by nature, founded Chicago-based Hensaal Management Group Inc., a minority-owned food service company. The chairman and CEO said he founded the company partly to help meet the food needs of African Americans.

“I looked around and saw very little pre-cooked meals outside the traditional TV dinners,” he told the Defender. “And most of these products were not healthy either.”

But it was not until 1992 after the federal government created the food category “soul food” that Hennings’ work began to gain recognition. He created the product name Southern Chef, which manufactures and distributes a variety of food spices, seasonings, snacks, prepared foods and frozen foods.

“The next time you get ready to season some meat, look at the seasoning. You may be surprised to find out you purchased one of our products,” Hennings, 67, said. “Our products are carried by major food stores so it’s very possible that the average consumer has purchased our products.”

Hennings said Southern Chef products offer low sodium and cholesterol, all for around $3.33 a meal.

Jewel, Kroger, ALDI, Ultra Foods, Moo and Oink, Chatham Foods, Sears, Kmart, Centrella Foods and One Stop are among the grocers that carry Southern Chef products. Starting in January, Food 4 Less and Sav-A-Lot will carry the products as well.

“Hopefully we can get into Walgreens, Walmart, Target, Whole Foods and Costco soon,” said Wanda Lewis, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Hensaal Management Group.

Some fast-food chains, such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and KFC, have recipes and seasonings developed by Soul Chef, according to Lewis.

“We want to make sure our products are sold at stores in minority communities. After all, soul food is about southern cooking so making sure these products are accessible to minorities is important to me,” Hennings said.

Lewis added that their customers come from all ethnic backgrounds although she admits to having a large, loyal Black customer base, which includes the elderly.

Like a number of small businesses Hennings said he is challenged each day to stay afloat in light of the economy.

“Access to capital is the biggest challenge because banks are not extending credit lines,” said Hennings. “It’s funny how I can quickly get financing to buy a car for personal use but if I want to purchase a vehicle for business use, the lending qualifications doubles, making it harder to get financing.”

Prior to breaking into the food industry Lewis said Hennings was instrumental in the health and beauty industries. Through his Distributors to Special Markets (company), he specialized in planning ethnic health and beauty product sections for major grocery chains and retail outlets.

Hennings and his wife of 20 years, Bonnie, are South Side natives. He earned a bachelor’s in accounting from Roosevelt University in 1967 and an MBA from the University of Chicago in 1970.

His wife retired from the Chicago Board of Education, their son is a civil engineer and their daughter is an entertainment attorney.

In retrospect, Hennings said there isn’t much he would change if he had to do it all over again.

“I consider myself a soul builder. That is how I want my legacy to be remembered,” said Hennings.

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