As Norman Homeland shoppers peruse the aisles, they’ll notice a new made-in-Oklahoma product on the shelves: Real Kitchen salsa. What shoppers may not realize is that salsa was dreamed up, cooked up and marketed by local middle school students through a free after-school program called LoveWorks. LoveWorks participants range in age from 11 to 14, live in Norman and surrounding cities and represent all socioeconomic backgrounds. These pre-teens are given real-world opportunities to test drive various career paths, meet community leaders and professionals and hone in on their own unique skills and passions. Through personal character development, leadership projects, community outreach, mentorship and career exploration, the non-profit’s staff and volunteers empower students’ creativity and resourcefulness while encouraging academic and leadership growth.
Since its inception in 2011, LoveWorks has served more than 8,000 students, including the group of 12 students dedicated to the organization’s Real Kitchen arm. Combining the culinary arts with entrepreneurship, the student-led business also started in 2011 with the development of the salsa recipe that has dazzled at local farmers markets. The team perfected the salsa recipe, thanks in part to feedback from loyal customers. They branded it, marketed it, managed their budget, paid invoices and sought out places to sell it.
They’ve learned how much work is required to not only start a business but also to make it profitable. Financially, Real Kitchen has been self-sustained since its first day, and students have been at the forefront of trimming cost per goods sold to earn as much profit as possible. As their dreams grew and demand exceeded the team’s culinary abilities, they hired a co-packer to make and package the salsa for them. This spring, several students met with Homeland executives to pitch selling their salsa in the store. Store leaders decided the brand was a good fit and the salsa hit the shelves at the Homeland at 24th and Robinson. In early May, the store at 12th and Alameda also began stocking Real Kitchen’s salsa.
LoveWorks executive director Michael Hirsch knows most students don’t get this kind of hands-on learning until they’re in college or after. He believes creating and giving students an opportunity to lead in various ways not only better prepares them for adult life but also gives them a direction and sense of purpose in a time when most kids are struggling to find themselves. For now, all profits made on the salsa go back into funding the business but Hirsch hopes as Real Kitchen grows, they will be able to hire and compensate student staff members and give back to LoveWorks.
Four members of the Real Kitchen team described how this kind of experiential learning has impacted their futures. Lukas Miles and Julia Neel are middle school students who’ve been involved with LoveWorks and Real Kitchen for about a year. Miles, 12, will be in seventh grade at Irving Middle School this fall and enjoys playing football in his spare time. Neel, 13, is homeschooled and will be in ninth grade in the fall. She enjoys volunteering with her family at s local homeless shelter.
Madison Kohout and Brittany Brown are high school students who serve as mentors to the Real Kitchen team. Kohout is one of the original Real Kitchen members, starting her journey with the project in eighth grade. Now 15, Kohout will be a junior at Norman High School where she plays in the school’s symphony orchestra. She is a volunteer at the Norman library, leads a middle school Bible study and is involved in Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. Brown, 17, will be a senior at Norman North High School, where she is a member of the choir.
What’s your primary role at Real Kitchen?
Lukas: I’m mainly involved in sales and marketing because I’m always out there selling.
Julia: I’ve primarily been involved with sales but recently Michael has asked me to start designing ideas for a T-shirt. That’s what I’ve always been interested in—designing shirts and possibly labels.
Madison: I’ve been involved with Real Kitchen since the beginning and I’ve been involved in every team from marketing to culinary to finance, but right now I’m in sales, which is where my strengths lie. It’s been great to see something evolve that I’ve been involved with since eighth grade. To be in Homeland and see this much progress is so exciting and brings a feeling of accomplishment.
Brittany: I’m on the financial team; I love math and calculating profits. I’m also on the marketing team and I love being involved with the demos at Homeland. I’m also involved with communication and represent Real Kitchen by speaking at conferences and presentations.
What have been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned as part of Real Kitchen?
Lukas: The most valuable lesson for me has been working together with everybody. I’m a very independent person and I like to do things on my own. But if it were just me, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.
Julia: I’ve learned more confidence in my ability to talk to people and pitch our product. You get so much hands-on learning with business, but there are lots of different spots for kids no matter their interest, from sales and culinary to finance and design.
Madison: You can do anything you set your mind to; there are no limitations or barriers. If you have an idea, express it to your team. Let others in so they can help you accomplish things far beyond what you can do on your own.
Brittany: Accepting rejection is part of life and part of business. I’ve learned not to let hearing ‘no’ drag me down. For every no you might hear, there’s still a possibility of a yes. I know now that denial doesn’t mean defeat—it means keep pushing.
How did you feel when you found out Homeland in Norman would be carrying your salsa?
Lukas: It was kind of like going into a job interview because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be but you hope for the best. It was nerve-wracking. When he said ‘yes’ we were trying to hold it in, but we were giving high fives behind the table. Something we started that was so small is going into a store … it’s so great.
Julia: I felt amazed! It’s kinda weird because you see all these products by gigantic businesses … and then seeing our product on the shelf and knowing I’m involved is really cool.
Madison: I was so pumped! We’ve worked so hard, from selling at farmers markets and finding a co-packer, and seeing it all come together was mind-blowing.
Brittany: Two years ago, this was just a goal. I was part of the pitch team and it was exhilarating. When Mark with Homeland said ‘yes,’ I could feel my heart burst. It was amazing to hear how excited he was to get our salsa on the shelves. When I walked into the store and saw the demos and saw it on the shelves … that was a moment that will be with me forever.
How do you hope to see Real Kitchen grow over the next year?
Lukas: I hope to see it go into more stores and become more well known so more kids can participate on the team. We could use as many people as we could get!
Julia: We’ve had interest from other states, so I hope to see us expand across Oklahoma and into other states. In addition to seeing Real Kitchen grow, I’ve liked watching my younger sister grow and learn more about business, too.
Madison: I hope we get into more stores and become more well known. This would mean a bigger opportunity for even more students to get involved. At LoveWorks, we want to inspire and impact, and this would allow us to help more kids find what they’re passionate about.
Brittany: I want us to push the boundaries of where our salsa is available. These middle school students have so much passion and potential. We have so much pride in it. I want people to know more about our backstory and passion.
How has being involved with LoveWorks and Real Kitchen influenced what you want to do when you grow up?
Lukas: Before, I wanted to be a veterinarian and work at a vet clinic. Since then, I experienced entrepreneurship and I love it. So now I’m thinking of opening my own vet clinic. Without LoveWorks, I wouldn’t have known how to do it.
Julia: I’ve always been interested in business, but before Real Kitchen I just wanted to do whatever I could that would make money. Now I’ve learned it’s important to be passionate about what you’re doing. I want to be able to use my creativity in whatever my career path is to help myself and others.
Madison: I was set on going into the medical field, but now I’ve changed my career path to wanting to be a CEO or in a leadership position to helping businesses grow. I’m looking forward to taking classes on entrepreneurship at Moore Norman Technology Center.
Brittany: I thought I wanted to be a middle school counselor or an accountant. But now I want to be an entrepreneur. I hope to help businesses push the limits of what they can do, or open my own.
What one word best describes you?