THE WORLD, decided Alfonzo Dale, needed a Soul Roll. And now, by way of Washington, it is getting one.
The "Soul" stands for a mixture of collard greens, turkey ham, rice, onions and seasonings; "Roll" is the eggroll wrapper that holds it all together. Deep fried, then frozen, it is soul food, Chinese style.
The idea hit Dale, public events chief of the U.S. Park Service, while preparing for a cocktail party at his Wheaton home. "Why don't we serve those small frozen egg rolls?" suggested Dale's wife. The Dales did, and that inspired a homemade American version for their next party. Now, two years later, the Soul Roll has graduated from the suburban Maryland cocktail party circuit to a new market: D.C. public school children.
After setting up Southern Brand Snacks, Inc., Dale and his company have landed the Soul Roll in about 50 of Washington's public schools and have school systems in Philadelphia, New York, Memphis, Wilmington and Detroit interested in the product. A prison in New Orleans is already serving them; Sky Chef, a food service for airlines, has bought them; local government cafeterias have organized taste tests, and a senior citizens group in Fairfax wants to include them in its program. In addition, area supermarkets, 7-Elevens and Highs have given Dale positive feedback.
The Soul Roll saga is one of a man with a clever idea, a man whose success was bolstered by the fact that those fat, spicy sandwich-size pick-ups just plain taste good. As far as inventions go, the world is full of starters who never finish; Dale, though, was determined to follow through, to hook himself up with the right people who could help him channel the product into the marketplace.
In its infancy, the Soul Roll's wrapper was phyllo dough. Then Dale reconsidered; phyllo would make the product "too much like what the Greeks are doing," and it was too delicate for the weight of the filling. So he made a study of egg roll wrappers, becoming a regular at an oriental market in Silver Spring. (He went so often, said Dale, that he had the saleswoman baffled.) After repeated trials, he found a wrapper that was dry and not mushy, one that became crusty enough when cooked to counterbalance the moist filling.
Testing fillings was the next step. Dale tried ground beef and eggplant with a tomato-based sauce, but couldn't control the juiciness. Broccoli with cheese didn't reconstitute well and was too bland. Collard greens with ham (the USDA ultimately suggested Dale use turkey ham, since turkey is a commodity item--an item the schools receive from the government at no cost or at a reduced cost), rice, onions, salt and a peppery kick seemed to work best, along with Soul Roll number two -- zucchini with chicken roll (now turkey roll), eggs, cheese, onions, salt and pepper.
Dale deep-fried the finished roll, then reheated it in a convection oven, a conventional oven, a microwave. He even tried deep-frying again. He froze it for different lengths of time -- up to two months -- to see how it would hold up. Scouting frozen foods sections in supermarkets, Dale sampled a lot of products.
From the neighbors' reactions, Dale got the feeling he was onto something big. Friends who sampled his Soul Roll snacks liked them, and would ask where he'd bought them. When they found out he had made the rolls, they wanted to order more.
Thinking it was time to get bites from the outside world, Dale entered what he calls his "naive period." After watching a commercial on late-night television about a company in suburban Maryland that helps individuals market their ideas, Dale called the outfit. Its advice was that he should latch onto an established firm to manufacture the product. Dale flew to Chicago to visit Quaker Oats.
One of the marketing specialists there was very frank, said Dale, and told him he'd be better off working with a smaller company -- if, that is, he was interested in maintaining the product himself. If he wanted to sell the idea, a big company would be suitable.
Back in Wheaton, thinking his test panel of friends might be more kind than truthful, Dale decided to expand his market research, focusing on kids, " 'cause they tell the truth." So he invited children in the neighborhood to try them, foreseeing responses like "I don't want those vegetables." No such comments came. Aside from the taste, said Dale, the young test panelists liked the idea of something they could hold in their hands, even though it wasn't a hot dog. Dale's initial responses had told him this product might make it in the commercial marketplace. Now he was setting his sights on a younger target group.
Next came Dale's Big Break. A mutual friend introduced him to Ted Adams of Unified Industries, an engineering firm in Springfield, Va. Adams became, as Dale put it, "my godfather." Without him, said Dale, "I'd still be in the kitchen." As president of one of the largest minority companies in the area, Adams has been instrumental in helping other black businesses.
According to Adams, he set up the meeting at first only as a personal favor to his friend. ("Anybody who walked into my office and said he wanted to sell me Soul Rolls . . .") Dale cooked up the rolls in Adams' executive suite and got rave reviews from the accountants, secretaries and staff at Unified. Ted Adams didn't taste them though; he's allergic to onions.
Aside from Adams' aversion to onions, the two struck up the perfect relationship: Although Adams' company had nothing to do with food, it is largely composed of retired military men familiar with the business community and with getting through governmental red tape, a process that Adams says "would wear down one guy." Dale didn't know much about the business world, but had contacts in the school system and in the arts and entertainment field.
A half-dozen or so Unified staff teamed up to become Southern Brand Snacks, Inc. Dale now had financial backing, clout and a track record. At USDA, officials told him the Soul Roll could satisfy requirements for the school lunch program, but that it would take some adaptation. Dale and his new company went back to the drawing board.
After more experimentation, the Soul Roll was revised to contain more meat (this time turkey ham and turkey roll), less rice, less vegetable, less salt in the filling and less oil in the crust. Served with a piece of fruit and milk, the Soul Roll satisfied requirements for a Child Nutrition Label, and would fit the USDA's School Lunch Meal Pattern: two ounces of meat or meat alternate, one slice of bread, three-quarters cup of fruit or vegetables ( 1/8 cup of that comes from the Soul Roll) and one cup milk.
One of the managers of Southern Brand Snacks hooked Dale up with a manufacturing company in Jamaica, N.Y., and he took the Soul Roll out of his home kitchen and into an industrial one. At Ho-Mai Foods, where he made the first batch of 20,000, Dale was met by 300 pounds of turkey ham, 150 pounds of collard greens and stainless steel shovels to scoop the ingredients into the huge mixers. With Dale supervising, a 20-person assembly line stuffed the rolls by hand. They were deep-fried, flash frozen, packaged and boxed. On a mass scale, "we were able to capture the whole idea," said Michael Buzzeo, secretary-treasurer of Ho-Mai.
Labeling regulations for commercial sales created new snags. According to Dale, the label couldn't read simply "Southern Brand Snacks" unless it was manufactured below the Mason-Dixon line. It had to read "Southern Brand Snacks Made in New York."
Back in Washington, Julius Jacobs, director of food services of the D.C. public school system, said that the Soul Roll so far has been "well received" in District schools. It appealed to him because "it's a monotony breaker, a fun item," and satisfied his "obsession in getting cooked vegetables in the kids."
So far, Jacobs said, food services plan to serve it about twice a month as a specialty item. The wholesale price (55 cents) is his biggest deterrent: Students pay 60 cents for lunch in secondary school, 50 cents in elementary school.
Commercially, Dale said the Soul Roll will sell for about $4.59 for a pack of five 5 1/2-ounce rolls. He is also working on manufacturing an hors d'oeuvre-size roll.
Southern Brand Snacks is presently looking into subcontracting La Choy and Jeno's to manufacture the rolls, in addition to Ho-Mai, but Dale has plans to someday build his own manufacturing company here in the District.
As for the journey that started in his kitchen and ended in industrial assembly lines, he says, "It's like giving birth." Now, says Dale, "I know what it's all about."