Growing up in Tuscumbia, Ala., Wiley Mullins was always the "heavy child" in his family. With a love of Southern staples like sweet potatoes drenched in brown-sugar syrup and butter-saturated dishes, he seemed destined to become an overweight adult.
But now, Mullins, 40, is the slimmed-down marketer of seasoning mixes aimed at flavoring food without extra calories. If you haven't heard of Uncle Wiley and his product, which is available locally at Giant Food, just wait.
This month, Mullins - who has been called the George Washington Carver of the food world - will launch a national advertising campaign in Cooking Light magazine. In the spring, the Connecticut resident expects to produce a free newsletter with healthy cooking tips.
By summer, he will introduce Corncoctions - seasonings that can be sprinkled on cooked corn in place of butter - followed by three mashed-potato seasonings: Cheddar, Parmesan cheese, and garlic and basil.
He also is working with the American Heart Association and plans to offer free cooking lessons at stores that promote his products.
Without a doubt, Mullins is a man on a healthy mission.
He said his earlier weight problem wasn't surprising. The baby of the family, he spent much of his youth hanging around the kitchen, watching his mother, Hattie Bell, cook. He always sampled the result.
When Mullins decided to launch his own line of foods six years ago, he was transported back to the kitchens of his youth. Armed with a study of the ethnic food marketplace he had worked on as an account manager at Procter & Gamble Co., he believed he could find success selling Southern cuisine to the masses.
But Mullins, who has a marketing degree and a master of business administration degree under his belt, knew he would have to make a crucial change: cutting all that fat.
"We just can't keep eating that way," said Mullins, citing health problems such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes that affect many Americans. "It's killing us."
He found that by basing his recipes on traditional dishes used by African-American slaves, he could cut the fat and cholesterol in his products. "Back then, they didn't have [access to] fatback and ham hocks to season their food with," he explains.
The first product line of Uncle Wiley's Co. - launched in 1992 - was a series of fat-free, cholesterol-free canned vegetables. Spirited Black-Eyed Peas (with Jalapeno Peppers), Blessed Butter Beans, Country Collards and other items sold well, he said, but he noticed that fresh produce seemed to sell better.
In 1993, he brought out his first fat-free, cholesterol-free seasoning mixes for vegetables and other foods: Dirty Rice Seasoning, Sweet Potato and Yam Spice, Greens Seasoning, Beans and Peas Seasoning, and Potato Salad Sprinkle.
His first client was the definitely un-Southern Pathmark grocery store chain in New York. Next on board was New England's Stop & Shop chain. In 1994, Mullins approached retail giant Wal-Mart.
Wayne Easterling, director of vendor development for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., remembers that he wasn't exactly overwhelmed by Mullins' marketing strategy. "It was a product with his face on the package, but who knew who Wiley Mullins was?" he said.
But after seeing many of the dishes that Mullins was targeting show up on his family table, Easterling began to reconsider Mullins' proposal. The executive even had his mother try a few of the seasoning mixes. With her positive review, he knew Mullins had tapped into an uncharted food niche.
"Wiley offers a unique flavor that tastes really good," Easterling said. "It's a great product."
Charlie Lester, director of produce buying for Giant, said the mixes appealed to the chain because they are convenient and offer consumers a way to enhance food with such flavorings as Jambalaya Seasoning, Smoked Turkey Beans and Peas Seasoning, Garlic Mashed Potatoes Seasoning, and Cajun Corn Boil.
Lester said he thinks the envelopes with the friendly photograph of Mullins on the front and easy-to-read instructions on the back encourage customers to try something new. If they've never prepared collard greens or black-eyed peas, for example, they can pick up one of Mullins' seasoning mixes and proceed to the kitchen with confidence, he said.
While visiting a Giant store in Largo recently, Mullins sought converts for his seasonings while checking out displays. He was a little nonplused to find pork hocks and smoked turkey necks in the produce department next to his seasoning mixes. "Well, I guess it gives people an alternative," he said cheerfully.
Mullins acknowledged that he had a difficult time changing his diet at first. On many of the seasoning packages, he appears portly and middle-aged. Now, the affable entrepreneur with the gap-toothed grin looks more youthful - and thinner.
He attributes his weight loss - 35 pounds over the last 20 months - to a diet of his products. He's so sincere that you can't help but believe him.
Mullins says calls from customers praising the healthy benefits of his mixes are the most gratifying part of his business.
"Young women are my biggest supporters because they aren't willing to cook the way their mothers did," he says. "But they still want that flavor."
Wiley's Creole Chicken
Makes 4 servings
4 chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds) - skinned, boned and cut in 1-inch pieces
1 cup water
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes (tomatoes with basil and garlic works great)
1 cup chili sauce
1 1/2 cups chopped green pepper (approximately 1 large bell pepper)
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic - minced
1 package of Wiley's Dirty Rice Seasoning
Place water and chicken in bottom of skillet. Cook chicken in water over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes until meat is no longer pink. Reduce heat and drain water from chicken. Add tomatoes, chili sauce, green pepper, celery, onion, garlic and Dirty Rice Seasoning. Cover and cook over moderate heat for 15 minutes (stirring occasionally). Serve over cooked rice or pasta.
Wiley's Home Fried Sweet Potatoes
Makes 6 to 8 servings
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups sweet potatoes - pared and sliced
1 package Wiley's Healthy Southern Classics Sweet Potato and Yam Spice
1 teaspoon salt (optional)
Heat oil in electric or iron skillet. Place sweet potatoes in pan. Cover and saute for 4 minutes over medium heat. Uncover, increase heat and saute for another 4 minutes. Stir often to keep potatoes from sticking. When desired tenderness is achieved, sprinkle Sweet Potato and Yam Spice over sweet potatoes. Add salt, if using. Serve.
(Preparation hint: Peel sweet potatoes with a potato peeler. Once they are peeled, continue using peeler to cut thin shavings of sweet potatoes. Potatoes cut this way will cook in less time.)