Gail celebrates first release of King's Pepper at Lucy Florence Gallery in Los Angeles, 2001.
King's Pepper is a family affair. Grandsons (left) Dante and Deji at the Black Farmers Market in Raleigh. Daniel shot and edited the taco video. Daughter Felicia helps with marketing.
What compelled me to take a chance on developing and selling a West African food product to the American public with no experience in the food business? Quite simply, it was the flavor. I loved it and knew others would love it too.
I first tasted this unique blend over 20 years ago in Los Angeles, my hometown when I was married to Abdul Sanni of Nigeria. I really wanted to produce and sell, but the barriers to enter the food business were too high for me. I couldn’t get funding, find affordable commissary or commercial kitchen space or bridge the knowledge and experience gaps I needed to import, produce and distribute my product. Plus in the early days, I worked full time for ABC-TV in Hollywood. I finally found a tiny space in a market (Money Savers Meats) that was regularly inspected. I was so excited when I got my product on the shelves in a few stores (Monsieur Marcel, Erewon, Simply Wholesome) and farmers markets (Central Ave., Long Beach, Silver Lake, Hollywood). We even won an award, but my inexperience showed, the marriage ended, family issues were pressing, so I had to close the business. It hurt to fail, but I had to move on.
Cut to 2012. I moved to Durham to support my daughter Karon Johnson, when she enrolled in UNC Chapel Hill to pursue her master’s degree in social work. A few years later I found that in the years since I’d stopped making the pepper, not only had the internet become a great source for finding the ingredients, supplies, packaging and equipment I needed, but North Carolina offered a supportive environment for start ups, so I dusted off my recipe and started again casually in 2017.
Gail Sourcing spices in Lagos, Nigeria
Gail Jennings, owner King's Pepper
Our Mix Master Robin (left) with Mel in the Kitchen at Piedmont Food Processing Center in Hillsborough, NC
I faced one of my biggest challenges when my husband, Melvin Mitchell became ill and was treated for lung cancer in November, 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, I doubted I could continue into the new year because I usually sell my products face-to-face with customers. I considered shutting down rather than risk his life.
Then in March 2021, I received a call from a woman in Los Angeles. She had purchased some pepper from me and wanted to buy more but couldn’t find my number or website. I told her the story of how I’d lost my domain name in 2016 because I didn’t renew it in time, thinking I had a grace period. When I contacted the company, they wanted over $1,850 for it. Another company wanted even more. I refused to pay it, and instead tried a similar sounding name, but that didn’t work. Finally, in early 2020, I checked and kingspepper.com was available for $14.99!
This woman listened to my story and said don’t you dare give up! She had been searching for me for nearly 20 years. She still had the pepper container! How could I not keep going after that!
I'm a Juneteenth descendant whose ancestors were emancipated on June 19, 1865 in Crockett, Texas. I co-founded the 2-day Juneteenth Heritage Festival in Leimert Park along with Moza Mjasiri Cooper (left). The first time we sold African tacos, they were so popular we had to shut the line down.