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ENTREPRENEUR PROFILES

8.4.99  
Give Me the Simple Life
Can you make a business out of Amish recipes? You bet your shoofly pie

Kevin L. Williams stepped into his entrepreneurial life seven years ago in the gravel driveway of Elizabeth Coblentz, a 61-year-old member of the Old Order Amish in Northern Indiana. Inspired by a high school research paper and sheer ''entrepreneurial hubris,'' Williams, then 19, was knocking on strangers' doors in Amish communities throughout the Midwest, searching for someone to write an Amish cooking column he planned to syndicate. It was sheer luck that he found Coblentz on her 100-acre spread near Fort Wayne, Ind. Despite an eighth-grade education, she had nonetheless written community news for an Amish paper since 1952 and was a master of Amish recipes.

It took some cajoling before Coblentz signed on to write ''The Amish Cook,'' penning her columns by candlelight. (Her beliefs don't allow her to be photographed.) But for Williams and his Oasis Newsfeatures, the work was just beginning. From Middletown, Ohio, he had to sell jaded newspaper editors on a column that seems to be ripped from the pages of a 19th century church bulletin.

Williams dropped out of college and struggled for years, but he slowly signed up small-town papers--mainly in the Midwest. Readers adored Coblentz' intimate dispatches from a farm life that has all but vanished. ''What made it unique is that it wasn't just a recipe column. Every week, you got a peek into Amish life and values,'' says Mike Hilfrink, an editor at the Quincy (Ill.) Herald-Whig. Now ''The Amish Cook'' runs in 92 cities, including big dailies in and around Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Fort Wayne. While socking away 55% of the syndication fees, Williams has licensed a line of Amish Cook pies and signed a deal with grocery giant Kroger Co. for delicacies based on Coblentz' recipes.

Revenues will hit at least $100,000 next year, Williams says, and Kroger is eyeing a distribution plan that could prove lucrative. ''This is something I've built since I was a baby,'' says Williams, ''and it's just now getting fun.''

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By Dennis Berman

This article was originally published in the July 19, 1999 print edition of Business Week's Frontier. To subscribe, please see our subscription policy.


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