A Winning Recipe: From Malawi to South Bend

Author: IDEA Center

Chef Kuleza, owner of Chef Kuleza Authentic Foods

In honor of Black History Month, the IDEA Center is highlighting four black entrepreneurs from the South Bend-Elkhart community who have worked with and helped the IDEA Center and are paving the way for future underrepresented entrepreneurs.

Kuleza Mlia, owner of Chef Kuleza Authentic Foods, has always kept her country of Malawi in her heart since she immigrated to the United States at the age of 23. Mlia found a way, a personal one, to share Malawi with others through a business she started in 2020. To say her Chef Kuleza’s Hot Sauce went on to be a hit is an understatement. The first production resulted in 2500 bottles, she says, and they all sold. The next production was even larger and, to her surprise, they all sold too. Now a batch recently produced, which topped out at 6500 bottles, is poised to sell out as well. 

“The feedback I get from my customers is the sauce is addictive,” she laughs. “It’s made with Kambuzi (a type of habanero) and I have customers who don’t want to run out, so they stock up. That they love it that much means the world to me.”

Mlia’s Notre Dame relationship with the IDEA Center began with Matt Leevy, the director of the IDEA Center's Innovation Lab, when she was introduced to him and he stepped in to help Mila with her company.

“Matt was there with ideas from the beginning and any time I sent an email needing help he’d either do so or point me in the right direction,” she said. “It’s not just how he helped push me but also how he even gave me ideas I might use in the future. There was, for example, the thought of packaging all three of my sauces into one gift box and what that might look like. In addition, he helped give me more confidence in my own ideas. As a small business owner you want to keep going and just having people who believe in you, who are there for you, like Matt, just gives you a lot of strength.”

Mlia loves having her business in South Bend. It's not merely due to the signicafant Malawian community in the area, which played a pivotal role in her decsion to settle in South Bend, but also because of the impact of introducing her African homeland to those who might have had limitied knowledge about it. “Customers come up to me and say, ‘I looked up the country and learned about it,’ or ‘Now I want to go there.’ I love Malawi and I love sharing it. It’s like my world keeps getting bigger.”

She goes to Florida at times to where co-packers produce the sauces, which come in mild, medium and hot, and doesn’t have any plans to change her home base for the business or the base for production. “I feel very comfortable in the way I’m doing it and I think sometimes people don’t realize how much you can do right where you are,” she says. “I have dreams of seeing my sauce in big stores—I want to walk into Walmart and see it there on the shelf. I get excited with each growing production. All the bottles sold shows how much my product is appreciated and that people appreciate me, too. I appreciate them!”