Florida's newest source of soul food isn't some Dunnellon diner or east Tampa truck stop.
It's Columbus. As in Ohio.
And it comes in a can.
The source is Glory Foods Inc., a black-owned business in Columbus that just entered the Florida market with its canned foods _ products that claim to be as down home as a Sunday afternoon pig roast.
Among the company's heat-and-eat victuals: field peas, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, okra, corn bread and sweet potatoes. There's also greens, of course _ collard, kale, mustard, turnip and mixed.
So far, Glory Foods is in only about 250 Winn-Dixie grocery stores statewide, including about 35 in west-central Florida.
But Glory hopes to blaze a bigger trail into Florida beginning later this month, when it becomes a main sponsor of this year's Florida Classic football game at Tampa Stadium between two historically black colleges _ Bethune-Cookman College and Florida A&M University.
"We don't try to compete with other canned goods," Glory Foods president Bill Williams said proudly of his line of vegetables and other foods. "We try to compete with fresh foods."
So you can't believe that canned collards can compete with fresh collards?
You're not alone.
"Soul food in a can?" asked a perplexed Bobby Royal, who helps run the New Soul Sandwich Shop in Tampa that is owned by his parents, Mattie and Isaac. Fresh greens and beans simmer daily at New Soul, along with entrees like ox tails, turkey wings and smothered pork chops.
"I don't think they're going to be too prosperous down here," Royal said. "It's hard to beat a home-cooked meal with something out of a can, with preservatives and all that."
Maybe so, Williams acknowledges.
"We recognize our greens are not as good as those prepared by a woman who can sit down and prepare greens all day," he said. "And we know we can't make them as good as your mother did. But we're just about as good as you can get otherwise."
Some people must think so.
In the five years since Williams and a few of his former department store co-workers started privately held Glory Foods, the company has grown like field peas in the spring.
Two years ago, Glory's first products were stocked only in about 80 Kroger stores in greater Columbus. Today, the company is in 3,000 stores in 25 states, Williams said.
Winn-Dixie started offering the brand about six months ago in selected markets _ predominantly markets with large populations of African-Americans _ to expand its variety of offerings to black customers, said Winn-Dixie spokesman Marc Sutherland.
So far, Glory Foods' products aren't selling too gloriously at Winn-Dixie, Sutherland acknowledges. "But it's still relatively new," he said. "People are still kind of browsing it."
Nonetheless, Glory Foods' overall growth "has been really remarkable," Williams said. "You can't be in 3,000 stores in two years unless you've found something that tastes totally different."
Although Glory Foods is based in Ohio, many of its products come from the South, Williams said. Recently, the company forged a partnership with a farmers cooperative in Florence, S.C., to provide black-eyed peas and other produce. Its greens and other vegetables are canned by a company in McColl, S.C.
Like many of Glory Foods' other business partners, members of the South Carolina farmers cooperative are mainly African-Americans, Williams said. Just as he is promoting the Florida Classic, Williams said, he tries to promote the patronage of African-American businesses whenever possible.
"I can't tell you how important that is to us as we grow," he said. "But at the same time, if there is someone who can really make a difference between our company's success and failure we'll go with them," whatever their race.
Understandably, Glory Foods' name is rooted in African-American culture.
The company was born soon after the release of the movie Glory, which depicted a black Civil War regiment, and its name reflects that. The name also alludes to the roots of the company's foods _ black Southern churches, some company executives have said.
Williams, 50, is a soft-spoken man who talks thoughtfully and passionately about food, the way some people talk about good literature.
He grew up working in the kitchen of an Ohio restaurant and attended the Culinary Institute of America, he said. After graduating from the institute with honors, he spent more than 20 years managing hotels, restaurants and department stores. He also owns a Columbus restaurant known as The Marble Gang.
So where did Williams get a taste for the overcooked vegetables and fatty breads that are typical of the South?
Though he grew up in Ohio, Williams is the son of South Georgia parents and has long had an interest in all types of foods.
"I've always been interested in the whole cooking tradition," he said. "And to me, Southern cooking is no different than other types of ethnic cooking. I can go into anybody's home _ Polish, German, Italian _ and enjoy the food."
It was out of a 1989 discussion about traditional holiday foods that Williams and two friends came up with the idea for Glory Foods. Greens and corn bread, they decided, mean the same to African-Americans as black beans mean to Hispanics or pasta means to Italians.
In 1992, Williams and partners Iris McCord and Dan Charna, who once worked for Williams at a Lazarus department store, rolled out the first cans of Glory Foods.
At first, the company began marketing its products almost exclusively to African-Americans who had moved to Northern states from the South. They called it soul food in a can.
Later, however, the company found that Southern whites who migrated north also were hungry for down-home cooking that was cheap and quick.
"If you walk into a Southern soul food restaurant today, the reality of it is that what they're cooking is just Southern food," Williams said. "Going back two or three years ago, having not traveled throughout the South, I truly thought these were ethnic foods.
"But now I have the knowledge to know they're just Southern foods."
Based: Columbus, Ohio
Products: Southern and soul food, including canned black-eyed peas, greens and sweet potatoes; cornbread mixes; and pepper sauce.
Availability: carried in 3,000 grocery stores in 25 states, including about 250 Winn-Dixie stores throughout Florida (35 in west-central Florida).
President: William F. Williams
Motto: "I can't beat your mother's greens and cornbread. I'm smart enough to know that. But in her absence, we're just about the best."