Genesis Bencivenga, Sr. sat in her car in tears, trying to make words come out, struggling to comprehend the news she had just received.

The girl who grew up in the LeClaire Courts housing project on the Southwest side of Chicago, and whose company, Lorenzo’s Frozen Pudding, she was now guiding to the start of its third improbable life, had just found out Walgreens had agreed to sell her products.

“What? I’m in Walgreens!” she said in disbelief, as she captured her reaction in a TikTok video. “Wal-GREENS!”

It was a moment of joy years in the making. But the path to that moment and understanding its raw emotion requires a decade of rewinding her story, which uncovers an ever-present tenacity to lift herself, her family, and her community to a better life.
 
@lorenzosfrozenpudding I’m from the southside of Chicago,from the LeClaire Courts. I Genesis Bencivenga Sr., has a product in Walgreens. #Walgreens #truereaction @Walgreens ? original sound - LorenzosFrozenPudding

Ups and downs

Genesis and her father, Lorenzo, began the first iteration of their company in 2011 with Lorenzo—an Army veteran, truck driver, and master cook—mixing his recipes in their kitchen as a means to create additional income and upward financial mobility for his family.

His first flavor was a traditional Southern style banana pudding, and he would go on to develop 12 additional flavors that he and Genesis would sell out of their car on the streets of Chicago. A favorite (and successful) location was on a sidewalk outside the Chicago Juvenile Detention Center.

Genesis knew her father’s ambition was to someday take the company national, while she insisted on an even bigger dream of international distribution. She named the company after Lorenzo as an homage to him.

“My father has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. He’s done things to try to create something better than what we had. We hustled hard for everything, but it was fun to be able to create stuff and go sell it,” she says.

They transitioned from making the pudding in their kitchen to a shared kitchen as their products made it onto the shelves of several local Chicago retailers by 2013. But their products’ popularity would ironically end up being the business’ biggest challenge, even after Genesis trimmed the number of SKUs from 13 down to the three best-sellers (banana, strawberry, and pineapple). Quality products were leading to word-of-mouth buzz as well as spikes in demand as customers sampled, then purchased. And the father-daughter duo was struggling to keep up.
Ultimately the lack of the necessary business and operations knowledge prevented Lorenzo’s from producing enough product to meet demand, so Genesis was forced to make the difficult decision to pause the business and reset.

By 2015 she was ready to re-start and grow the business—or so she thought. Lorenzo had decided to step aside and retire, and although he remained Genesis’ trusted advisor, she and her husband were now on their own. But she admits she made some of the same mistakes that led to the business faltering a couple of years earlier.

“We weren’t selling on the street anymore because we were in about 50 stores between 2015 to 2017,” she says. “We were handing out samples and doing demos and it caught fire just like it did before. But we couldn’t keep up with demand again. I knew we had a great product people wanted to buy, but we didn’t have the back-end infrastructure for manufacturing and distribution that we needed, so I had to shut it down again.”

Third time’s the charm

In 2020, Bencivenga was determined to revive the company once again, but with a commitment to doing things differently. Previous setbacks made clear to her what was critical for success: access to capital to allow her business to scale, and a network that could provide valuable guidance on manufacturing and distribution and open more doors to retail. This time she wouldn’t move forward without obtaining both.

Bencivenga reached out to a local organization created to help entrepreneurs like her. The Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) has worked with worked with women- and minority-owned businesses since 1986 to help them grow and gain economic self-sufficiency. Cynthia Johnson, WBDC’s director of established business services, distinctly recalls her initial meeting with Bencivenga.

“Genesis came to us seeking advice on how to restart her business, and the fact that she chose to do that during the height of the COVID pandemic is a real testament to her tenacity and desire to succeed,” says Johnson.

“I was the first advisor she worked with, and I recommended that she start by conducting additional market research, developing pricing strategies and creating a business plan to determine how to reenter the market and sustain profitable growth. I also provided her with information about the Top Shelf program, which I felt would benefit her tremendously.”
 
 
Filling in the gaps

The WBDC’s Top Shelf: High Volume Growth Insights program is an eight-week curriculum-based cohort that focuses specifically on consumer goods companies like Lorenzo’s Frozen Pudding to prepare them to sell into large retailers by providing training and access to retail category managers and buyers. Nearly 100 business owners have graduated from the program since it launched in 2019. And because of financial support from corporate sponsors like Walgreens, there’s no cost to participate.

Criteria for Top Shelf applicants is very specific:
  • Be a consumer product company that sells to retailers
  • Two or more years in business
  • Average annual revenues of $50,000 or greater
  • Committed to eight weeks of virtual learning and participation 
Tony Billinger, Walgreens director of supplier diversity and the company’s point person with WBDC and Top Shelf, is a fan of the program not only for what it brings to Walgreens, but also for what it brings to the entrepreneurs involved.

“Top Shelf has great impact on emerging businesses and the communities we both serve, and we want it to be a win-win for everyone,” he says. “New products will eventually develop new markets for us, while these businesses get access to Walgreens distribution and the possibility of national exposure.”
 
   Cynthia Johnson
But the WBDC’s Johnson is quick to remind Top Shelf participants that simply graduating from the program is not a guarantee that they’ll find their products in Walgreens or other major retailer sponsors.

“Instead, it’s a commitment by Walgreens to provide access to professionals and learning tools in an environment that can help the business owners realize long-term profitable growth,” she says.

“That means those businesses are successfully selling their products in the neighborhoods where those retailers have stores and are providing job opportunities in the communities where they live. They’re learning skills to build successful businesses that will hopefully help these owners create generational wealth for their families, and support growth in community prosperity.”

Bencivenga graduated from the program in 2020 and acknowledges she’s come a long way from where she started. Top Shelf filled the gaps of what tripped her up in her first two go-rounds with Lorenzo’s Frozen Pudding, providing her access to the capital vital for growth and ultimately giving her distribution at Walgreens, starting with a six-store pilot that has since grown to more than 70 stores one year later.

“What did I get out of Top Shelf?,” she asks. “More than anything it was relationships that are now creating my network. Everybody knows it's all about who you know, and Top Shelf has really serious players there as advisors to help teach you what they're really good at.”

Johnson, for one, is equally proud of the program and this particular Top Shelf graduate.

“Genesis is bold, brilliant and highly motivated,” Johnson says. “The program provided her with access to subject matter experts and retail buyers. And by the end of the eight-week cohort, she was able to pitch to buyers, including decision makers at Walgreens. She certainly didn't sit still for long after graduating from the program.”

As Bencivenga reviews her oftentimes bumpy journey from the housing projects of Chicago to creating a frozen food company now on its third life, she gets reflective.

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why didn’t you give up?’ I mean, how can I? I feel like it's a life-or-death situation. I love what I do, I know I can do it well and I know that with persistence it will happen.”

She also thinks back to the emotional TikTok video that marked the start of her company’s renaissance, with her quite literally in the driver’s seat.

“Thank you so much, Walgreens,” she concludes. “I can’t wait to see how far we go!”

That destination, while still not completely clear, appears limitless.