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Hatching Businesses

Hatching Businesses
August 12, 2002 |

Take an old family-favorite dish and a new-fangled incubator system, mix them together and what have you got? Recipes for success, say the specialty food entrepreneurs working with the Shoals Commercial Culinary Center (SCCC) in Florence.Not only is word spreading of the superior products being cooked up in the center’s kitchen, but the SCCC’s business-savvy chefs are creating quite a stir.A satellite operation of the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center, an incubator set-up that nurtures new businesses, the culinary center offers its clients the wherewithal to go from the family table to the grocer’s shelf.”It doesn’t have to be an old family recipe, but most of them so far have been presented that way,” says SCCC Director Sherry Campbell.Once the center is approached by a client interested in marketing a food product, assistance is offered in the areas of product development and testing, ingredient suppliers, packaging, labeling, cost analysis, health department compliance and marketing. Clients have access to the center’s website, ccc.shoalsec.com, which hosts an e-commerce shopping cart for convenience in marketing their specialty products.The Center is involved in the community and vice versa, Campbell said. “These businesses bring in revenue through selling to stores–improving the economy with more and more impact as the businesses increase their productivity and sales.”SCCC was funded, in part, by USDA Rural Development, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission. Rural Development State Director Steve Pelham said the center is an excellent example of how federal programs can have a direct impact on business development and job creation in rural areas.A dining room at the center seats 150 and is available to the community. Civic clubs, churches and individuals also use the kitchen for banquets and receptions.”Even some small restaurants have used the dining room and our kitchen for large functions,” Campbell said.Likewise, small business experts, chambers of commerce, merchants and faculty from the University of North Alabama in Florence all pitch in with information–everything from marketing, law and nutrition, to incorporation and taxes.Campbell said her job is not unlike an orchestra conductor who makes sure all the musicians are playing the same piece and communicating with each other. Only these aren’t musicians, they’re people who want to get into business for themselves. She also works with an array of suppliers, advisers and customers, stretching from California to Illinois.The clients are being well received, Campbell says. “Some of the products have received international attention as they’re included in gift baskets and promotional items for everything from heads of state to Girls State,” she said.Current clients are in various stages of development, she said, the newest being Two Mama’s Salsa, whose creators are just beginning to organize.”Most of our people have regular jobs, too, and some can devote more time to beating the streets to place their products than others. Tom Bilstein is a good example of a man who’s doing both,” she said.Pap Paw’s Peppery PotionAfter 15 years of sopping meat and veggies in his granddaddy’s barbecue sauce recipe, Tom Bilstein decided to start making his own, adjusting the family recipe just a touch, he said.Every time he was invited to dinner, friends asked him to bring along some of that “good barbecue sauce.” In fact, it was a friend who convinced him to put Pap Paw’s Old Fashion Marinade and Bar-B-Que Sauce on the market.”What put the icing on the cake was somebody stole a half-gallon of it at a party one time, and I decided if it’s good enough to steal, it’s good enough to sell,”
Bilstein said. “That’s when I called Sherry and said I wanted to hook up with the center.” Bilstein said the center has lived up to its promises, helping with everything from bottle suppliers to the nuts and bolts of making the sauce in its kitchen. “They charge $20 an hour for the kitchen, and that’s affordable,” he said. The center supplies the equipment for mixing and bottling; Bilstein supplies the ingredients, noting his financial outlay is considerably less with the center’s help. As production increased for Bilstein and other clients to where the kitchen’s lone bottle filler was working overtime, “the center put out $17,000 to buy a four-bottle filler to help three other clients as well,” Bilstein said.Business is good, with Pap Paw’s offered in 70 stores throughout the Southeast. In fact, he’s looking for a distributor to reach markets he’s not mined so far.A bus driver by day with an early morning run and another at 2 p.m., Bilstein uses pockets of free time for marketing and demos for grocers and shops.”I’m working at it all the time, and it’s going to pay off,” he said.Campbell said frequently the center’s kitchen is full of family, “just like at home” with husbands, wives, children, in-laws, grandkids and friends lending a helping hand.Mookers Draw StrawsCampbell predicts Mook’s Cheese Straws will be the next Sister Schubert, speaking of an Alabama entrepreneur whose “homemade” rolls have risen to national popularity.Patrick Smith, a CPA who’s taken on the job of head Mooker (that’s a Mook worker), appreciates the comparison, but noted much more needs to happen first.”It probably never would have happened at all without Sherry and the center. It’s a family affair,” he said.The slightly tangy aroma of cheese is present as cheerful-looking yellow dough is formed into rolls, squiggled onto baking sheets from air-compressed tubes, and placed on carousel racks in convection ovens.Mook is the nickname of Martha Grace Mills, the originator of the scrumptious cheese straw recipe, Smith said. “Mook passed away about two and a half years ago, and we decided her cheese straws should be part of her legacy,” he said.The family agreed to share the work and the profits. “We all pitch in. Sometimes we are five or six, and sometimes we fill the work area,” Smith added.Occasionally the family fun gets a little out of hand, as when some of the children blew up latex gloves to look like cow udders and shot them all over the kitchen. “We had to come up with a minimum worker-age after that,” says Martha Fay Gann.So far, Mook’s Cheese Straws are the center’s lead success story. They are mar-keted in six states and actually turned a profit after just six months.”This is more fun than being a CPA,” Smith said. Mook’s recipe is a tender, yet crispy, cheese straw, and a little spicier than most, Smith said. He balked at sharing recipe secrets, but did note, “sometimes you can see a speck or two of cayenne pepper.”Beginning with tremendous response during last holiday season, Mook’s acquired a distributor, hired six part-time, paid employees and placed the product in gourmet and gift shops, plus Piggly Wiggly and Foodland markets.”We are now aiming primarily for the commercial market, grocery stores and supermarkets. That’s where the distributor will help,” Smith said. “Real success will be when we can pass out significant dividend checks to the families at Christmas.”Not So Plain At AllRhoda P’s (for Plain) Catering is anything but ordinary, promising, “Food with a flair at affordable prices.”The cooking is done at the Culinary Center. A nutritionist at the Colbert County Health Department, Plain admitted she sometimes uses some of her culinary colleagues’ products when she caters candlelit dinners for two, or events for 1,100.”Mary Jane’s cookies are out of this world. Why cook them, when I can get them that good from Mary Jane?” she asked.That just about sums up the attitude of her customers, as well. Why cook for an event when Rhoda will take care of everything?”She used to do it all out of her home until she discovered SCCC. Now her efforts are centralized in the spacious kitchen where at times she also can chat with other clients, busy turning out their own products. If somebody gets in a tight, everybody pitches in, she said.Sue’s Special SlawFrom her home in Florence, Sue Reeder said her Sue’s Down Home Slaw recipe became more than a hobby after 30 years of filling requests from friends and neighbors.”In the early days, my relatives referred to it as ‘Sue’s Special Slaw,'” she said. “They called me for reunions, barbecues and social gatherings. Everyone loved it with everything from hot dogs to fish, and my husband and sons finally convinced me to go into marketing it,” said the homemaker.Starting A Business With PeanutsThe husband and wife team of Randy and Karen Nelson began in July, hoping to turn a generations-old family recipe for Nelson’s Peanut Brittle into a cybernetic favorite.”We’re in local (Florence) shops and looking to selling on the Internet,” Randy said.The couple started with a recipe from his mom. Using whole peanuts grown in south Alabama, Nelson’s Peanut Brittle is handmade in small batches so the quality may be monitored and maintained. “We took Mom’s (Sue Nelson) basic recipe and tweaked it to what we think is the very best,” Randy said. “It’s nutty and sweet and pulled to a thinness that’s easier on the teeth. Our peanut brittle won’t pull your teeth.”When not shelling peanuts and promoting their product, the Nelsons are in the construction business.From salsa to nuts, center clients are a diverse lot, traveling from Tuscaloosa, Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, Moulton, Haleyville, Florence, Russellville and Georgia to prepare their foods.Products include Balestrini’s Biscotti (also does cooking classes at the center), Casiday’s Coffee-ol-ogy, Donnie’s Delight, Groovy’s Salsa, JoLynn’s Gourmet Squash Relish, Katie’s Pool Room Slaw, Mary Jane’s Scrumptious Cookies and Two Mama’s Salsa.Information about where to buy or how to contact any of the clients is available through Sherry Campbell at (256) 764-0044 or the SCCC website ccc.shoalsec.com.Fran Sharp is a freelance writer. Email her at fsharp1229@aol.com.

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