In her lifetime, Martha Grace Mills was something of a legend. Mook, as she was known, was famous (in northern Alabama, anyway) for her cheese straws, a snack food said to be tasty to the point of addiction. Her family said they were good enough to sell. But Mook just gave them away. Four years ago, Mook died. Her recipe survived.
Today, Mook's cheese straws are still made, just not homemade. And they're not free, either: Mook's Cheese Straws, and other family recipes, are being produced for profit.
Mook's Cheese Straws' CEO, Patrick Smith, says, "It was a real trial and error thing. We got into this not knowing if there would be a market but we found out fairly quickly that there would be."
It's happening at the Shoals (Ala.) Commercial Culinary Center, a local incubator for new business. If people here want to cash in on their home cooking, this is where they start.
Sherry Campbell from the Shoals Commercial Culinary Center says, "I think everybody wants to be their own boss. I think everybody says, 'Hey I can do that on my own.'"
So when Patrick Smith (Mook's son-in-law) was laid off as a corporate CFO, he started making cheese straws in bulk. His dream: to one day see Mook's recipe on sale to the public.
But it's not a dream anymore. Today, if you walk the aisles of local grocery stores, right beside well-known brands like Pepperidge Farm goldfish, you'll find Mook's Cheese Straws. In fact, the Foodland chain orders about $1,200 worth of those a week.
You'll also find things like Katie's Mustard Slaw and Pap Paw's Barbeque Sauce: two more home recipes that the Culinary Center helped bring to market.
Smith says, "This is not a get-rich-quick scheme."
The work may be a labor of love. But it's still a whole lot of labor. There's a real difference in how a family recipe tastes if you start making 40 gallons of it at a time.
Smith says, "That's probably the biggest challenge, trying to convert something for home kitchens and doing it in a commercial kitchen in amounts that make it economical to produce en masse."
You'll also need a chemical analysis to make sure your recipe has a good shelf life, a health certificate, liability insurance, a way to package it all, plus, of course, the food itself.
So what does that translate in dollars? Smith says, "We made an initial investment of 5k which is a very low front end investment. If we had to buy even the bare bones required to do this in a rental location, you're looking at 15, 25 even 35,000."
And the money saved can mean the difference between plain home cooking and a home-grown empire.
It seems that Mook herself would be proud.
Every family has a recipe to be proud of.