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Hot Rising Southern Comfort

Alabama food producers invested in down-home recipes are expanding operations, in spite of distribution challenges faced by specialty foods.

A visit to grandma’s house in yesteryear meant indulging in delights like piping-hot, made-from-scratch biscuits or rolls and homemade jelly. While the world has changed, and few cook from scratch, most of us haven’t lost our taste for good jam and bread. Fortunately Alabama food processing companies are there to feed the need.

Those processors range in size from large operations, such as Luverne-based Sister Schubert’s, which generates more than 500 million rolls annually, to the Alabama Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston, which produces about 2,200 jars of Mama Nem’s Pepper Jelly.

While the economy still may be weak, consumption of such comfort foods continues to grow. Demand for Granny Hester’s Homemade Sweet Potato Biscuits is leading to a major expansion of its Fort Payne operations.

Family recipes and natural ingredients are the secret of these down-home succeses. “Many pepper jellies you see on the market include artificial color, but not ours. The color of the jelly comes from the color of the peppers we use, red or green,” says Kathryn Friday, a board member with the Alabama Rural Heritage Foundation.

As the name implies, the successful recipe for Granny Hester’s Homemade Sweet Potato Biscuits originally was created by the grandmother of company founder Tracey St. John. Granny developed the special recipe, primarily based on cooked sweet potatoes, in 1943, when her husband was serving in the Navy. “She wanted to send him a little taste of home,” St. John says.

Before long the biscuits, featuring bite-size chunks of sweet potato, were a favorite not only with family, but with friends. Granny handed down the recipe to her granddaughter, who decided to start selling the biscuits in 2005 at her friend’s coffee shop. By 2008, St. John and partner Jim Rotch formed Granny Hester’s Fine Foods in Fort Payne, at the same location where St. John’s grandparents once owned and operated the Fort Payne Bakery.

Even as production volumes increased, St. John kept using the same all-natural recipe with most parts of the processing performed by hand. The biscuit batter is formed and frozen before packaging, allowing consumers to pop 2-ounce batter nuggets into the oven, and then bake. “I was encouraged to automate, but we would have had to change the recipe and it would have affected the texture, which I wasn’t going to do,” St. John says.

About a year-and-a-half ago, the company brought John Sanford on board as chief executive officer to help expand distribution. Now the company is set to move from its original 3,000-square-foot location to a 50,000-square-foot Fort Payne facility. Employment will ramp up from 12 to 20 to 30 employees by the end of the year as distribution expands to 1,500 supermarkets across the South. “This product is rapidly growing in popularity, because it not only tastes good but is good for you,” Sanford says.

A sister company, Ten Acorns Foods, has been created to market additional specialty food items. Those products could be processed, packaged, warehoused and distributed from the new Granny Hester’s location. “Distribution is the greatest challenge for specialty food products, and we have developed a network and infrastructure that will allow other specialty food producers to come on board,” Sanford says.

The ability to tap into a major distribution network is what led Patricia “Sister” Barnes, founder of Sister Schubert’s 20 years ago, to sell her company in 2000 to Columbus, Ohio-based Lancaster Colony Corp. Barnes maintains a leadership role in Sister Schubert’s, which she first kicked off with her grandmother’s recipe for Parker-style yeast rolls. “I had been approached by a number of major corporations, but chose Lancaster because I could continue to work with Sister Schubert’s,” Barnes says.

Tracey St. John’s grandmother sent care packages of her sweet potato biscuits to her husband while he served in the Navy. 

Barnes and her team have developed additional recipes for the company’s current line of 15 frozen, fully baked bread products, including the new sweet Hawaiian roll.

“Gommey’s yeast roll recipe was based on simple, quality ingredients, and I’ve kept with that philosophy as we’ve created additional products to serve our customers’ evolving tastes,” she says.

Sister Schubert’s products, which primarily are made in Alabama, are distributed nationwide. The bakery in Luverne, in Crenshaw County, south central Alabama, has been expanded several times and now employs 290. Sister Schubert’s has plans to increase that number by 40 additional workers. A bakery in Saraland, in Mobile County, employs 70. “It’s been rewarding to see the company grow so rapidly,” Barnes says. “One of the things I treasure is meeting with people who’ve bought our products for years. People will get tears in their eyes talking about Christmas dinners where Sister Schubert’s rolls were served.”

On the other end of the food product production spectrum is Mama Nem’s Pepper Jelly, processed by the Alabama Rural Heritage Foundation for sale online, at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center and in several gift shops across the state. The traditional recipe of bell and jalapeno peppers, vinegar, sugar and pectin, popular in the Thomaston area, was studied by Auburn University’s department of nutrition and food science. “They tried a number of combinations and tested them until they came up with exactly the right recipe for us,” Friday says.

The name for the jelly comes from the Southern colloquial for “mother and them.” Peppers for the jelly are grown by USDA-designated “limited resource farmers,” mostly in an old football field on Heritage Center property. The pepper jelly is made in batches several times a year at the center’s commercial kitchen by board members certified for the job. “We make more jelly based on when we run out of our supply, because we only have so much storage and display space,” Friday says.

Proceeds from the sale of the jelly help support the center, which also sells handmade craft items, art and specialty foods made by Alabamians. The nonprofit foundation is seeking a few more gift shops to distribute the jelly. “You have to stay open to change. That’s the only way to survive in this world,” Friday says.

Still hungry for biscuits and jelly? Try these other Alabama purveyors:

  • Gail’s Biscuits, based in Vestavia and Gulf Shores, are available at Piggly Wiggly and Manning’s markets, said owner Walt Graham. Though his company sells a number of other products, Graham quips, “Biscuits are our bread and butter.”
  • Kelley Foods of Alabama  Meats are the specialty at Kelley’s, but the Elba company also carries a line of frozen biscuits you can find in supermarkets like Winn-Dixie.
  • Bama Jelly – with roots in Alabama and a pure sweet home name, the luscious looking jellies and jams actually are made today by Welch’s in Pennsylvania. Alec and Samuel Chappel founded Bama in Birmingham in 1921, making jams, jellies, preserves, syrups and peanut butter. Bama grape, apple, peach, pineapple, plum and strawberry varieties are sold from Texas to the Carolinas and Bama grape jelly at Walmart nationwide.

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

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