Doing Business Here: Sweet Success

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A former textile worker has turned a family recipe into a thriving enterprise.

by OLIVIA GRIDER

Things were not going well. The days of the textile industry, which had supported the town of Fort Payne, Ala., for almost a century, were clearly waning, and Tracy St. John Johnson’s boss, the owner of a sock mill, was encouraging employees to look for other jobs or consider entrepreneurship ideas.

Baking runs on both sides of Johnson’s family, so she began contemplating the food business. Her mind soon settled on a favorite family recipe for a product she’d never seen commercially – sweet-potato biscuits. Geneva Hester, Johnson’s maternal grandmother, first made them in 1943, when her husband was in the Navy and they were living in Virginia.

“She always said, ‘I just had some sweet potatoes, so I made them up and they were good,’” Johnson recalls. Hester, who lived most of her life on Lookout Mountain, continued to make the biscuits for her family until her death almost two years ago. “Anytime she would call and say, ‘I’ve got sweet potato biscuits,’ we were there,” Johnson says.

Thinking about the biscuits’ popularity, Johnson went to her grandmother’s house and they baked a batch for her to take to work. Waylon Miller, Johnson’s boss at C&W Hosiery, loved them and invited her to sell them at a coffee shop he was opening.

That was in 2005. For the next three years, Johnson ran a fledgling, one person enterprise, baking up to 200 dozen biscuits per week using friends’ commercial kitchens while also working other jobs. She met with owners of local stores, including Bruce’s Foodland, Scottsboro Meats and Paul’s Mountain Meats, to begin distribution and packed biscuits into coolers  and stocked them on store shelves herself.

“I remember my granny saying how funny she thought it was that I was taking her recipe and turning it into a business,” Johnson says. “She said, ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’ She was really surprised that her recipe was such a hit.”

Johnson partnered with Birmingham attorney Jim Rotch in 2008, and they launched Granny Hester’s Fine Foods, LLC in the same building where Johnson’s paternal grandparents operated the Fort Payne Bakery until 1971.

Granny Hester’s Fine Foods’ sweet-potato biscuits and other products are now available at more than 3,000 grocery stores across the United States, and the company has expanded into a 50,000-square-foot-facility with an 8,000-square-foot kitchen and 12 to 15 employees. They make and distribute close to 1 million biscuits each year, and the number is growing.

To learn more about the company and its next moves, we talked with Janie Hale, marketing and design director.

LA: Please tell us more about Granny Hester’s sweet-potato biscuits and where people can buy them. 

JH: We use quality ingredients to create our moist and tasty Granny Hester’s sweet-potato biscuits. Each biscuit is handmade and hand packaged using Granny Hester’s authentic, original recipe including real sweet potatoes. Since Granny first made the biscuits in 1943, this recipe has been practiced, perfected and passed down through the family to her granddaughter, Tracy St. John Johnson. Tracy remembers making the biscuits in her grandmother’s kitchen, starting at an early age, learning Granny Hester’s special techniques and recipe.

The artisanal approach we use in making Granny Hester’s sweet-potato biscuits and our other food products provides a distinctive quality appreciated by our customers. Sweet potatoes are consistently on the top 10 lists of healthy foods, and that makes it attractive to the consumer. But the real difference is when you bite into one of our piping hot biscuits, just out of the oven.

Some of the stores that carry our biscuits are Publix, Piggly Wiggly, BILO, Trader Joe’s and Foodland, to name a few.

LA: Does the company sell any other products? 

JH: In addition to our signature Granny Hester’s sweet-potato biscuits, GHFF is in the developmental stages of a line of side dishes, which includes a sweet-potato coffee cake, sweet-potato corn bread, and several products that do not include sweet potato ingredients.

We also have the ability to co-pack items, producing other companies’ bakery-type products for retail. Some of our current co-pack items are blueberry and orange rolls and cornbread.

LA: Who are your primary customers? 

JH: Our sweet-potato biscuits are loved by all generations. Our target customer wants to serve his or her family a fresh, wholesome, handcrafted product, which is why we offer Granny Hester’s sweet-potato biscuits on the frozen-food aisle. Since Granny Hester’s sweet-potato biscuits have zero trans fats and sweet potato consumption is at an all‐time high, it is extremely appealing to consumers. Our biscuits are not just for breakfast. They can be enjoyed anytime.

LA: What is the company’s guiding philosophy? 

JH: Granny’s philosophy was to always use the freshest ingredients available to make her sweet-potato biscuits. She created them with pride and inspired a tradition that was passed down through her family. We strive to continue that tradition by making products we can be proud of and providing people with good jobs, in a fun/fair working environment.

LA: What are the advantages of operating in northeast Alabama from a business standpoint?

JH: We have a tremendous advantage by being headquartered in Fort Payne, Ala. Our operations and manufacturing facility is strategically located for customer distribution on Interstate 59, which is a major artery linking to Birmingham and Atlanta distribution points.

We were able to convert an empty sock mill for the production, management, storage and other business activities of the company.

The business climate in general is conducive to a growing enterprise, and we have especially benefited from the advice and support of the DeKalb County Economic Development Authority.

LA: What role does the company play in the community? 

JH: GHFF supports “Made in DeKalb,” a dynamic event created by the DeKalb County Economic Development Authority to showcase area enterprise, and also supports the Fort Payne Chamber of Commerce.

We believe education is a key component to a thriving community and are developing a program to encourage entrepreneurship and healthy eating habits for elementary-age children.

LA: What are the company’s plans for the future? 

JH: Our plans for the future are to continue to grow our business – immediate future growth is expected in California, Texas, the Midwest and Southern Florida – and to provide more local jobs and further expand our distribution nationwide.

LA: What else should we know about Granny Hester’s Fine Foods? 

JH: That there’s a little bit of love and mouth-watering goodness in every Granny Hester’s Fine Foods’ product, just like when Granny used to make her original sweet-potato biscuits.