Margaret Amos knows that life is a journey, and this leg of her life is meant for baking tasty cheese straws alongside her son and business partner Neal Amos.
It was in 2011 that Margaret launched Southern Straws, her cheese straw company, after experiencing a string of setbacks. Neal was headed to the University of Georgia to earn a finance degree.
In the meantime, the Columbus native began baking the snacks she had grew up on using a recipe from her own mother. She would travel to shops near and far to pass out samples, slowly gaining a customer account here and there.When Neal jumped on board in 2014 after graduating from college, the two began to pick up the pace. Today, Southern Straws can be found in about 140 retail shops and other locations in 17 states, and those numbers are growing. (Click here for the list of locations of where Southern Straws are sold)
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The pair -- with their original, spicy and mild cheese straw flavors -- also are garnering attention in the taste-test world. Last year, their original cheese straw was a finalist in the University of Georgia Flavor of Georgia Food Product Contest, appearing in the snack category.
This year, their spicy flavor has made the finals, with the ultimate judging scheduled March 14-15 at the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot in Atlanta. The mother and son are among 33 finalist products vying for the top honors in various categories ranging from snacks and barbecue sauces to confections and meat/seafood.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with the duo recently at their bakery and shop, located at 3601 Hilton Ave., inside the Hilton on the Square shopping center. They discussed their jobs, their future plans and what it's like to ride on the wings of a startup business.
Tell us about Southern Straws and its start.
Margaret: We're a very young company right now. When I got out of college, I went into the corporate world and was there 30-something years, most of the time with Synovus. Around 2011, I had some things happen. I lost a sister to breast cancer, a mom to late-stage Alzheimer's, and I lost my job, all in less than a year.
That is so heartbreaking.
Margaret: Things happen for a reason. I think that because I responded differently than I normally would. I didn't just go out and find another corporate job. This was a hobby and I was like, let's just see what I can do with it. That was 2011, and I started slow, putting a kitchen together, figuring out all of the legalities of starting a business, and baking some cheese straws. Literally, I was taking them around to places and saying, I've got a gift for you. I would give people a box of cheese straws and a little flyer that I had written up and leave it with them. That turned into a few accounts.
How big are you now?
Margaret: We're in 17 states, and it's like 140 stores we're in now. Before Neal came on, I had about 15 accounts. A lot of those were here in Columbus. I've gone up to Highlands and Cashiers (in North Carolina) and handed cheese straws out. I've gone down to Seaside (Florida) and St. Simons (Georgia) and handed them out. So we got in some shops, and that was with knowing that he was coming into the business in 2014.
You each have your own strengths I take it?
Margaret: He's got a finance degree and I've got a marketing degree. If we conflict, that's because I'm trying to spend the money and he's trying to save it. (laughs)
What's the process like to make the cheese straws?
Margaret: This is our packing room. All we bake are cheese straws and Neal and I do the whole thing together. It's very hand done, everything is. We shred the cheese ourselves; we don't buy it prepackaged. We mix it. We stuff those tubes constantly, and that gun is how we shoot them out. We shoot them out on trays. It's just its own process. When Neal and I get in here, we each have our roles. We can just work for hours and not even talk. We just know what we're supposed to be doing.
How often do you bake the straws?
Neal: At least twice a week during the regular season. And when Christmas comes, four or five times a week. Christmas season is also when we bring in a couple of friends to help pack. We're baking and they're packing. We can do it everyday.
Things have really picked up with Neal by your side?
Margaret: It was incredible. I didn't really market us as much before that because it was just me. A typical day would be me making nine batches of cheese straws. You might say, why nine? I had nine bowls. And that was really about all I could handle by myself. That would take most of the day, and that was setting up, baking it all, and cleanup.
Margaret: Today, we make 40 batches of cheese straws when we cook; twice a week minimum. Sometimes three times a week depending on what's going on. We can end up with projects, I call them. We just did a conference with Synovus Trust, and we had welcome boxes for people who were coming to the conference. We've worked with a company out of Atlanta that does mail-order boxes. They're all Georgia themed. She (the owner) might say, I need 400 bags next week, or I need 200 bags. Georgia Crafted is her name ... A lot of her customers pick cheese straws, and we are her cheese straw.
How has business changed, and is there a memorable moment?
Our wholesale business is about 75 percent of our business. So we always have those orders that we've gotten when go to the market in Atlanta. We call it the Atlanta gift show and it happens in January and in July. When we go to that, we're taking orders from shops all over the U.S. The very first one we went to (in July 2014), we went up there and had no expectation about how we were going to do, and our first shop was in Oregon, in Coos Bay. I can remember turning around and looking at Neal and going, this is going to be fun.
Why did you choose cheese straws and not chocolate or some other sweet treat to make?
Margaret: It is a completely Southern thing. I grew up with them. If you're from here, at Christmas you would get cheese straws at your house. Somebody's grandmother would make them. It's just a very old-fashioned snack.
It was a family recipe like a lot of things are. It was a recipe my mom had. I was out of college, in my early 20s, and just looking for something to make for my friends. That's how it started.
Cheese straws are something you really either enjoy making or you don't. There's no middle ground. I didn't think they were hard. To me, it was easy and fun. So I started doing that and friends said they were incredible and it just turned into a thing.
One thing led to another?
Margaret: I couldn't go places without some cheese straws. At every family event, at every friend event, and definitely at Christmas. There was one Christmas that I was trying to change them and be cute and turn them into a wreath. I took them around to my friends and one called before I got home and said, don't ever do that again. They were very thick as a wreath versus a thinner straw. It had changed the whole texture. They weren't as crisp and were totally doughy.
They're not the easiest to perfect, it seems?
Neal: They're very labor intesnvie. It's a manual process.
When did you know that Neal wanted to sink his teeth into the business?
Margaret: I can remember him saying, mom, I'd like to be part of a startup. And I was like, boy, I've got one for you. That's how this was. It was very natural. And his brothers, too. When they would come home at Christmas they were working here.
Are you making a living at this, Neal?
Neal: If you hang around startup businesses, everybody tells you there's a window of about three years. We're making money, but we're also putting it back in the business, and the business is growing. As long as we keep growing, eventually we're going to be to a point where I can be on a salary, and we'll be creating jobs.
How far are you away from that moment?
Neal: This year is going to be a big one because we're purchasing some pieces of equipment that will help out with the manufacturing side to where we're pumping out a lot more product. We'll also bring in people to help pack, and maybe help cook. Right now I can cook just so much.
The equipment we want is called an extruder, and you basically plop the dough into the top of it and it pops the rows of cheese straws onto the trays. It can do it in 15 seconds, whereas right now we're hand-loading the tubes and laying the rows ourselves.
Is competition stiff in cheese straws?
Margaret: There is competition. We think of it as two levels. There are the really big companies. You've probably seen Mississippi Cheese Straws, that's one. They're like a manufacturing plant. They're big and mass produced and can price them really low. And there are companies around like us, several of them in Georgia, and we know them.
How do you pitch the straws to people?
Neal: We use all natural ingredients, no preservatives. They have a six-month shelf life in these bags. The bags tear open and reseal. We list the ingredients right on the back -- cheddar cheese, salt, all-purpose flour, butter and spices.
How did the spicy version that you have in the Flavor of Georgia contest come about?
Neal: It started when my mom would give cheese straws as gifts, and a couple of men around town would always go, can you make them hotter, I like them hotter. So she just began adding cayenne, doubling the spice in it. Then we started to make it a different way and combined some other spices.
These men were almost like a focus group. We would take it to them and they'd go, nah, that's not it. We would bring it back and they would go, no. So finally we (mixed in different ingredients and) took it them and they said, that's it, that's the recipe right there. And we kept that recipe.
Some people we found are scared of the word spicy. Because how spicy is spicy? During the summer we go down to the Saturday Market on Broadway and set up a booth and have samples and bags for sale. People come by and sample the three flavors, and our spicy on some Saturdays beats out the original. Because once people try it they're like, that's not that spicy. It has a rich flavor to it.
How does the future look for Southern Straws, fast or slow growth? And will you add more flavors?
Margaret: We haven't said let's grow it slow. But we wanted to get our product out there to where folks loved the original, loved what we had, before we peppered them with a bunch of different flavors.
Neal: That's why all we make is cheese straws, three flavors, and the best that you can buy on the market.
But word is getting around that you're the cheese straw kings, I take it?
Margaret: People around Columbus will call us and say we need some cheese straws. But we know who has them (in retail stores) and that they're not out of stock yet. So we say go pick those up at River Road Pharmacy or we tell them that Dinglewood's got those. We want them to go to those shops almost before coming here, because we are a factory.
We do take special orders; we do weddings. We do some work with TSYS and their folks. If they're having a retirement event, they'll call us and say we need 20 dozen cheese straws. So special orders people come here. But if they want to go, say, to the Auburn football game on Saturday, they go to the shops to buy the straws.
So the Southern Straw journey continues?
Margaret: When we first started, we didn't sit down and say we want to be 75 percent wholesale and 25 percent retail. We're just on a journey. The interesting thing is we don't close our minds or thoughts to whatever opportunity comes up. We're just going with it and if it turns into something, then great. If it doesn't, well, that didn't work.
Would you like to land the really big one, a Macy's or Whole Foods or Fresh Market account?
Neal: That's the next goal. We're making the right steps to set ourself up to go do that. Right now I couldn't walk into Whole Foods and go, hey, buy this, and then have them go, can you make 10,000? It would probably take me a week to put 10,000 stickers on bags, because I'm the one doing it.
So right now we're talking about getting a printed bag. When we get that and the piece of (extruder) machinery, and then you bring in people to help pack them, you're setting yourself up to go be big. But then again, if somebody such as Whole Foods walked in the door right now and said, we want you today, we would figure it out.
You seem to be very passionate with this and having a good time?
Margaret: We're just seeing where it takes us. It's physically pretty demanding, but mentally and emotionally, it's a lot of fun. And I get to work with my son.
Name: Margaret Amos
Current residence: Columbus
Education: Columbus High School, 1979; University of Georgia, BBA, marketing, 1983
Previous jobs: Burnham Service Corp. from 1983 to 1990; TSYS from 1990 to 1995; Synovus from 1995 to 2011
Family: Husband Troy Amos, originally from Columbia, S.C., who owns The Grill Outlet on Second Avenue in Columbus; and three sons -- Neal (partner in Southern Straws), Troy (senior at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, major in forestry) and Daniel (junior at Brookstone School)
Name: Neal Amos
Current residence: Columbus
Education: Brookstone School, 2009; University of Georgia, BBA Finance, 2014
Previous jobs: Has only been a student
Family: Parents, Margaret and Troy Amos; brothers, Troy and Daniel; and his "biggest supporter," grandfather Edward Neal