Pecans, cakes, gelato, home brew, barbecue rubs. In a region that celebrates authenticity, small, creative entrepreneurs are popping up like cotton in the spring, tempering the Delta’s long-suffering climate of unpredictability. Determined to succeed, they are doing their best to prove that micro-business can help boost an economy. They are pioneers, following a drive and an instinct, taking outside experience and inspiration and creating new tastes that push traditions but stay uniquely Delta.
Clarksdale, Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream Company
All Hugh Balthrop wanted was to keep smiles on his kids’ faces so he started making homemade ice cream. Before he knew it, he had one of the tastiest little treats in the Delta. Today, Sugar Magnolia has become a Delta delight, popping up on menus from Delta Bistro in Greenwood to outlets as far away as Memphis.
It happened before Balthrop knew it. In studying books to find flavor ideas for his kids, he kept coming up with more and more ideas for new flavors. As he started selling them, business grew swiftly and moved from the backyard guesthouse to warehouse space in Clarksdale behind the chambers of commerce.
He enrolled in Penn State University’s Ice Cream Course and found out how much more could be learned in the world of frozen treats.
The answer: a lot.
“I’ll go through books and get inspiration like with this Lemon Drop. I just said, ‘Oh that’d be different.’ We try to create something new and fresh,” said Balthrop.
It’s the flavors that led customers to get hooked on what is really gelato in the Delta. “I was a little hesitant about saying it was gelato initially, just because I didn’t think people were that familiar with it. And so they taste it, it’s like, ‘Wow! The flavor is a little more dense.'”
That’s because it doesn’t have nearly as much air whipped into it.
People loved it so much, he’s bought a bigger gelato machine, imported from Italy, naturally, to handle the higher volume.
“Salty Caramel is number one,” said Balthrop. “Number two is Whiskey and Pecans. It’s a seasonal flavor. We try to get creative.”
Balthrop finds much of his inspiration in Southern surroundings. Banana pudding, moon pie, lemon poppy seed, sweet tea, and Mississippi Mary’s pound cake have turned up as ice cream or sorbet flavors.
“It depends on what we can get in the season,” he said. “We support local farmers.” For example pecans come from Tutwiler, blueberries from Grenada and fresh whole milk from the Brown Family Dairy.
The Balthrop family came to the Delta by the way of Washington D.C., where Hugh had an art gallery, and his wife Erica had become a gynecologist and obstetrician. It was her summers visiting family in the Delta that made her want to move. Every time she returned to her roots, she fell more deeply in love with it. Hugh came along for the ride and now he’s glad he did.
“All my children were born in the Delta,” says the stay-at-home dad turned ice cream man with kids aged 4, 7 and 10. “This allows me to have a creative outlet. This is what I love to do and this is my passion right now. The smiles you get from kids and adults are just priceless.”
Greenwood, Delta Delicacy
Sandwiched between health food store and a vitamin shop lie the kitchens of Delta Delicacy.
“It was mama’s recipe,” Gwen Toomey says of what created a busy second job and a rewarding hobby for this enterprising group of three schoolteachers. “She was a great baker. She’s 80 years old and still helps us out in the shop.”
When that happens, three generations of women from tiny Money are in the Delta Delicacy kitchen baking caramel cakes from a recipe that built the business – Gwen, her neighbor Adrian Tribble, and Gwen’s daugther, Jennifer Roden.
Before they knew it, their cakes were getting shipped out of the state, featured in magazines and the movie The Help, and thrilling brides at fancy weddings.
But back to Toomey’s mom.
“At Christmas she would make cakes. Ambrosia cake, jam cake, German chocolate and caramel. Just good cakes. When I was growing up you didn’t have cakes all the time. It was an occasion,” Toomey says. Now after school day, the three women become bakers for a few hours each evening, creating chocolate, caramel and strawberry cakes that are sold through the Mississippi Gift Company.
“Momma taught me. Then I threw out a lot of caramel icings before I ever got it right,” relates Toomey, who can lecture at length on the difficulty of cooking with caramel.
“My brother and I ate a lot of cakes that didn’t look pretty,” interjects Roden.
Toomey jumps back in: “My husband Don used to love it. [He’d say] ‘Did you mess one up?’ I gave Adrian the recipe and she threw a lot of caramel icings out. We took the cakes to school for different functions.”
Roden finishes the story: “And we realized there was a market for them. A lot of people don’t cook anymore, especially my generation.”
Something that is great for business at Delta Delicacy. So the passion for cooking and baking has been passed down. Roden recalls sitting on the kitchen counter as a child, mother Gwen giving her flour and water. “I would put my hand in the bowl and just play with it.”
What started as cakes for friends and school fundraisers led to wedding cakes. The first of which was for the wedding of Adrian Tribble’s daughter.
“We didn’t go to the ceremony. Jen and I stayed with the cake,” Toomey says of their first one, a banana-pudding number that they drove in a 110-degree weather at 6 mph in a Chevy Tahoe, with Roden in the back watching the top tier start to slide in the Delta heat that the Tahoe’s A/C couldn’t quite vanquish. Fortunately they made it before the cake collapsed.
“There was no pressure because no money was exchanged,” says Adrian, shrugging.
The two other bakers disagree.
Since then, Delta Delicacy has baked for everything from “baby reveal” parties to book clubs, including one in New York that ordered a caramel cake to savor the Southern story of The Help. For the movie version, they baked all the cakes on the table for the scene at the Junior League Ball.
“We joked that each cake needed a ‘stunt cake,'” says Gwen, explaining why they had to bake multiples of each cake. While the movie was in town, Delta Delicacy had crew members coming in to buy a few for themselves as well.
Lately, they’ve been expanding a little at a time, bringing more of the community into the act. They host cookie- and cake- decorating sessions for children.
But they learned that even tasty cakes and cookies have their limits. They had to establish an age-limit after an icing-stuffed 3-year-old on what may have been a sugar high felt compelled to bite someone on their posterior, leaving lip marks of powdered sugar.
Which, the ladies might say, is just one of the hazards of success.
Greenville, Delta Brewing Supply
In a storefront on Washington Avenue, in a long and narrow room with a vaulted wooden ceiling, a small but steady clientele streams through in search of the Holy Grail – ways to brew their own beer.
Brad Harger, his wife, Karen, and nephew Cedric Williams have opened Mississippi’s first home brewing supply company to sell small batches of craft beers as well as all the supplies for all things to do with fermentation and mold. The shelves of the shop have cheese-and-wine making kits as well as many varieties of beer and a refrigerator full of different yeasts for brewing.
On this day, it’s a range of customers, from a new elderly female brewer making her first batches to a man in for root beer to local craft brewers and a home brewer with stronger tastes in mind. The root beer aficionado bubbles about stuff he drank in Nebraska as a child. He’s excited he can get the yeast here. The female novice says it’s really her husband who wants to brew the stuff, but she allows that she took the home-brewing class with him and that she decides what they drink and what they brew.
Who knew this market existed?
Harger did. For him, it was instinctive.
“Beer. It was so frustrating. There was no good beer here,” he says when asked about why he opened shop in December of 2012. It all took him back to why he became a home brewer in the first place. “I didn’t like beer. I couldn’t stand beer because all I ever had was Bud, Miller and Coors.”
So he sharpened his skills and now shares his knowledge in the Delta.
“At first we wanted to open a brew pub. And then we found out if you have a brew pub you can only sell your beer to customers who come in to eat food in your business. So we said, ‘OK let’s open a brewery instead.’ In Mississippi, you can sell your beer to your distributor but you can’t sell directly to your customers and we were like, ‘We don’t want to do that!'”
Although it was technically legal in Mississippi to brew beer, this spring, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a new law clarifying that there is no need for a permit to brew for personal consumption. The law took effect July 1. Its passage was music to Harger’s ears.
“We brought downtown because it was so affordable. Actually, my wife bought the building while I was out of town. It’s not the busiest neighborhood. It’s pretty slow, and dead after hours. Hopefully we get folks thinking about opening next door or down the way. We’ve noticed neighbors fixing up their buildings after we fixed up ours,” Harger says.
And the family looks to keep sprucing up the neighborhood by dressing up the back lot and creating – what else? -a beer garden. Thanks to the new state law, they plan to offer brewing classes, and host tastes.
“We do different beer classes but you sign up for all three because beer is so complex, you can’t just talk about it in two hours.”
One part of the curriculum is drinking “bad beer,” so the new brewer will know how to fix a batch gone wrong.
Harger’s journey to Greenville began after leaving Oregon to go to Chico State in northern California, where he met Karen, a Greenville native. They married and eventually moved to Maui, Hawaii, when Brad’s company, Office Max, transferred him there. Eventually they came to a mutual realization.
“We decided we didn’t like the city anymore,” says Harger. So they moved to Karen’s hometown, where Harger divides his time between working at the local Office Max and his beer supply shop.
His advice for new business comes from his experience in Maui, where he got involved with local government.
“Get involved. Take advantage of all the programs through the chamber of commerce. Meet people.”
And a little home brew doesn’t hurt either.
Story by Erin Scott in Deeper South: Land of Plenty.