Cathy Cunningham of Mama Geraldine’s Bodacious Food Company: “Never compromise your quality to save money.”

Does your product solve an issue or make life easier? When I would watch Geraldine, my mom, grind out, row after row, of cheese straws, I was amazed by how much time and effort it took. It finally occurred to me; there has to be an easier way to create these savory snacks. With an […]

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Does your product solve an issue or make life easier? When I would watch Geraldine, my mom, grind out, row after row, of cheese straws, I was amazed by how much time and effort it took. It finally occurred to me; there has to be an easier way to create these savory snacks. With an automated baking line and a million dollars in debt later, we found the way!

Make sure your product’s brand name is easy to recall, so folks can tell others to purchase it. My original brand name was “Bodacious Cheese Straws,” only to discover I could not trademark “Bodacious.” So, I elected to go with Geraldine’s Cheese Straws, which eventually became Mama Geraldine’s. Hey, everybody loves a “MAMA”!

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cathy Cunningham, CEO and Founder of Mama Geraldine’s Bodacious Food Company.

Radio exec turned no-nonsense entrepreneur exchanged her suffocating pantyhose for a hair net and a batch of her mother’s buttery cheese straws ~ and hasn’t looked back since.

Cathy Cunningham recalls the very moment in 1994 she decided to upend her life. Successful but unfulfilled, Cunningham worked in the radio business in Atlanta. One night she was having a glass of wine to unwind, snacking on some expensive cheese bites that were not nearly as good as her own mother’s when she thought to herself, “My mama’s cheese straws are better than these. You know what? I think I could make a business out of selling Mama’s recipe.”

Cathy’s “mama” is the late Geraldine Cunningham, a former teacher from Newnan, Georgia, and a genuine Southern treasure. Geraldine learned the skills of baking from her Swedish mom, Emma Lindgren McCloskey.

Geraldine and her husband, Turner Homes Cunningham, had four children. Cathy is their only daughter. Geraldine found that baking had to become a focal point of the home to keep the family fed. She would spend hours upon hours churning out delicious, buttery cheese straws that were a hit with the kids and all the Newnan townspeople. The Cunningham kids always seemed to be causing mischief, and the cheese straws became a peace offering for whatever their latest transgression may have been!

When Cathy had her epiphany that corporate America was not going to jive long term with her free-spirited personality, she resolved to name her venture “The Bodacious Food Company.” After all, to Cathy, ‘bodacious’ means, “As good as it gets!”

Cunningham operates a 15,000 square foot basking facility in Jasper, GA, where she has 13 full times employees. Mama Geraldine’s Cheese Straws now come in six varieties (including gluten free), and they are “the best-selling cheese straw in all of these United States” (as Cathy says in her Southern drawl). The Bodacious Food Company has expanded to include a line of cookies (Italian Wedding, Pecan Cini-Minis, Key Lime) as well.

The rest is history. Mama Geraldine’s Cheese Straws and Bodacious Snacks are distributed worldwide. Cathy made it her mission in life to spread the “joy” of cheese straws throughout the land. “Let me tell you what, there are very few things in life better than a freshly baked cheese straw,” says Cunningham. “And for me, well, I haven’t had to put on a pair of pantyhose in 26 years.” How is that for living a bodacious life? “Snack on, y’all!”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in small towns around Georgia, with three brothers and parents who were both educators. We settled in Newnan, Georgia, in 1970 where my dad, Holmes Cunningham, was Newnan High Principal for 16 years. My mom, Geraldine “Gerry” Cunningham, was a Media Specialist and yet to be known for her “soon to be famous” cheese straws. I recall bringing mom’s cheese straws to “smooth over” some adverse situations I often found myself in, like throwing an unauthorized party while my parents were away. I also may or may not (wink wink) have bribed teachers with cheese straws when I could seem to finish an assignment on time!

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

I clearly had a classic mid-life crisis. I was in my early 40s, working as an Account Executive for ABC Disney and KICKS Radio in Atlanta, Georgia. The money was great, but my job satisfaction was not. It was becoming increasingly challenging to adapt to the corporate culture, and I realized I needed to make a change. One cold January evening, while drinking wine contemplating another year of uninspired radio sales that was ahead of me, I was paying a bill of gourmet cheese bites for my clients while munching down on mom’s cheese straws. It suddenly occurred to me, “Mom’s cheese straws are way better than the gourmet cheese bites I just paid for! If that company can do it, I can make a business out of Mom’s cheese straws and do it much better!” I became obsessed with the idea of creating Mama Geraldine’s brand of Cheese Straws. Even when I would try to leave the idea of “Geraldine’s” alone to stay with the big bucks, the whisper of “Geraldine’s” would not leave me alone.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The Kroger Co. in Atlanta called to inquire if I was interested in participating in a “cutting” for cheese straws.

My response, “Absolutely! I will participate in the “cutting!” Sadly, I had to call back and ask what exactly what was a “cutting?” It turns out an item cutting is conducted when a grocery chain invites all the known competitors to submit their cheese straws for review to be selected for the brand Kroger would carry. Mama Geraldine’s was selected. At the time, I was, by far, the smallest producer of cheese straws in all the land. I had to learn quickly how to mass-produce them with integrity.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The only thing I knew about food when I started my company was, I like to eat! I had no knowledge of food production and had to painstakingly learn on the job, which made for some very costly mistakes along my journey. My advice: work in the industry where you would like to create a business before quitting your day job. It took me almost five years before I could pay myself a salary, and I depleted all my savings and 401K. You are seriously working without a safety net. Shadow or take a job in the business to learn if this is the one you are willing to risk it all for.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Marketing 101: Choose a name folks can remember. Even with social media, “word of mouth” endorsements of your product is still critical for success. Do a search and TRADEMARK your brand. If the name is not available, chose another brand name. You will not win litigation, nor do you want to invest in a trademark war. Determine if your food item is shelf-stable. How will be converted from kitchen to produce in much greater quantities? RESEARCH your competition, pricing, logo, and packaging design. How does your packaging sell the attributes of your product?

Financing: Whatever amount of money you think you will need for your startup, double or perhaps triple it! Your capital requirement to keep producing will almost always occur at least 6–12 months prior to getting the capital. Cash flow is king, yet it is also the most challenging to manage.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

Believe in yourself. Never give up especially if you have done your research and have determined there is a need for your product. In the case of Mama Geraldine’s, there were 5 companies producing cheese straws before me. I believed I could not only make a better cheese straw but also create the most recognizable brand in the cheese straw industry. My branding goal was for Mama Geraldine’s to become to cheese straws what Tabasco is to hot sauce and what Ben and Jerry’s is to ice cream. This is what my competition missed.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

As I was describing my experience with consultants, a very wise and successful food CEO once shared with me, “I rarely hear anything positive after, ‘We hired a consultant.”’ Unfortunately, that was true in my experience and I wasted valuable resources on hiring them. However, if the consultant has owned his/her own business and survived all the up and downs there then they could possibly add value. Check their references carefully.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

I’ve witnessed successes and failures in both arenas. With bootstrapping you will maintain control but generally, you will also be cash strapped for growth. Should you enter into a Venture Capital arrangement, you will need a good M & A attorney. Hiring a proven consultant to assist in preparing your presentation deck could be useful if you can show a realistic profit over 2–5 years as a startup. Ask the consultant for a reference of a successful client they have worked for previously.

I didn’t go the VC route. I am still self and debt-funded. I do have several friends who are investors as well. Keep in mind; too many investors could cause issues when raising additional capital.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

Legal Zoom is the best place to start to file a patent and/or trademark. It’s inexpensive to do a search. Only hire a patent attorney after you have done your own research to save money.

Sourcing raw ingredients is best done online and or through a distributor. Finding a good co-manufacturer may be the most challenging aspect of bringing your food product from the kitchen to the market.

Source your states and regions manufacturers listings. Specialty Food Association can be an excellent resource for seeking a co-manufacturer as well. You will need a good attorney to review all aspects of a co-packing contract to ensure your food product meets all your required specifications. I do my own manufacturing of Mama Geraldine’s as I’ve yet to identify a baking company that will affordably meet all my specs.

Retailers are easy to find but harder to sell to, especially a new product. Buyers have to move something off the shelf and take the risk of putting your product in the space. They are very risk-averse and want a product with proven velocity.

Distributors, for the same reason, are very reluctant to take on new items. Build a track record of velocity with online sales first. Amazon can track your sales by state. That is valuable data a retail buyer can use to justify giving you shelf space.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Create a product that people will love to talk about and bring back great memories for them. I’m frequently being told the Mama Geraldine’s Cheese Straws the closest thing to their “Nana’s,” “Aunt Bessie’s.” I like to call it “feel-good food.”

2. Does your product solve an issue or make life easier? When I would watch Geraldine, my mom, grind out, row after row, of cheese straws, I was amazed by how much time and effort it took. It finally occurred to me; there has to be an easier way to create these savory snacks. With an automated baking line and a million dollars in debt later, we found the way!

3. Make sure your product’s brand name is easy to recall, so folks can tell others to purchase it. My original brand name was “Bodacious Cheese Straws,” only to discover I could not trademark “Bodacious.” So, I elected to go with Geraldine’s Cheese Straws, which eventually became Mama Geraldine’s. Hey, everybody loves a “MAMA”!

4. Do your research before spending valuable resources on design. Take your preliminary package designs to a retailer and place them on the shelf next to your competition. If it does not WOW you or create interest in customers passing by, you have to start over. Hard to hear but true.

5. Never compromise your quality to save money. Respect your customers’ hard-won loyalty and stay with the formula that builds their repeat purchases. Years ago, a consultant convinced me to lessen my aged cheddar cheese and use enzymes to increase my margins. It only took a few months for sales to drop and customers to start calling asking what had happened! I reverted back as quickly as possible and fired the consultant!

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

In the case of Mama Geraldine’s Cheese Straws, it’s all about the cheese! We use only 12 months aged Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese and Parmesan. Customers are addicted to this artisan-crafted baked savory snack.

We discovered during the Pandemic, folks must be enjoying Mama Geraldine’s while sheltering at home, as our demand soared.

More recently, Mama Geraldine’s has emerged as an “on-trend” Keto friendly snack with 5 grams of Protein and 0 Sugars.

Who knew?!!!

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Making the world a better place should be a continual work in progress for anyone lucky enough to be a successful entrepreneur. I treat my employees with great respect because I would not have the success that I enjoy today without their daily dedication to Mama Geraldine’s.

I manufacture in a small mountain town in North Georgia, where the employment options 20 years ago were slim. Several of the baking crew who started with me in 1999 are still working for Bodacious Food Company today. When the Pandemic hit in March of 2020, I furloughed everyone for 3 weeks with full pay, and they all returned to sanitize our building. Since everyone was required to wear a mask, I started a Mask Wearing Bonus Plan. Each employee gets 50 dollars / week for wearing a mask and not whining about it. Trust me, wearing a mask all day while in production is very challenging.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We have a saying down South, “Always dance with the one who brung you.” Meaning never forget those who helped you along the way. My parents, Dad, and Mama Geraldine, were the most inspiring people I’ve ever known. They taught me the value of hard work, treating kindly, and respecting others, regardless of our differences. It’s a lesson I certainly embrace during these challenging times in our country.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I gravitate toward self-made entrepreneurs who have survived failures and overcome personal tragedies. Oprah Winfrey, of course! Katie Couric, President-Elect Joe Biden, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There are too many to list! I could have lunch every day for months and never run out of folks, both young and old, who’ve inspired me. Snack on, y’all!

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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