SELMA, Alabama – When Robert Armstrong was studying business at the University of Alabama, he never imagined his career path would take him through the kitchen.
But the 28-year-old Selma native found a product he believed in – one he thought others would like, too – and his entrepreneurial spirit took over.
Armstrong has taken a cookie recipe passed down by his grandmother and turned it into G Mommas Cookies, a brand that’s sold in grocery stores, pharmacies and gift shops across Alabama and the Southeast.
Through the help of a Birmingham-based distributor, Wood Fruitticher, as well as other advisers and his own hard work, he’s also making a national push. The cookies are a new addition to World Market’s store shelves, and they’re expected to go on sale in Cracker Barrel restaurants in the fall.
Armstrong remembers the day he realized the bite size, chocolate chip pecan cookies he grew up eating could become a successful business. He made a bold prediction to his grandmother, Anice Armstrong.
“I said, ‘Gammy, I’m going to make a million dollars off these cookies one day.’ She just laughed. She thought that was hilarious,” he said.
While Armstrong hasn’t made that million yet, he’s working on it, despite a bumpy beginning.
He started the business in 2009 but struggled about two years into it. He was baking all of the cookies himself in a former restaurant kitchen in Selma, then bagging them and delivering them to retailers.
The hours were long, and the work wasn’t profitable.
“Some days I would go in at 3 in the morning and bake until 11 o’clock at night,” he said. “I was making $5 an hour, maybe.”
Burned out, he hung up his apron in 2011 and tried his hand at a few other jobs, selling GPS monitors for juvenile offenders and selling meat products to military commissaries among them. On the side, he built websites for companies, something he still does occasionally to pay the bills.
“I always told myself I would come back to the cookies,” he said.
And eventually, he did.
The break came when he talked to a family friend from Selma who is broker that sells products to retail stores. The conversation gave him the confidence to give it another shot.
Another family friend helped Armstrong get a line of credit at a local bank, and he relaunched the cookies under their current name. They were previously called Gammy Mammas – after the actual name he called his grandmother – but that wasn’t catching on with customers.
He also began searching for a contract bakery to make the cookies and finally settled on one in Pennsylvania. That’s where all G Mommas Cookies are currently baked and bagged, although Armstrong’s goal is to bring production back to Selma one day.
While he credits the broker’s connections for helping him get his foot in the door with some stores, Armstrong’s tenacity has paid off, too.
The World Market deal, for instance, happened after he contacted an executive for the retailer on LinkedIn.
G Mommas sells two types of cookies, the classic chocolate chip pecan, which are made with all natural ingredients. There’s also a butterscotch oatmeal variety that Armstrong and his grandmother developed together for the business.
Copeland Wood of Wood Fruitticher said he enjoys working with upstart businesses like Armstrong’s.
“I think Robert has a great product with a great story behind it, and the fact that it’s a locally-owned company makes him a good fit for people who are looking to buy Alabama-made products,” he said.
Mark’s Mart in Selma was one of the first stores to sell the cookies, and owner Rodney King said they’re popular with the local crowd.
“We sell quite a few of them. People pick them up for a snack or for a gift basket,” he said.
Company wide, Armstrong estimates that he sells about 9,000 bags of cookies per quarter.
He said he’s learned a lot through the ups and downs of his business. The early days were filled with trial and error as he worked to get the cookie recipe just right for large-scale production and packaging.
More recently, he’s pored over test batches turned out by the contract bakery to make sure they retain their original taste and texture.
Through it all, he’s remembered the advice of his grandmother, who inspired him to persevere. She died last summer but not before she saw her grandson relaunch his business.
“She was my biggest encourager,” Armstrong said. “One thing she always used to say was, ‘Just keep sawing wood.'”
She also gave him perspective. “If this falls on its face, it’s going to be OK,” he said. “I’ll get a job and have to dig out of debt, but it will be OK.”
So what’s next for Armstrong and G Mommas?
Besides continuing a push to sell more cookies in more places, he’s working on a snack size bag to market to convenience stores.
And he hopes to use what he’s learned to help other entrepreneurs in Alabama.
The official name of Armstrong’s company is Selma Good, because he wants to promote the positive side of his hometown that often gets a bad rap for high unemployment and limited opportunities for young people.
“There’s so much negative spoken about Selma,” he said. “So many people my age say, ‘I gotta get out of here,’ and a lot of young people don’t come back.”
Armstrong is a key supporter of a new business incubator in the city’s downtown that aims to support entrepreneurs in Selma and the surrounding Black Belt region.
It is geared toward promoting the area’s strengths in its farming, food and artisan community.
Armstrong, who is the son of a district judge in Selma, knows his family connections have helped fuel his business, and he hopes to provide something similar for others through the business incubator.
“With my business, I’ve had people supporting me, providing help and advice,” he said. “And if I hadn’t had that, I wouldn’t have made it.”
May 8, 2014