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New ‘Bamawise’ Entrepreneurial Collective Promotes Alabama-Made Goods, Employs Workers From Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind

Rebecca Williams, founder of Holmsted Fines small batch chutneys, pictured with gift basket assembled by employees from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Photo by Kathryn Jacoby |

In today’s economy, most small business owners are doing all they can to make a good product and stay afloat—they simply don’t have the time or money to seek out distribution channels and work on branding.

That concept is what motivated a trio of distribution and marketing experts from around the state to start Bamawise, a collective of Alabama-based small businesses with products to sell, just no time to sell them.

“I don’t have time to travel around the state meeting with stores,” explains Meredith McMillan, founder and CEO of Birmingham-based Merry Cheese Crisps, one of Bamawise’s businesses. “I’m a one-woman show hand-baking everything from scratch. They have the contacts and expertise to do in a month what it would take me 10 years to do.”

McMillan says she feels strongly about exposing and elevating southern products to the entire nation. Her products are currently sold at Western, V. Richard’s and other specialty shops around the state. She hopes to be in several more stores around the Southeast by the end of the year.

Tom Beaube, founder and CEO of Birmingham-based Mook Mills Cheese Straws, says he’s thrilled to have an opportunity to showcase his products with other “homegrown” Alabama companies.

“We understand what southerners like because we are southern,” he says. “And we’re much stronger together than we are apart.”

For small businesses, there is definite strength in numbers, explains Jeff Gentry, who founded Bamawise along with Melissa Hinds and Patrick Davis.

“There are amazing, incredible products being made right here in Alabama, but it’s not easy for people to access them,” Gentry says. “Our goal is to become the number one distributor for all Alabama-made products, and we want to get them nationwide, worldwide.”

Currently, Bamawise distributes goods throughout the Southeast, across most parts of Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. The company has secured placements for products in Piggly Wiggly,Western Supermarkets, and Foodland stores and will be in Whole Foods by early August. The company has been in business for eight months, and Gentry says that expansion into other markets is one of their top priorities.

Product distribution, however, is only part of what Bamawise does. They also help entrepreneurs with product development, label design and branding.

“We aren’t a traditional distributor. We’re like mentor distributors,” Gentry says. We’ll help you with your product however you need that help, if you need a new logo, new packaging, whatever,” Gentry says.

The Bamawise collective currently has 12 small businesses, but Gentry says that number is likely to grow exponentially by the end of 2014. Although the small businesses pay nothing to become part of Bamawise, the company isn’t a nonprofit—when a product is sold to a store, Bamawise makes a percentage of those sales, Hinds explains.

For the last several months,  the products made by Bamawise entrepreneurs have been sold separately, but that’s about to change thanks to a new partnership with the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. The institute will be packaging a selection of Bamawise-distributed products into gift baskets and gift trays, making the packing materials out of recycled notebook pages and wrapping the trays in plastic.

Additionally, Bamawise will look to distribute some of the products currently made at the institute’s Talladega-based facility, including paper products, mops, and neckties. The institute currently employs 277 individuals, 75% of whom are legally blind or have another significant disability.

Jonathan Sherbert, accounting manager for the Alabama Industries for the Blind, which is a division of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, says that there was a “mutual attraction” with Bamawise.

“Once they came and got a tour of our plant and saw all the products we make there, they pretty much immediately asked if they could work with us. We’re making some great stuff, and if they can help us get it out there, that’s wonderful,” Sherbert says.

July 25, 2014

Kathryn Jacoby | By Kathryn Jacoby |

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