March 3, 2010 11:17:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
You may have seen them in gift and specialty shops. Small brown packages filled with big taste and boasting eye-catching yellow and red labels reading Ala Carte Alice.
What you may not have known is that "Alice" is former Columbian Alice Wooten and her husband, Chef Johnny Wooten. The couple once served fine fare in the Golden Triangle, from their Portobello''s Restaurant in downtown Columbus and Cafe Portobello''s in Starkville.
After Johnny''s 12-year career with Sysco Corp., the largest foodservice distributor in North America, the couple have settled in Alice''s hometown of Louisville. Their careers still revolve around the food industry, but with two sons, 3 and 6 years old, they''ve tailored a lifestyle -- and a new product line -- that allow them the flexibility to be active in the boys'' busy routines.
The Wooten''s family-owned businesses now include the Market Cafe at Lyle Grocery, on South Columbus Avenue, and the growing Ala Carte Alice line of sauce, dip and flavor mixes. What began as an Internet business "to give me something to do and help start a college fund for the boys," as Alice remarked, continues to expand to retail shelves throughout the Southeast.
With products ranging from mixes for Delta blues chili and Cajun shrimp and grits, to white chocolate raspberry cheese balls and crème brulée brownies, Ala Carte Alice products have wide appeal. Cleverly-packaged mixes for soups, entrees, pastas, spreads and desserts are designed to help any everyday cook feel like a Southern gourmet chef.
"The mixes were Johnny''s dream; he''s always wanted to do it," said Alice, who moved with her husband to Charleston, S.C., after Columbus, and later Memphis, Tenn., then Madison, as his career with Sysco advanced. It was Johnny''s idea to include his wife''s name in the branding, something she wasn''t altogether sure of in the beginning but admits seems to have caught on.
About two and a half years ago, in Madison, the Wootens began making the first of their dry mixes which, combined with your own ingredients, can transform an ordinary dish into compliments to the chef. One of the early methods of introducing the Ala Carte products to the public was home parties.
"My first home party was in Columbus," said Alice, "at Helen Pridmore''s house."
Building the business
Alice recalled early days, when she used to hand print and cut every label. They''re now printed in a shop, "but we still hand-seal everything and label the boxes by hand," she said.
"All the recipes are things we''ve made over many, many years and have turned into a mix form," explained Johnny. "Bisque, soup, shrimp and grits ... it''s as good as any restaurant is going to make."
All ingredients and spices are blended on the cafe premises. From there, shipments go out to online customers and retail outlets including Party and Paper and Pizazz in Columbus, and Mak B & Co. in Starkville.
"The packaging is one of the things that has really worked," the West Point native continued. "The gift shop owners love it, because it pops off the shelf."
Susan Mackay of Party and Paper said, "We especially can''t keep the products for shrimp -- shrimp and grits, shrimp bisque and shrimp dip -- in the store. Everything is so easy to make that it makes it an easy sale. ... We also add Ala Carte Alice products to Mississippi baskets we make for customers. It is a great Mississippi food line."
Taking Ala Carte Alice on the road to selected wholesale or food and gift shows has been effective.
"I think the shows are fun; we get to see so many people, and I always pick up a couple of new customers," Alice remarked.
Each June, the Wootens try to introduce between six and 10 new items to the Ala Carte line.
Johnny chuckled, "We''re already experimenting. It''s great to have the outlet of the restaurant; if I can make a cheesy enchilada soup from the mixes and sell it, we know we''re on to something."
The Wooten''s Market Cafe serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Its menu of specialty sandwiches, lunch plates, quiche and salads gives way once a month to a gourmet evening they call Third Thursday. Then, dishes like snow crab legs, filet mignon, grouper Bienville, salmon and ribeye are the stars.
"We have standing reservations every month," said Johnny. "We''re already over half full for April and haven''t even had our March dinner yet."
The Market Cafe and gift shop is open until 5 p.m. each day, serving coffee and dessert and showcasing products made in Mississippi, including the cafe''s breads and chicken salad.
A true family affair, Alice''s sister, Laura Brown of Louisville, and niece, Laura Sandiford of Starkville, also lend their talents to the businesses.
The family''s mission is simple: to provide the best products and service to their customers and use the freshest ingredients they can find.
The philosophy is paying dividends in a growing customer base, in both the restaurant and Ala Carte Alice line. The future looks promising, making the decision to leave a corporate foodservice career to move back to Mississippi feel right.
"We definitely have no regrets at all," said Johnny. "It was time to take a leap of faith."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.