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Published: Wednesday, 5/23/2007

Mother-daughter team rekindling food operation; Aunt Minnie's opens plant in Perrysburg

BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Mary McCarthy, left, and Shaveite Crenshaw ladle sweet-potato filling into pie shells at the Perrysburg operation. Mary McCarthy, left, and Shaveite Crenshaw ladle sweet-potato filling into pie shells at the Perrysburg operation.
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Minnie Sebree and Claudia Sebree-Brown hope the market is still hot for their frozen desserts and side dishes.

After a two-year hiatus, the mother-daughter owners have resumed operations of their ready-to-bake Aunt Minnie's Southern Style Entrees.

"We are slowly building are way back up," said Ms. Sebree-Brown.

The sweet-potato pie, peach cobbler, and cornbread stuffing that began from a collection of Mrs. Sebree's recipes have been back on the shelves in the frozen food section of local grocery stores since October.

Claudia Sebree-Brown, left, and Minnie Sebree with some of their wares. Claudia Sebree-Brown, left, and Minnie Sebree with some of their wares.
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Ms. Sebree-Brown, 47, and her mother got into the frozen-foods market in 1999 after achieving success as the owners of a Toledo catering and restaurant business that specialized in Southern-style cooking.

When the business began, they contracted with a Holland, Mich., cold packing company to manufacture the entrees and dishes. Today, Mrs. Sebree and her daughter have seven employees assembling and packaging products in a building on Williams Road in suburban Perrysburg.

The owners said moving operations into their own facility gave them control over quality. "The company in Michigan was good, but it was never as good as it is now," Mrs. Sebree said.

That change was one of several that the mother-daughter team made after getting into a business that they initially knew little about. "We were so green," confessed Ms. Sebree-Brown.

A pie is weighed to check for the correct amount of filling. A pie is weighed to check for the correct amount of filling.
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Inspiration for the business can be traced to the cooking that Mrs. Sebree did in the family's home in West Toledo. She started a catering business out of the residence in the early 1990s in retirement after a career in the banking business.

A licensed nail technician, Ms. Sebree-Brown joined her mother in the catering operation and helped her launch Sebree Restaurant and Catering in a strip shopping center on South Reynolds Road in 1995.

There they offered a full range of home-cooked foods, including fried or baked chicken, pork chops, catfish, prime rib, candied yams, custard pie, caramel cake, and fried apples. They were open for lunch and dinner.

As the restaurant flourished, the catering business was discontinued. However, the restaurant began selling frozen entrees and side dishes, with cooking instructions.

The entrees and side dishes were launched commercially in 2000 and were sold in nearly 4,000 supermarkets, including Kroger, Meijer, Publix, and Safeway. Ms. Sebree-Brown said about 252,000 units were packaged and shipped in their second year of production.

In 2003, they took their products to the Food Marketing Institute exhibition in Chicago, where a display was built around a life-size cardboard cutout of Mrs. Sebree.

It caught the attention of supermarket retailers, wholesalers, and distributors, and the mother and daughter entrepreneurs secured nearly $500,000 in orders.

However, shortly thereafter, the relationship with the Michigan cold packer ended, and they were unable to fill the orders.

In contrast to production at the Michigan plant, which was measured in pallets, the output at the Perrysburg operation is shipped in cases. Ms. Sebree-Brown herself often delivers to local grocers. The products are available at Monette's Market, Bassett's Market, and Family Food Center.

"If something bad happens, sometimes you have to step back and reinvent yourself," she said. The owners are developing other dishes and entrees, including sweet and sour cabbage, candied yams, and bread pudding with custard sauce.

Contact Mark Reiter at:

markreiter@theblade.com

or 419-724-6096.



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