A knack for snacks

In Southern Straws, mother/son Margaret and Neal Amos team up to make an appealing cheese straw
Southern Straws founders Neal Amos and his mother Margaret Amos pose for a photo next to a box containing their company's products.

Neal Amos can just about pinpoint the precise moment he knew he wanted to be in business with his mom.

After 30 years in the corporate world in her hometown of Columbus, Margaret Amos (BBA ’83) founded Southern Straws in 2012, a bakery devoted exclusively to that hallmark of genteel Southern snacks, the cheese straw.

“Around Christmas of 2013, I was home and needing some money, so I worked at the shop. I remember delivering an order to one of our stores and dropping it off, and before I could get back to our shop, that same store called again and said they needed more,” recalls Neal (BBA ’14), who was a finance major at the Terry College.

“I started thinking there might actually be something here. So I had in my mind that spring when I graduated from UGA that I was going to come work with mom and we were going to see how far we could take this thing.”

Margaret, who’s made cheese straws with her mother’s recipe and press since her own college days (“I was looking for something for Christmas gifts for friends,” she says) admits from the very beginning that she and her oldest son — who pitched in at the shop during holidays — were coming at Southern Straws from different perspectives.

“Neal was at UGA and I didn’t think anything about him coming to work here at that time — I was just trying to start a company,” says Margaret, who graduated with a degree in marketing. “I’ll never forget he called me during his senior year, when everybody was figuring out what they were going to do when they graduated. He knew what I was doing and in his mind, he saw a startup, not cheese straws.”

After earning his degree in May 2014, one of Neal’s first proposals for the company was to widen Southern Straws’ reach by participating in the Atlanta Gift Show at the AmericasMart Atlanta.

“The summer of 2014, we went to our first show at the AmericasMart,” he says. “We got in 50 stores and we thought we were going to retire. We were so ecstatic. We’ve been going back ever since and it’s been growing and growing and growing.”

“Growing” doesn’t seem to adequately characterize the arc of Southern Straws — which come in original, mild and spicy flavors — in recent years. The from-scratch goodies, all made under Neal’s supervision in Columbus, are available in dozens of outlets in 13 states, including Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to name but a few. Neal says in the last five years the company has doubled production each year.

“At first, we were growing by 40, 45 percent,” says Margaret. “Then we grew 100 percent. And then another 100 percent.”

“We were producing 250 units a day when we started, and this year we’re going to double from last year and will probably produce close to 2,000 units a day by the end of this year,” adds Neal, who works with a kitchen crew of three. “We’ve upgraded equipment. We started with a hand beef jerky gun that we modified and we have a big extruder and we’ve added an oven — we’re maxing out our small kitchen here.”

While much of the Amos’ product is sold in gift shops, boutiques, wine shops, bakeries and gourmet-food businesses, mother and son took a big step in the retail world by contracting with the venerable Southern supermarket chain Piggly Wiggly to sell their tasty treats.

“Piggly Wiggly has taken us to the next place as far as our distribution,” says Margaret. “And we’re learning a lot and they’ve been a great partner because they’re helping us get better. They are pushing us.”

Family businesses — small, medium and large — have been part of the domestic and international commerce scenes for centuries, and many of the more successful concerns have been able to strike a balance between work life and home life. That being said, many people would rather do anything than work with family members.

For Margaret and Neal, there’s a give and take that suits them, and while there’s an occasional business discussion around the dinner table, they don’t find it difficult to leave work at work.

“We’re partners when we’re here,” said Margaret, who with Troy, her husband of 31 years, has two other children at UGA — Troy, who is a graduate student in the Warnell College of Forestry and Natural Resources, and Daniel, a sophomore who plans to apply to Terry College and one day hopes to get in the cheese straw business.

“We try to work off each other’s strengths, which for him is creative, youthfulness, entrepreneur. He went from school to here. My (strengths) are history and structure. It’s two different worlds coming together in the business sense. For me, what mom wouldn’t want to work with her children?”