Family Business Creates Year-round Job Opportunity
In their own words, Priester's co-owners Thomas Ellis and Ellen Ellis Burkett, will tell you a remarkable story. It's a story of how a part-time seasonal wholesale nut business developed into a full-time year-round company baking and selling specialty gourmet pecan desserts.
Our family has been candy makers selling home-made candies since the 1940's. Expanding into baked goods made with our pecans made sense because the market for wholesale bulk pecans is limited by the harvesting season. Our pecans are harvested in November, just in time for the Holidays. However, once the seasonal harvesting and shipping rush was over, it left our staff out of a job! We could only employ our people for a few months a year. And in Alabama, that's not enough for the number of folk who live around here.
We're a family oriented business with just about everyone involved here. So it really hurt to have to lay off our friends and neighbors from their jobs. We decided an innovative way was to use our expertise in making candy and try our hand at baking goods. This way, we could keep everyone employed for the whole year and not have to go through that heart-breaking post Christmas lay off. It was also a great way to branch into some really interesting markets.
"We had already tried selling oranges, specialty meats, and the hand-made artwork of local artists. We didn't initially decide to bake cakes and pies ourselves." said Thomas Ellis.
At first, we tried outsourcing the baking of our pecan cakes and pies. The company Priester's tried couldn't deliver consistently. We wanted to offer only the highest quality pies. After a couple bad shipments, we decided to take the baking into our own hands. Turned out to be quite the process! And the best decision we ever made. The first hurdle was an oven. With making candy, you only need a good stove. We needed a good oven. Priester's eventually found one from a local school.
"We didn't have an oven for baked goods. We had lots of copper pots and paddles, but not pie tins." said Thomas.
Priester's reached out for the best pecan pie recipes in the county. Turned out our Mother May's recipe was the best. It was a good looking pie, it tasted good, and it would ship well.
"Here we were thinking somebody else would be the expert in that, and we had the recipe under our noses all along." Mother May is known as an outstanding Southern cook in our region. Being in the pecan business, she'd use pecan nuts in the food she cooked for the family." said Thomas.
Naturally, one thing led to another. Simply being in the wholesale pecan business meant there was plenty of pecans available for new dessert dishes.
"Once we got the pie, we wanted a brownie. Our Mother May back in the day had come to the commercial kitchen in Priester's and she took Fiddlesticks (an exclusive Priester's candy product) that hadn't come out right, or weren't perfect in some way," said Ellen. So my Mother would get a few pounds of them and bring them home. She'd cook in with the brownies that she made, and in with the pecan pies. They are sooo good. That's where our idea for selling brownies came from."
Fortune smiled upon Priester's when a commercial kitchen in a nearby small town closed down. The company bought the whole bakery, unsure of its market value. Later it was discovered that we'd gotten a steal of a deal on mixers and ovens!
"We weren't really in the market for all that, but our little oven wouldn't have carried us to the next level. We were being looked after. We didn't realize we were being looked after, but we were. The pies and brownies looked and sold so well. Here we were led down this path, and the Good Lord was looking after us." said Ellen.
Priester's southern family values has helped us to evolve from a small seasonal nut harvesting business employing locally only a few months a year to a business capable of year 'round employment for our friends and neighbors. We've managed to combine that need with our passion in making candy and baking desserts. Decades later, decisions we made back then have proven to be good ones, and Priester's customers couldn't be happier.