Gourmet food company is run by women

molly&you takes off
Gourmet food company is run by women
Photo courtesy of molly&you

A few years ago I went to Austin to compare and contrast that city’s entrepreneurial scene to ours here in Madison. I was eager to get out of the proverbial bubble and learn what made Austin so weird and wonderful. Entrepreneur Molly Wilson is a long way from both Austin and Madison, but her passion as a food entrepreneur, her hard work and her hutzpah remind me that no matter where you start your business, your roots define its culture and vision. Wilson’s story gives hope to local entrepreneurs who dream of turning their startups into companies with a national reach.

Wilson is the founder of molly&you, a gourmet food company that sells beer bread, dips, spreads and mug cakes sold in packages and made in your kitchen with a few simple ingredients. You can find her products online and in 6,000 retail stores in the United States, Canada, Europe and South American. Local carriers include Hy-Vee, Kilwins, Hallmark and Stoughton’s All Through the House.

Founded in 2011 as Molly & Drew The Beer Bread Co., Wilson rebranded the business as molly&you in time to debut its products on March 7 in 1,100 Walmart stores across the country, including the Walmart on Nakoosa Trail in Madison. The decision to expand came at the right time – when Walmart called. (That’s right. The head buyer in the bakery department for the largest retailer in the world made the first move.)

Wilson was already retooling the company she started in Sac City, Iowa, after hearing about a bread mix that was selling out at the local county fair. At the time, Wilson owned a 6,000-square-foot gift shop emporium, one of the top Hallmark stores in the country. She sought out the bread maker, bought $150 of product and sold out of it quickly. She bought another 150 bucks’ worth and another and another. Eventually, Wilson says, “I offered to mentor her because I thought it had a lot of potential as a great product and something to add income to her family.”

Meanwhile, Wilson was busy tapping into her own network to help sell the product. She made a deal with 10 women who owned retail stores around the country to buy $150 in bread mix. If it didn’t sell, Wilson told them she would cover the cost; if it did, she asked them to reorder. Those 10 women, Wilson is proud to say, remain customers to this day. In 2013, the bread maker agreed to sell Wilson the recipe. “She wanted to see it grow past what she could do,” says Wilson. She also pledged to maintain part of her business in the community, where 10 women are still employed. The corporate office is in Florida, she has a sales force of 50 (90 percent are female), and production is now outsourced to two co-packing facilities plus one of their own in the Midwest.

Before I talk about what I admire about Wilson, I must admit my bias: She’s my cousin. What I admire most about her is her steadfast commitment to what she calls “a really feminist, progressive business model.”

“I don’t look over anybody’s shoulder,” she says. “I’m the boss, but I respect what everybody else brings to the table second to who they are as a person. The deal is, you work your tail off for me and you don’t miss anything that’s important to you or anybody you love in your life, no questions asked. No 40-hour work week. They love it, they don’t abuse it.”

Wilson has turned down two opportunities to sell the company. But she admits “to get to all the homes that I want to get to and have everyone enjoy and love the product will take something beyond my means,” she says. Plus, the offers “didn’t pass the sisterhood test,” she says. She admits, however, “if you are going to sell your brand, you have to be willing to release control.”

Wilson has advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. First, she says, “Take risks. You’re never going to get to the next place without taking a risk.” Second, she believes in mentorship. “Listening to mentors gets me to the next place ethically and keeps me on the path of doing things for all the right reasons, not for the glory, not for the money.”

Third, she says, “Nothing can be done alone. It’s your team, it’s the people you surround yourself with and it’s your employees. One of my mentors taught me never to be afraid of hiring people smarter than you. If they best me on something, we celebrate like mad.”

Brennan Nardi is communications director at Madison Community Foundation and a former editor of Madison Magazine.