When Lesley Riley split from her husband and closed Legacy Restaurant in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 2000, she worked at various government-related jobs for over a decade. Then she decided what she really wanted to do was to start her own business.
She started experimenting in her kitchen with flavored biscuits, that didn’t contain chemicals, and were healthier than what was currently on the market. With a modest $10,000 investment in 2015, she launched Mama’s Biscuits, as a consumer-packaged goods company that offered a variety of biscuits, some healthy and some less so.
To keep its costs down, it started selling online and did so until December 2022. “As we garnered more customers, we started pushing customers to the stores,” Riley noted. The dry mix is still sold online.
“We never make claims we are healthy, but give you a healthy alternative,” Riley said. For example, it offers gluten-free and vegan biscuits, with no trans-fats, no preservatives or artificial sweeteners but also sells classic biscuits, which are sweet and savory. Let the consumer decide seems to be the underlying message.
Nonetheless, that healthier niche enables it to compete against the larger biscuit companies in the world, such as Nestle, Mondelez International and Kraft Foods.
The caloric content of Mama’s Biscuit varies from 220 calories for the buttermilk biscuit to 320 calories for the blueberry lemon cream biscuit, two of its most popular selections.
But the Black and female-owned Mama’s Biscuits business has been growing, extending its lines, and making a name for itself. It exhibited at the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center in New York City in late July.
Mama’s Biscuits is considered a clean-label brand because it relies on eight basic ingredients and avoids using bleached flour, hydrogenated palm oil and citric acid.
Selling at Major Supermarkets
Its products are all ready-to-eat and can be heated up in a microwave, toaster oven or stove. “A heat-and-eat item usually warms in less than two minutes. It’s all about convenience,” Riley explained.
Currently, it’s sold in over 5,000 retailers including some of the largest, Walmart, Target, Kroger, Trader Joes and Wegmans, as well as specialty grocers. It launched a new food services division in June 2023, which enables it to sell in bulk to hotels, schools, airlines, and hospitals.
When do most consumers partake of Mama’s Biscuits? Usually it’s for breakfast. “They find it warm and comforting at breakfast, more so than cold cereal,” Riley reported.
The business has kept growing and set a record in 2021 with $2.8 million in revenue. It has five employees, besides Riley, who specialize in logistics, sales and administration. She expects to reach the $3 million mark by the end of 2023.
When Riley did consumer research about its target audience, she was surprised with the outcome. About 85% of its audience that buy it are women. Riley said that in most cases, it’s the wives and mothers who bring home the biscuits (not necessarily the bacon as the old saying goes).
Its name plays a role in its appeal to a mostly female buying audience, suggested Riley, who is 56-years-old. Women can relate to its name, Mama’s Biscuits, since it reminds them of their mom or grandmother. “That’s always been the catalyst for our brand,” she declared.
Riley also taps social media to spread the word about Mama’s Biscuits. “I build a community of people and then point them to the stores,” she explained.
A Boost During the Pandemic
The pandemic boosted its business, rather than curtailed it. Riley explained that the larger packaged good companies suffered from major supply chain setbacks, but “we were able to step in and gain some of that shelf space.” Most of its manufacturing takes place at a co-packer based in Livonia, Michigan.
A Partnership with a Community College
It is based in Hagerstown, Md., and its corporate office sits at Hagerstown Community College, where it established a partnership in 2022. It formed the Mama’s Biscuits Culinary Incubator, which she said, “mentors and inspires the next generation of food and beverage start-up companies.”
At the incubator, she works with entrepreneurial students, not community college students, who rent out a commercial kitchen, for a reasonable price, to explore start-up businesses. “I want to see the next generation of consumer-packaged companies succeed. If I can help them create a platform, and not make the same mistakes I did, we’re all winning,” she said.
For Mama’s Biscuits to augment its revenue depends on brand innovation, Riley noted. For example, it has a new line of breakfast sandwiches, such as blueberry sunrise, and a plant-based biscuit, which is 100% soy free. She also expects its food service division to expand bulk sales.
After eight years of running her business, what has Riley learned about what it takes to keep an independent business thriving? “It takes grit and commitment, and lots of time. It’s all about how bad you want it,” she concluded.