The Ingredients for Success
by Alvin Benn
Robert is the founder of G Mommas Cookies.
Business entrepreneurs have unique ways of getting their message across to the public – from study group suggestions to slick jingles and gimmicks.
Robert Armstrong never needed any of those things because his business plan developed in his grandmother’s kitchen.
That’s where her cookies emerged from an overworked oven to produce, as that old saying goes, "something to die for."
G Mommas Southern Style Bite Size Cookies are being gobbled up around the country by hungry fans who can’t seem to get enough of them.
Cracker Barrel, Walmart, World Market and other well-known outlets offer her cookies with "All Natural," "No Preservatives" and "No Fake Stuff" on each bag’s flip side.
Armstrong doesn’t remember when he first tasted one of his grandmother’s chocolate chip delights but it probably was as soon as he had outgrown his crib.
He describes Anice Armstrong as a "true woman of the Deep South" who baked each cookie with careful attention and down-home ingredients that always included plenty of real, as her accent pronounced, "butta."
Her grandson kept thinking that, one day, he might be able to capitalize on her cookies by turning them into a profitable business.
He was so confident and committed to the idea that he came up with a prediction he wanted to share with her.
"I said, ‘Gammy, I’m going to make a million dollars off your cookies,’" he recalled. "She thought it was a funny idea, but didn’t think I could do it."
His grandmother, who died four years ago, worked at the family’s stationery store in downtown Selma and only considered her cookies to be a hobby, a way for her to treat her grandchildren and friends.
Armstrong felt her cookies were more than just the result of her hobby and decided to take a big leap of faith toward national recognition by lining up financial support to get his idea off the ground.
He forged ahead on his own as founder of the company, working long hours late into the night. When the cookies were completed, he took them to retailers.
Growing pressures caused him to take a rest at one point, but he returned fresher than ever to resume his leadership role because his business cards say "Founder."
Robert Armstrong, right, and Phillip Owen promote cookies originally created by Armstrong’s late grandmother.
Created in 2009, the company has only two employees. Assisting Armstrong is Operations Manager Phillip Owen, who also spends long hours doing whatever is necessary to make the company a success.
Cookie manufacturing is a crowded field, what with Keebler and other Wall Street giants leading the way, but Armstrong is happy at the moment to take just little bites out of that big lucrative market.
He’s had his share of sleepless nights at times, especially when he started and faced rejection from bakeries unwilling to back his idea.
"Most wouldn’t even talk to me back then," he said. "They also weren’t going to provide research and development ideas to help me get started."
Little by little, however, his company began to creep up the ladder of success after setbacks that might have had others ready to toss in the towel.
"I’m not a quitter, never have been, but I knew I had to come up with the right kind of bakery to make a lot of cookies at a time," he said.
He found it in the Keystone State of Pennsylvania where a bakery has been turning out Gammy’s little cookies in really big batches – thousands of them at a time.
The name "G Momma" is short for "Gammy Momma" and came about because nobody could seem to pronounce Gammy right.
"They would say ‘Gai Mee’ when the correct way is ‘Gah Mee,’ but that doesn’t really matter if we can convince people to try one of our cookies," he said.
Armstrong has accumulated over 700 accounts nationwide.
"While we’re not on easy street by any means, we’re still doing pretty good right now," he said.
He’s also enough of a realist to not expect the folks at any of the big cookie manufactures to step aside and let his company share the wealth.
The University of Alabama business graduate has accomplished what he set out to do in his first phase – name recognition. Thus was born G Mommas Cookies.
Robert with his grandmother, Anise Armstrong. She was the inspiration for his cookie business.
His grandmother’s recipes for chocolate chip pecan and butterscotch (or buttascotch as it’s spelled on the bag) oatmeal cookies have left a business imprint he hopes will continue to grow each year. Other flavors are in the offing.
Armstrong, 31, knew he had a good thing going because of those memories of family gatherings when he and his cousins grabbed what they could from the holiday table before every cookie was down to the last crumb.
He had been involved in other business-related projects as he grew up, but kept going back to those cookies and that million-dollar prediction of his.
Armstrong was an athlete at Morgan Academy in Selma where he was a linebacker on a championship high school football team, but didn’t let it go to his head because he just wasn’t big enough to move into the collegiate ranks.
Instead, he began to focus on success in the business world and the importance of rural Alabama and farming.
Agriculture has, in one form or another, played a major role in America’s entrepreneurial past, especially the food industry and the farms providing the basics to make dreams come true.
That meant wheat, eggs, butter and many other ingredients needed to produce cookies and other popular food items.
"Consumers are demanding more wholesome foods today," said Armstrong, who points to the ingredients in his cookies as proof you can’t produce more wholesomeness than something with real butta in it.
Aware that the food industry is a cash-sensitive business, Armstrong also knew that building a successful product around his grandmother’s cookie recipes might be a long shot at best.
It would mean competing, even in a modest way, against the big boys of cookie production, but he wasn’t reluctant to give it the old college try.
In that regard, he’s already succeeded in a modest way and has even recorded something significant – a $107,000 grant during the Alabama Launchpad competition.
It was part of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, a program helping aspiring entrepreneurs promote the creation of new jobs.
"It’s important to remember that the money he received by finishing first in competition against others hoping for the same award was a grant, not a loan," said Paavo Hanninen, former director of the Alabama Small Business Development Center Network at the University of Alabama.
Now a business consultant, Hanninen remembers Armstrong as a student in one of his UA classes – someone in his words that was "itching to take an idea and turn it into something important."
It’s been that way since he was a kid with a desire to succeed as he moved toward college and the business world, confident that it would happen one day.
He’s also beating the drums as loud as he can for his hometown to try and erase some of the negatives associated with a community that has taken its lumps because of its voting rights history.
Armstrong’s father is a district court judge in Dallas County and his mother is a court reporter. Courtrooms have pretty much been their second home for many years.
Judge Armstrong and his son have a shared love of the outdoors, especially when it involves building things such as forts in the woods.
"I love to work with my hands and when I can get some wood, rope and whatever else is available in the country it makes my day," said young Armstrong.
His dad knew that and when his son had a birthday coming up one year he presented him with a bucket of nails to help him with his outdoor projects.
Unlike his father whose life has focused on the law, he found that too boring and opted instead for engineering that eventually gave way to a business career.
The judge’s success has been inherited by his son and it came as no surprise that he won the Launchpad competition.
It hasn’t been all that easy for him because of those sleepless nights as he tried to make more than just a dent in the cookie industry.
Perseverance has helped him clear many business hurdles and he eventually found that Pennsylvania bakery to produce all those cookies.
Asked for a grade he’d use for his hard work, Armstrong picks a "B." When he thinks of those hurdles he’s been confronted with and how he’s cleared them, he gives himself a strong "A."
Finding financial support for his business hasn’t been easy, but he knew that would be the case from the start as he tried to make his mark in a very competitive field.
Among his many loyal supporters is Sheryl Smedley, executive director of the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce.
She even uses Lay’s famous potato chip slogan as a way to honor Robert Armstrong and his late, great grandmother’s kitchen creations.
"They’re so good, you just can’t eat one," she said.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.