Title: Icing Maker Wins National Spotlight!
by Debbie Ingram Long
Bolivar Commercial Staff Writer
Originally Written in 1997
BOYLE, MS - Having her product shown on national television is just icing on the cake for Wanda Belk.
But after all, it is the icing itself, which is propelling Belk's talents into a much bigger business than she ever expected.
Belk has spent 20 years catering Delta parties and political dinners. She's stocked freezers with lasagna and chicken spaghetti for family gatherings, and it was her caramel cake that mom has been passing off as her own every Christmas.
"I don't mid if people want to do that," said Belk laughingly.
Belk, owner of The Caramel Factory in Boyle, formerly Cook's Co-Op, is currently caught in a whirlwind - a caramel icing whirlwind which began last fall.
The Caramel Factory has built up 103 accounts in five states, thanks in part to their entry into the trade show circuit and area shoppers' markets. Icing is packaged and shipped out in 22-ounce containers, 12 to a case.
Last fall, the national shopping show QVC came to Mississippi in search to appear on their "Mississippi show,: as part of their 50 in 50 Tour. (QVC visited 50 states in 50 weeks.)
Belk's caramel icing was one of the items chosen.
"We went to Jackson for the QVC tryouts," Belk said. "There were over 100 strictly Mississippi products there. We felt confident because they kept coming back to us, bringing other people to try the icing. We were notified two weeks later."
The Mississippi products will air locally on Saturday, Feb. 8 on channel 38. Belk's icing can be seen sometime between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. during the live Jackson broadcast.
The top three Mississippi sellers will have the opportunity to sell again n a later show in Pennsylvania.
Belk began working shortly after the Christmas holidays to fill the QVC order - that was 2,800 22-ounce containers, which translated into 250 "batches." That's 4,900 pounds of icing.
The order was filled in in nine days and cases were loaded on a 18-wheeler two weeks ago.
During peak production, Belk said she and business partner Emily Smith could produce and pack as much as 32 cases per day.
The product will sell on QVC in a unit of two for somewhere around $16.
Locally a la carte Alley carries the icing. one container retails for $7.95.
"By the end of 1996, we had a hundred new accounts." said Belk. "It just took off. We have several outlets in Memphis, but 75 percent of our clients are in Mississippi. We have some in Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana and Alabama."
Making caramel icing, Smith and Belk agree, is a dying art "You usually run across an older person - someone's aunt or mother - still doing it," said Smith. Usually it's someone older."
Belk said that's because caramel icing takes more than sugar, margarine, buttermilk, marshmallows, light corn syrup and soda.
It takes lots of time, hard work and luck.
"The recipe we use is actually my sister's, (Deanna Cummins)," said Belk. She made caramel cakes and we began to do 200 to 300 cakes between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"It takes over an hour to do and then you hope it comes out right." Belk explained that some recipes can't be doubled and batches of icing can be only so big. Add that to the fact that caramel icing tends to be persnickety.
"Everything effects it," said Belk. "The weather, the (cooking) temperature, even the pan you cook it in."
It is through constant experimenting that Belk and Smith have discovered an aluminum pan is best, and never try to make icing on rainy days or when humidity is high.
"If you overcook it, and the temperatures are too high, it's sugary," said Belk. "If it's undercooked it runs off the cake. It has to mix for 45 minutes. I've had more than one person say it's a two-person job."
With icing being so temperamental the fact that it requires so much preparation, Belk said few homemakers attempt it anymore. But people still love caramel icing. Thus, a need is there. which The Caramel Factory gladly fills.
Belk feels a little bit of relief now that the QVC order is out; she and Smith now experiment with the icing and have developed a chocolate caramel icing.
Icing can also be used to make praline and as an ice cream shell. It can be used to make caramel bread pudding and caramel custard pie. It is good, Belk said on butter, carrot and fresh apple cakes.
The entrepreneurs are also working mothers. They want more time to do "the family thing."
"We are slowing down on our catering," said Belk. "our children are getting to the age where we want to be home more. We still keep frozen casseroles and do cakes and rolls, but we don't publish our hours."
Life may continue to change for Belk and Smith as the product goes national."I feel very relaxed about this," said Belk. "It's extremely different from catering. When I cater I spend the last hour in a panic. With this, I can pace myself. I'm too nervous."
Belk has been called a perfectionist by family members and a workaholic by coworkers. Sometimes, she says she crashes.
She said the QVC opportunity has come along at a good time. When her son, Eli, now 9, was born, the family spent a year worrying. He was extremely sick and Belk has kept a close watch on him and his needs since.
"I feel now like I'm coming out a black hole," she says. "Everything is going so fast and it is exciting. It's different and fun."
Belk, a native of Ruleville, has spent most of her life mixing, stirring, and baking. A the oldest of five children, she grew up in a household with a working mother, so she took over many of the household tasks - including cooking.
She studied home economics at Mississippi State University. "I was going to be a home ec teacher."
She operated a small cafe in Ruleville for a short while before coming food services director for a Ruleville nursing home. After leaving there she spent 16 years as food services director at the Delta State University Union, where she fed everybody from the starving college student to the governor.
Because her products are considered specialty items with limited sales, they are not required, as yet, to carry nutritional labels. Belk has never sat down and figured out the fat content or calories.
But there's nothing low fat about caramel icing.
"it's margarine and sugar," said Smith. "I mean what do you expect?"