Merry Cheese Crisps Are Twists on a Tasty Tradition
By Keysha Drexel
Meredith McMillan could have reasonably been intimidated about creating and selling a food product because her husband is well-known Birmingham chef George McMillan.
But the Mountain Brook woman said the most intimidating part of launching Merry Cheese Crisps was worrying what people would think of her take on a Southern favorite.
Merry Cheese Crisps are McMillan’s spin on the traditional cheese straw. McMillan’s cheesy handmade treats are round and crispy.
“In starting this business, I knew the expectations would be high. Southerners grow up eating cheese straws and are very particular about what they want,” she said. “It can be a very sentimental and personal thing for people, and you want to get it right.”
Judging from the small company’s success, McMillan is getting it right.
McMillan was a vendor at the Junior League of Birmingham’s Market Noel in November and quickly sold out of Merry Cheese Crisps.
“They went pretty quick, and I was kind of amazed,” she said. “The positive feedback has been incredible.”
McMillan said she grew up in Alexander City eating the round cheese straws her mother, Sarah Carlisle, would make for holidays, tea parties and bridge club meetings.
“They were always something special, something I associated with celebrations and happiness,” McMillan said.
Carlisle said she came up with the recipe for round cheese straws out of necessity when she was a young bride.
“My mother-in-law was a wonderful cook and she had a cheese straw press that made them in the traditional shape, but I never could get the hang of that press, so I started making the round ones,” Carlisle said.
McMillan grew up helping her mom make the unique round cheese straws and as an adult made them at holidays to give to friends.
“It’s not a difficult process,” McMillan said. “It’s just a time-consuming and messy process.”
For about 10 years, McMillan experimented with the recipe she inherited from her mother, making different variations to give to friends and family members.
“I wanted a light, crispy, full-flavored crisp with a sharp cheddar flavor and just a slight, spicy kick in the finish,” she said.
Her variations always went over well with those who received them, so last year, McMillan said, she decided to take her creations to a larger audience.
“Sybil Sylvester of Wildflower Designs ended up ordering a lot of them from me last year, and I thought I should just throw caution to the wind and make it into a real business,” McMillan said.
For her company’s name, McMillan also looked to her family heritage.
“Merry is a shortened version of a nickname I had growing up, and it brings back happy memories for me,” she said. “I hope that happy memories are made with Merry Cheese Crisps.”
It has been about a year since McMillan stuck her toe in the waters of entrepreneurship, and now Merry Cheese Crisps can be purchased at nine Over the Mountain and Birmingham stores.
McMillan said she owes the success of the company not only to the customers who have embraced her new twist on the classic cheese straw but also to venues like Pepper Place.
“The whole Birmingham community has just been incredible,” McMillan said. “And I really want to give credit to Pepper Place for the great exposure they gave us over the summer. I think it’s really important for people in the community to support each other.”
That philosophy of supporting folks in her community means McMillan is staffing her company with local talent, she said.
“The Higgins and Sirkins families and Americandesign did our labels, and they live in our neighborhood,” she said.
The company’s graphic artist, Karly Martin, photographer Catherine Mayo and website developer Nate Schmidt are also Birmingham area residents, McMillan said.
McMillan said her husband has been supportive of her venture from the very beginning and lets her have the run of his kitchen at FoodBar in Cahaba Heights on Sundays and Mondays.
“That’s when I do my baking, when the FoodBar is closed,” she said. “George has given me tips on taking my recipe and fine-tuning it for bigger batches.”
McMillan said she’s not sure what the future holds for Merry Cheese Crisps but said she is committed to keeping them handmade in small batches.
“I’ve created a little monster, and I love my little monster,” McMillan said, laughing.
Merry Cheese Crisps are available at The Cook Store, Freshfully, both locations of New York Butcher Shop, Overton & Vine, Please Reply, Smith’s Variety, V. Richards and Western Supermarket in Mountain Brook.
For more information, visit merrycheesecrisps.com.