By Donna Cornelius
Journal features writer
Instant tea? Phooey. Southerners know it takes time to make tasty tea.
The folks at Milo’s Tea Company have the same philosophy, especially when coming up with fresh flavors to add to their product line. After all, the company’s original Milo’s Famous Sweet Tea is a hard act to follow.
“The last time we introduced a new product was nine years ago with our tea with Splenda,” said Tricia Wallwork, Milo’s chief executive officer and the granddaughter of company founders Milo and Bea Carlton. “We do a lot of research before we bring new products to the market.”
In April Milo’s introduced three new beverages. One of them, Milo’s Decaf Sweet Tea, was customers’ “most widely-requested addition,” Wallwork said.
“It took us a long time to get that right,” she said.
Also debuting in April were Milo’s Lemonade and Milo’s Famous Sweet Tea and Lemonade.
“I knew we had the lemonade right when it tasted like Mama Bea’s,” Wallwork said, referring to her grandmother’s version of the sweet and tangy drink.
Milo’s Tea products are all natural, she said.
“It’s fresh-brewed tea with pure cane sugar and water, brewed from leaves,” Wallwork said. “The lemonade is made from fresh lemons. We don’t use preservatives; they change the flavor.”
Milo’s beverages have to be kept in the refrigerator, she said.
“That’s why we put them in milk jug-like containers and why they’re in the dairy section,” Wallwork said. “It’s not like a cola that you can leave out on the counter.”
Wallwork is a member of the third generation of her family to work in the business. Her grandparents founded the company in 1946.
“My grandfather was a chef in the Army during World War II, and he wanted nothing more than to come home and open his own restaurant,” Wallwork said. “There weren’t many fast-food restaurants then—no McDonald’s. He decided to open in north Birmingham near the U.S. Steel plant to be near working folks.”
Milo Carlton developed the hamburger sauce and the tea, and Bea Carlton made pies, kept the books and worked at the order window, Wallwork said.
“Franchising became available in the early 1980s, so my grandparents opened more restaurants,” she said. “In 2002, we sold the restaurants to focus on one thing—tea.”
Wallwork said she and her sister, Leslie Aven, worked at the plant as teenagers.
“Everything was done by hand,” she said. “Milo still brewed the tea and made the sauce.”
The company, which has a large plant in Bessemer, has grown quite a bit since then but still promotes a family-like atmosphere among its employees, she said.
“We don’t stop the production line to have birthday cakes anymore, but we do have a really special culture here,” Wallwork said.
Both Wallwork and her father, Ronnie Carlton, tried other careers before joining Milo’s.
“My dad had the experience of having his dad come in smelling like onions, so my dad decided to get an accounting degree. He did that for two years, and then he joined the company,” Wallwork said.
Ronnie Carlton is now chairman of the board, and his wife, Sheila Carlton, is the board’s vice chairman. Leslie Aven is treasurer. All live in Vestavia Hills’ Liberty Park neighborhood.
After graduating from Briarwood Christian School, Auburn University and the University of Alabama School of Law, Wallwork worked as an attorney at Burr & Forman in Birmingham.
“I was going to go out and save the world,” she said, smiling. “But I wanted to get involved in the family business.”
She’s been with Milo’s for 10 years, she said.
Wallwork, her husband and their two children live in Mountain Brook. Her husband, Troy Wallwork, owns DataPerk, a Birmingham-based computer consulting firm. Carlton is 8 years old and will be in the fourth grade this fall, and 6-year-old Kathryn will start the second grade in August.
While both children have a while before they have to decide on their careers, their mother said she’d support their choices.
“Joining Milo’s will be up to them,” she said. “I want them to have the opportunity to do what they want to do.”
Her son got a taste of the family business recently when he sat in on one of the meetings with the development team to discuss the new products.
“He said, ‘Can you make a kid size?’ And we do offer singles,” Wallwork said.
Milo Carlton died in 1994. Bea Carlton, now 92, lives in Liberty Park.
“When Bea walks into a room, everybody knows she’s there,” Wallwork said. “She’s a strong, sweet lady and a great example for her granddaughters.”
Before the three new beverages were introduced, Milo’s products were in 18 states, she said.
“We were a regional company,” Wallwork said. “Now, as of April, we’re in 38 states.”
Wallwork said her grandparents discovered some customers would visit their stores just to get Milo’s tea. The popularity of the original drink boosts marketing efforts, she said.
“It’s gratifying when people say they’ll try our new products because of the Milo’s name,” Wallwork said.
For a list of stores that carry Milo’s new beverages, visit drinkmilos.com. The company also is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.