Have you ever wondered how some businesses got their start or how some brands came to be? Below is the story from one of the individuals who started it all - Marlene Banwart. Although she will be the last to take credit for such a great undertaking, Marlene and her husband Ken, deserve a great deal of thanks for the many lives they have so positively affected through the 15 plus years they have dedicated their time, talents and services to Country Maid, Inc. and the Butter Braid brand. And now - the story begins...
Ken and I were married in 1974. We had 6 children entrusted to us, 3 boys, and 3 girls. Ken was a farmer and things went real well for the first 14 years. Then the farming crunch hit us. We were small farmers, and it was almost impossible to make enough on the farm so Ken found a part time job in town. He started out as an office equipment repairman and then moved into sales. Even with Ken's part time job in town it seemed we were still going backwards. In 1989 Ken suggested that we put out a truck patch (a real large garden) and sell the produce at the local farmer's market. It seemed like a good idea since the kids and I could help and it would be a family project.
You may be wondering what this has to do with our company story… but please bear with me. The first year that we started to take our produce to Farmer's Market we noticed that there were a few venders successfully selling baked goods. It seemed logical that we should consider doing the same. We started to make baked goods – one of them being the braided pastry. At this time it was only the plain pastry dough with no fruit filling. Our braided pastries immediately became a hit. People would be waiting in line when we arrived and began to call and ask us to make braided pastries for them. In the fall of 1990, the week before Christmas, we had 60 calls from people who wanted braided pastries. This is when we started to realize that others found our braided pastries as special as we did.
At first, when we would take the braided pastries to the farmer's market, we would get up early to mix the ingredients. Then we would let it rise and bake it so it would be fresh. It made for a very long day. Ken suggested that we try mixing the dough ahead of time, freezing it, and then taking it out of the freezer the night before farmer's market, letting it rise overnight, and baking it just before we left. This worked extremely well.
Even while working with the truck patch, Ken was still working part time and farming as well. It still seemed we were not getting ahead. In January of 1991 a small voice inside kept telling me to "Do something with the braided pastries." When I mentioned this to Ken, he told me that he would be there to support me.
In May of 1991 we decided to start producing and marketing our braided pastries on a larger scale and as an official company. We created the Butter Braid brand name for our braided pastries and named our company Country Maid, Inc. After getting the information we needed to be in compliance with food safety laws, we set up a small manufacturing plant in the basement of our home. It was at that time Ken suggested we incorporate fruit into the braided pastries like you see today.
Ken focused on marketing the braided pastries while I made them. Since Ken was strictly on commission while he was selling office supplies and equipment, his time was his own. When Ken would sell a piece of equipment, he would give the customer a freshly baked braided pastry. By the next week they would ask how they could get more. Ken told them he could sell it to them frozen so that any time they wanted it fresh, all they would have to do is take it out of the freezer eight hours ahead of time and bake it.
To deliver the braided pastries, Ken put a chest freezer in the back of his pick-up. He would plug it in the night before so it was good and cold before he left. It would then stay cold all day long. It was not long until one freezer was not enough, so he put another freezer in his pick-up. Ken would take orders one week, and deliver the next. Some of the schools that Ken stopped at wanted to sell the braided pastries as a fundraiser, which worked real well, and little did we know it, would be the start of something great! As demand started to pick up, Ken started to market it to stores.
Toward the end of 1991 Ken quit his job selling office equipment and started selling braided pastries full time. At about the same time, the basement was getting too small and we needed more room. We decided to renovate our two car attached garage for a new production area and added a large walk in freezer. Before farming was to begin in 1992, Ken asked his brother to farm his ground. Ken needed to devote full time to the production and marketing of Butter Braid brand products. Within six months, we were delivering to 50 stores and had outgrown our garage.
In November of 1992 we moved our business to a renovated building in the same town of West Bend, Iowa. And in July of 1997 another larger building was needed to house our production and storage. We are currently in this same building, but with the addition of a warehouse during the spring of 2001, and another in 2007. In late 2002 the decision was made to remove Butter Braid products from stores. This would help us fulfill our company and personal mission of "Helping Others Help Themselves". We have since focused only on serving the fundraising market.
From our basement to our current building there have been a lot of changes over the years. I was always uncomfortable with change, but Ken could always see that if we did this or that, we could improve upon many things. One thing I always made sure of was that whatever changes we made, we did not decrease the quality of our Butter Braid products. I was always adamant that we maintained that homemade look and taste. Through all the changes that have been made, to this day we still are proud to say that we braid our Butter Braid braided pastries by hand. I would love to tell you that I make all these Butter Braid products in my kitchen as I once did, but I can't tell you that. However, I can tell you that our workers take as much pride in our product as I do."
Co-Founder of Country Maid, Inc.