CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Angie and Dee Cowger have grown their homemade chili sauce business from a single location 21 years ago in Webster Springs to five restaurants and space on the shelves of 133 Kroger supermarkets, 264 Walmarts and 14 Sam's Clubs.
Now they're looking for entrepreneurs to franchise more Custard Stand restaurants. They're also winning shelf space in stores as far away as New York. And they have added a new product, chili soup with beef and beans.
The Custard Stand in Webster Springs, opened in 1991, was the Cowgers' only restaurant until they added a Custard Stand next to a Subway sandwich and salad shop in Flatwoods in 2009. Three franchised locations have since been added:
n An Oak Hill restaurant owned by Eddie & Stella Blake, operating as Brewer Enterprises;
n A Danville restaurant owned by Little General Stores, which is inside a Little General convenience store; and
n An Elkins restaurant owned by Jamie and Rochelle Carpenter, operating as RBC Enterprises.
"We get an email or Facebook request every month asking when we'll bring a restaurant to South Charleston," Angie Cowger said. "We simply can't do any more ourselves. We need a franchise person."
The Elkins restaurant opened in June. It is a stand-alone location with shiny red-and-white booths, stainless steel accents, a large patio deck and a drive through. It's the closest yet to the ideal Custard Stand look, Cowger said.
The Custard Stand is a family business so it's not surprising when Cowger explains the Elkins restaurant: "My brother put that franchise in, next to his dental office."
Cowger hopes to open another restaurant this year and four next year. She would like to strike deals that put Custard Stand under a roof with a national brand. She also would like to put more deals together with Little General and others, like Subway.
Meanwhile, the chili is being offered in more stores. Because it is distributed by Kroger's Mid-Atlantic Region warehouse in Roanoke, Va., Custard Stand Chili is sold in some Kroger stores in Tennessee and Virginia, as well as in most of Kroger's more than three-dozen stores in West Virginia.
The chili also is sold by Huntington-based Forth Food's 14 FoodFair grocery stores in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky and by Ohio-based Discount Drug Mart's 71 drugstores. This fall, the chili will be sold by Kings, which has 24 grocery stores in New Jersey and New York, and Balducci's, which has six supermarkets in New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Virginia.
The company takes orders on its website, www.custard
stand.com, but shipping west of the Mississippi River is expensive. Cowger would love for someone to figure out a better shipping system. Example: "Right now, we need dry ice and don't have it," she said.
Chili production has increased from about 400,000 pounds a year to about 800,000 pounds a year. Custard Stand is family owned and does not publicly report financial results, but Cowger said sales were up 28 percent from 2010 to 2011 and are up about 11 percent so far in 2012 compared to a year ago.