There’s no room in Ken and Marlene Banwart’s garage for a vehicle. It simply won’t fit among the preparation tables, cases of baking ingredients, walk in freezer and crew of busy workers.
The Banwarts’ garage has become the manufacturing facility for Country Maid Frozen Butter Braid bread.
The rural West Bend couple has been producing the bread, which can be purchased plain or with fruit fillings, on a full-scale basis for less than a year. But Country Maid is already a familiar name in north central Iowa.
The frozen bread dough, which is available locally at B & F, Fareway and Randall Foods, is a regular item at 35 area grocery stores. It has also been used as a fund raising item by Eagle Grove and Humboldt high schools, two church organizations, a 4-H group and a drill team.
In fact, fund-raisers proved the most successful way to introduce the bread to a new area, Ken said.
“If we do a fund-raiser in an area, then put it in a store, it really takes off,” he said.
The Banwarts are less surprised with the success of the product than with the speed with which it has caught on. They already knew people liked their bread when they decided to go into production.
The family used to take produce to farmers’ markets and when vegetable sales slowed down, Marlene would supplement by baking cookies or pies.
A friend who made butter braid dough showed Marlene how to make it.
“So I took it the whole next year to the farmers market…and it was just the thing that sold the best,” she said.
Ken, who worked as a commissioned salesman for Dick’s Office Equipment in West Bend, also tested the market.
“When I was selling for Dick’s, I would take some of this bread, the baked bread, to the secretaries (at client companies), and I got such a good response. I sold quite a bit that way,” he said.
“I kept thinking that we should maybe be doing something with this just because of the response we had,” Marlene said.
In May 1991, the Banwarts decided to seriously pursue the doughmaking business.
“We didn’t think it would take off this fast,” Marlene said.
What’s the secret to successfully selling a rich, buttery- tasting bread in today’s health-conscious climate?
“There’s no butter in it, we put that in our advertising and on our label. It’s margarine,” Marlene said. “I think it’s just something so different. It has a different texture.”
“People like things fresh,” Ken said. “You can buy it frozen, bake it and have it fresh. And it’s countrymade, home-made. I think people like that.”
The bread’s popularity enabled the Banwarts to purchase a walk in freezer recently, which in turn, allowed them to move production out of their basement and into the garage.
It also allowed Ken to quit his job at Dick’s in January and begin working full-time marketing and delivering the bread and doing Country Maid bookwork.
“In deciding how to market it, I had no idea of going into the stores,” he said. “I thought that would be the last place to market it. I thought maybe the specialty shops or something like those. Then we tried a store, and it just took off.”
In fact, Fareway carries the bread in 10 of its stores.
Ken’s territory currently ranges from Spirit Lake and Storm Lake to Fort Dodge and Webster City.
“I’m going to start going to Algona shortly. My wife told me about a month ago or so, Don’t put it in any more stores. We can’t keep up,’” he said.
“Well, we couldn’t,” Marlene said. “We have a nice, big freezer now, and that makes a difference.”
“Before we had the big freezer, it took so long for it to freeze that we had to do all our bagging at night,” Ken said.
That meant shifts of workers were sometimes at the Banwarts’ home from 7:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Bagging is now completed during the day.
The Banwarts have been increasing production since they added the walk-in freezer March 9. They are currently making 1,600 loaves a week, up from the 1,400 loaves that were possible in the basement.
“Hopefully, we can do at least 2,500 a week out there,” Ken said.
“We’re just taking it a step at a time, ironing out all the kinks,” Marlene said.
The Banwarts employ 14 workers, all of whom work part time.
“They work whenever they want to, about five people a day, five days a week,” Ken said.
There are also six other members of the Banwart family who pitch in: Rick, 16, Kendra, 14, LaRae, 12, Twila, 10, Wes, 8 and Trent, 5.
Their parents expect that the kids will make summer jobs out of working for them, and in addition, expect to hire some other high school and college students.
Country Maid may grow larger, but it will probably continue to remain located at the Banwart home.
“We had looked in town, and there really didn’t seem to be a spot,” Marlene said.
Plus, she said, she enjoys being home when the children are home.
“I do feel that I’m here if they need me. I might be out there, but they can find me,” Marlene said.
“And the overhead is so much less out here,” Ken said. “Who knows? I envision our next step would be to add on here. But maybe some building will open up that will look better.”
Marlene said another advantage to keeping their business at home is that Ken spends more time at home.
“We work well together,” he said.
So far, all the Banwarts’ efforts have been self-financed.
“For our next step, there might be some financing available,” Ken said. “But what we’ve made, we’ve put back in the business, and we haven’t had to borrow yet.”
They have, however, received free advice from Director Clark Marshall and the Small Business Development Center in Spencer.
“They really helped us get going on this,” Ken said.