Success Story: Mike Miller
Mike Miller has always been an entrepreneur. He loves the challenge of taking an idea and turning it into a viable business and he likes to work for himself. He’s started a construction company, a judgement collection company, a mobile software startup, and a headhunting agency. That last venture brought him from Los Angeles to Texas, where the business thrived until the oil dependent economy took a turn for the worst and he burnt out on the operation. “I wasn’t a growth-and-maintenance guy,” says Mike. “I liked the feeling of a startup.” He then had a “midlife crisis” and joined oil, because, says Mike, “What else are you going to do in Texas?”
For work, he drove to a lot of country stores and small towns in Texas and Louisiana and, one day, he came across a store selling tomato jam. It brought him back to his childhood, when his grandmother, Madge, used to make tomato jam for him to put on his morning toast. He bought some and was excited to try it right up until he put a spoonful in his mouth. It tasted nothing like what he thought of as tomato jam. Determined now to recreate his memory, Mike got his grandmother’s recipe and began to experiment at home.
Once he had a formulation down, Mike started getting his friends to taste-test the jam. They loved the unique flavor, and Mike’s wife, Joey, saw that they were on to something special. Mike reached out to his grandmother again to get his favorite bread and butter pickle recipe, and Madge’s Foods was underway. Never one to be content with the status quo, Mike started to experiment with what he could pickle. From there, he was inspired by his experiences in Los Angeles with kimchi and sauerkraut and decided to experiment with fermentation too. They started with carrots and moved on to their own twist on kimchi, eggplant, cactus, and anything they thought might taste good.
While doing research on fermentation, Mike learned more about the modern battle between convenience and truly nourishing food. Joey was a special education teacher and had long known about the connection between diet and learning disabilities. “Fermentation is at the forefront of microbiologic science. It ignited the inner nerd in me,” says Mike. “I’m not the kind of person to start a company just to start it. I don’t want to be the fifth guy doing gourmet popcorn, you know? But I really saw that this could change bodies and through that, the world, for the better.”
Deep in the weeds of research, Mike found LaunchSA’s culinary business accelerator, Break Fast and Launch (BFL). He’d never run a food company before and he wanted to make sure he was doing it right. “I’m a big believer in ‘fail fast,’ but I’m not 20 anymore,” says Mike. “I needed this to go the distance.” He was still working full-time in the oil industry, but he attended the sessions on his lunch break. He felt at home with the other food entrepreneurs, sharing woes and wonders of running a startup. He bonded quickly with the rebel of the group, Stephen Paprocki of Texas Black Gold Garlic, who was not technically enrolled in the program but showed up for every session anyway. “We were just two guys fighting the world,” says Mike. They ended up moving into the same manufacturing building and still help each other with business aspects the other isn’t as good at. “He’s got a lot of chef connections,” says Mike, “and I help him with ecommerce. That’s helpful but really it’s a bromance at this point.”
Madge’s Foods has come a long way from its tomato jam beginnings. Now offering a wide array of products including vegan kimchis and a new fermented bloody mary mix, it’s time for the company to expand. They’ve recently advanced to the finals of HEB’s Quest for Texas Best and are ready to see what the future holds. “It’s funny,” Mike says. “I just remembered that when I got out of the army, I wanted to start a Ben and Jerry’s competitor. I think I always wanted to go into food. 23 years later, I’m living that dream.”