Grits niche grabs Martha Stewart’s attention

Published 4:34 pm Monday, June 15, 2009

When Martha Stewart asked Chef John Besh of Luke Restaurant in New Orleans to recreate his Slow-Cooked Louisiana Shrimp and Grits, he knew exactly where he would get one of the main ingredients.

The coarse, stone-ground grits used in the dish hail from Coosa Valley Milling in Wilsonville.

The business shipped 200 half-pound bags of grits for Stewart’s studio audience, a smart move for the Wilsonville business.

Calls have poured in from across the country since the show aired March 20.

“We were very flattered because it was kind of a shot out of the dark,” said owner Frank McEwen. “We’ve shipped out all over the country since, from Seattle to New York.”

Frank said the publicity adds interest to his day.

“I really enjoy the people I talk to from all over the country,” Frank said. “Two football seasons ago we had a call from a woman in Lexington, Ky. who was making a complete blue meal and needed blue grits. It was great talking to her about the meal she was making.”

The McEwens began producing stone-ground grits in 2002.

Frank and his family had previously traveled to Gatlinburg, where they met a Sevierville, Tenn. man who ground his own grits. The man sold them in a few local stores, but had people who traveled from all over to purchase bags full. Frank said he felt it would go over just as well here.

“I started out thinking it might be a little niche,” Frank said. “I just don’t like doing what everybody else is doing.”

The McEwens now grind yellow, white and blue cornmeal, as well as grits and polenta, oatmeal and golden flax seed.

Frank’s wife Helen placed only one request for the new venture.

“I encouraged him to go organic,” Helen said. “That’s the way we eat at home. We try to grow a lot of our own food and buy organic whenever we don’t.”

Helen said getting certified took time. She said the outcome, however, validated the extra effort.

“People who want organic are going to seek you out,” she said. “And you feel good knowing exactly what you are selling your customers.”

Helen was right. People did begin to seek them out.

This culinary niche captured the attention of local restaurateurs within weeks. The McEwens sent out a few samples and before they knew it Frank Stitt, owner of restaurants such as Bottega in downtown Birmingham, was on the phone.

Stitt’s menus proudly proclaim where his ingredients come from, including that the grits are from McEwen & Sons in Wilsonville.

Through their friendship with Stitt, the couple also became strongly tied to the Birmingham Slow Food Movement. According to the movement’s Web site, it seeks to encourage people to slow down and enjoy their food, and possibly learn about where their food comes from in the process.

“We feel like we’re right on the front end of the fresh, local push,” Frank said.

The McEwens also encourage their sons to get involved.

Frank Jr. and Luke sell the organic eggs they raise to restaurants like Hot ‘N’ Hot Fish Club, Jackson’s and Bottega.

The family sells all their products at Pepper Place Market. The grits can also be found at B Richards, the Piggly Wiggly in Homewood and Crestline, Snapper Grabber in Vestavia, and of course, Coosa Valley Milling.