By Dennis Seid Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo.
Tina Wilburn made her first batch of chocolate gravy when she was 11.
"My mom worked in medical records and she worked at night, so I learned to cook if I wanted to eat," she said with a laugh. "I've been making the chocolate gravy ever since."
Now that gravy is available at 26 Walmart stores in Northeast Mississippi and north Alabama.
The chocolate gravy is sold under her own Cowgirl Gourmet brand, and in a distinctive brown and turquoise box with a cow on the front.
An initial order of 5,000 boxes was sent in July, and three-quarters of another order has been completed.
It's been a dream come true for Wilburn, who said the chocolate gravy has played a large role in her life.
"I raised my family on it," she said. "I have a lot of great memories."
Both her two daughters were cheerleaders at Mooreville, and it wasn't uncommon to have the house full of cheerleaders and football players, eating biscuits and chocolate gravy.
"That was some of the fondest memories I've had," Wilburn said, "And over the years, I've heard from some of them who said it was some of their fondest memories, too."
Wilburn's chocolate gravy isn't just any gravy. It's no mere condiment, either.
For many fans, it's almost its own food group.
"We always had it at Christmas, too," she said. "We had regular gravy, chocolate gravy. ... and I knew I better not show up at any family event without the gravy."
Wilburn won't reveal the ingredients of the gravy. But if you buy it at a store or online, it's simple to make: Just add water to the dry mix and heat until done.
"It's been perfected and stirred many times with love," she said.
Getting started The idea of selling the gravy publicly developed eight years ago in Denver, where Wilburn's furniture company, Country Road, was exhibiting its hand-crafted ranch-style rocking chairs.
A fellow exhibitor had homemade salsa at her space, and Wilburn discovered that her friend also was selling the salsa online. "She said she couldn't keep up with the orders," Wilburn said. "And that's when I got the idea."
Within two weeks, she developed the name, label and bag for her chocolate gravy.
Because of the Western-influenced theme in Denver, "Cowgirl Gourmet" made sense. Turquoise was a color Country Road always used at its exhibition space, and brown was the color of chocolate.
"It all came together," Wilburn said.
But Wilburn didn't do any serious selling with the product for her chocolate gravy, which is called "cowgirl gravy" out West.
She sold a little at retail, but most of the orders were wholesale. Cowgirl Gourmet was more of a hobby to the furniture company, not a big business on the side.
But when the economy went into recession -- and along with it, the furniture industry -- Wilburn's focus turned away from Cowgirl Gourmet and the chocolate gravy. The core business, making furniture, became a priority.
Cowgirl Gourmet and its chocolate gravy could wait.
"I saw it as a retirement plan," she said. "If I wanted to work it hard, I could. Whatever the future was going to be, I could wait. So I didn't really work it hard."
The chocolate factory Even though Wilburn backed off on promoting Cowgirl Gourmet, orders still were coming through.
She, along with her sister-in-law and niece, would mix the chocolate gravy ingredients in the two-story shop next to her house.
"We called it the Eggville Chocolate Factory because that's where we did all the mixing." she said. "We just rocked on for seven years."
About a year ago, Wilburn was contacted by the Mississippi Development Authority. Vaunita Martin, who worked in the MDA's Tupelo office before it closed, is an Eggville native and told Wilburn she had always admired the product and its look.
"When I worked with MDA, I met with Tina and County Road, and we were seeing if there was anything we could do to help on the MDA side," Martin said. "While we were talking, she had this brown packet of chocolate gravy and I asked what the story was behind it."
Intrigued by the story, Martin told Wilburn she might have a hit on her hands.
"I asked if she ever thought about marketing it, and said 'this could be your money maker,'" Martin said.
But Wilburn told her she made rocking chairs, not gravy.
Undeterred, Martin was working with Charles "Bubba" Weir, vice president for existing business and resources at Innovate Mississippi. He was looking at new products to help market.
"Tina came to my mind," Martin said. "He and I met with her, and Bubba went crazy over the gravy."
Weir took a couple of packages with him, presented them to a Walmart buyer, and the company contacted her.
It took several months to work through the details on distribution and costs, and Wilburn was told she would receive an initial purchase order to supply 10 stores.
"I was told that on a Friday, and that Monday, the purchase order came in for 25 stores," Tina said. Another Walmart -- West Point -- was later picked up.
"We're set up through the distribution center because they want us to grow," Tina said. "We like that, and I think we're poised to do just that.
"Being on the shelves of Walmart brings you major exposure, I don't care where you are."
Cowgirl Gourmet could have been on a retailer's shelf earlier. Three years ago, Wilburn was close to closing on a deal with HomeGoods, a division of TJX, whose brands also include T.J. Maxx and Marshall's
But it wasn't the right time, Wilburn said.
"I know now that I wasn't ready back then," she said. "We learned a lot between then and now, and I think it made us better."
And soon, Cowgirl Gourmet -- which also sells coffee -- could be available on the shelves of another major chain.
"I've been truly blessed," she said.