By Tammie Toler
Princeton Times, W.Va.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneur Angela Cowger traced the story of her company “Custard Stand” from the start, explaining how their now-national product began with a chili recipe her grandfather created when he started a restaurant that served two very different groups.
Angela Cowger is a wife, daughter, mother, grandmother, retired educator, and an entrepreneur.
But, perhaps the role that most Americans will recognize her familiar face for best is for her fearless determination in front of fierce financial sharks, wielding primarily chili.
Along with her husband, known by most as “Dee,” Cowger addressed many among the Princeton and Mercer County business community Tuesday as one-half of the foundering couple behind Custard Stand Restaurants and Custard Stand Food Products.
The Webster County resident, educator and businesswoman and West Virginia native traced their story from the start, explaining how their now-national product began with a chili recipe her grandfather created when he started a restaurant that served two very different groups.
Cowger said her grandfather owned a business in Webster Springs, a remote community in Webster County, which Cowger explained has one traffic signal and a sparse population that served ice cream and hot dogs by day turned into a “beer joint” when the sun went down.
“My grandfather had the recipe for our hotdog chili. He owned a place in town. By night, it was more a beer joint.
He served ice cream in the daytime. He slung beer at night,” Cowger said Tuesday, as she served as the keynote speaker at the Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner, hosted at the Chuck Mathena Center.
Cowger’s husband was slated to speak at her side, but an unexpected illness kept him from making the trip Tuesday.
When her grandfather passed away, his wife, who she identified only as “Maw” during her speech, continued the tradition of closing the custard stand at day’s end and “slinging beer” at night, and she said even the “biggest, baddest” patron listened when “Maw” said it was time to go home at the end of the night.
Still, when daytime rolled around, the more conservative patrons rolled back in for the chili cooked up based on a recipe Cowger’s Grandpa Mack created.
To this day, she told the audience Custard Stand Chili uses the very same rich, beefy recipe her Grandpa Mack made up in her family’s past and passed down through the generations.
Although it has been through a variety of forms over the years, Webster Springs has played host to a custard stand-style restaurant throughout several generations. In the Cowgers’ lives, they have run it since 1991, when they established Custard Stand Restaurant, serving hotdogs, fries, barbecue and traditional walk-up window-style lunch food.
When a friend became upset with Angie Cowger because she couldn’t buy a gallon of the Custard Stand Chili for a family reunion without causing a fuss at the business, the idea to mass-produce the chili took hold in the Cowgers.
“I told her, ‘I’ll do it for you,’ but she didn’t know how much to pay me, and I didn’t really know how much to charge her,” Cowger explained, adding that the friend’s issue wasn’t really that one particular time; she wanted her friend to make the chili available to her and the community anytime they wanted or needed the product that everyone seemed to want on demand.
So, the Cowgers discussed the possibility of manufacturing the product, and Dee determined it was possible. Up to that point, Angie’s mom was making the chili for them once weekly, and that one batch was all they had to service their stand.
“My husband said, ‘I can make it, if you can sell it,'” Angie Cowger recalled.
So, sell the chili is exactly what she did. The couple had to expand their property.
They already owned and operated the custard stand property and the apartments and car wash adjacent to it.
So, the chili manufacturing branched out into what was one of the apartments, allowing space for two 200-gallon steam-jacketed kettles and one 100-gallon steam-jacketed kettle, along with an ice scoop, a scale and a sausage truck to transport the chili from place to place between processes and when it’s done.
In about 2004, Cowger said Dee began working pretty much full-time for the Custard Stand businesses, as they dominated his attention and the expansion began. They opened a stand in Flatwoods, close to the Interstate, and the business presence expanded into Danville and Oak Hill. Meanwhile, Angie continued to teach and work for the Webster County Board of Education.
In 2014, a well-meaning friend told Angie the pair should consider attempting a spin on ABC’s hit “Shark Tank.” Since her two jobs and family left little time for TV, even catching an episode required DVR-ing a few shows, so that’s what Angie did. By the time she watched any of them, Dee was hunting in Indiana with a Hurricane-based project, and she shared the idea with him during a phone conversation.
“That was my mistake, because he was in a hotel by himself, and he did nothing but watch episode after episode,” she said.
Soon after, he eagerly jumped at the chance. She was hesitant.
“I said, ‘You know there’s never been anybody from West Virginia on that show, and you know what people outside of West Virginia say about people from West Virginia, right?'” she shared Tuesday.
For the next several months, the couple planned and prepared, sending chili samples, business paperwork, bank documents and identification showing “Shark Tank” representatives that they were who they said they were, that they had a valid business plan in place, that their product was legitimate.
Almost a year later, they landed in California inside a warehouse, facing more than 20 producers who would determine whether they went before the notorious celebrity “sharks” on air and get a chance to help propel their business in a really big way.
At first, things went very well. Then, the sharks showed their teeth. They liked the chili. They had nice things to say about the Cowgers, but they didn’t buy into the product. In retrospect, Angie thinks they didn’t really, truly “get” the product.
“We film, and we don’t get a deal. Not only do we not get a deal, but we don’t get an offer that was shown on TV,” she said Tuesday. “You’re heartbroken, because it’s consumed a year of your life. Not only are you heartbroken, but there’s a reporter, sticking a microphone in your face, asking, ‘Are your children still going to be proud of you?'”
The sharks tried to pigeon-hole hotdogs, and thereby the Cowgers’ chili, as regional products, but Angie Cowger said she tried to tell them they were just plain wrong in that categorization.
“They decided that hotdogs were a regional product, or they decided that chili — that goes on top of hot dogs — is a regional product,” she said. “I did my best to educate them. Hotdogs are as American as apple pie and baseball, and that is exactly what I told them on the show.”
At the time, the judges didn’t offer the Cowgers the funds they sought on the show to propel Custard Stand to the next business level, but as it turned out, the exposure they got from the show sort of provided a boost in its own way.
“After Shark Tank, our sales increased about 40 percent in the first two months. We aired in February, so we had March and April, which is typically the beginning of our busy season. We held onto that increase and ended up the year with a 20 percent increase in sales overall, which we are very proud of,” Cowger said. “In 2017, we maintained all of that and ended up with all of that, except for about 4 percent.”
The company has also built a brand new website featuring a store locator. To find the nearest place to purchase Custard Stand Chili, visit custardstand.com.
Keeping with the expansion theme, Cowger said the company began selling chili in 34 Sam’s Clubs, more than 130 Walmart stores and would love to add more Kroger stores, but so far, Kroger will not agree to expand the Custard Stand footprint beyond its mid-Atlantic scope.
“So, Shark Tank was a success for us,” she concluded.