MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

November 3, 2013

Food firm continues to flourish

Owners plan new plant in Tahlequah

TAHLEQUAH — What began as a one-time venture to earn a little extra money for Christmas has blossomed into a booming business with big expansion plans.

Danielle Coursey, who with her husband, Mike, launched Backwoods Food Manufacturing in 1998, announced plans Wednesday to build a 24,000-square-foot production facility at Tahlequah Industrial Park. The expansion, which will be the company’s third, is expected to create up to 40 new jobs.

The announcement was met with accolades by supporters that included local, state, federal and tribal dignitaries. Some of them spoke about the public, private and tribal collaborations considered instrumental in the company’s success.

Mayor Jason Nichols said the Courseys’ decision to build a new facility at Tahlequah Industrial Park “speaks to the strength of the local economy” and the business park’s “attractiveness to business.” He pledged the city’s support of Backwoods Food and its owners.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said the tribe and others have worked with the Courseys “for 10 years behind the scenes” to help them build the business. He equated the couple’s venture and the industrial park’s growth to a leap of faith.

“It is just like when we were kids — the first time we jumped off the little cliff down at the river or the lake,” Baker said, noting the hesitation and fear that accompanies a decision to enter unknown territory. “As soon as you do it, you want to get back up there” and do it again, he said.

Coursey said Backwoods Food Manufacturing began when she and her husband decided to sell gift baskets “packed with our home-canned stuff to make some extra Christmas money.” They sold the baskets in 1998 during the Cherokee Nation’s national holiday.

“We thought it was going to be a one-time deal — make some Christmas money and be out the door,” Coursey said. “But afterward, we started getting phone calls about the product we had in the baskets, and we thought we might be on to something.”

The Courseys spoke with representatives of Oklahoma State University’s Food and Agricultural Products Center, who Coursey said provided “encouragement” and helped the couple get “on the legal track.” The Courseys “had no idea you couldn’t make it (food products) in your own kitchen,” she said.

Once the Courseys learned the basics and decided to go into business, they rented the kitchen in the Tahlequah Community Building to prepare and pack their products. After about a year of hauling supplies back and forth, the couple decided to build a 1,100-square-foot building next to their home outside Tahlequah with the “sole intention of manufacturing our product in a bit more friendly environment,” Coursey said.

The couple never expected what would evolve from that decision, she said. It didn’t take long before the Courseys were getting calls from others who were marketing food products and looking for a better way to prepare and pack their goods.

“At the time we thought it would be a nice way to augment our income and help pay for the second mortgage on that little building,” Coursey said. “We never expected it to go anywhere, but before you knew it, our product fell by the wayside, my job at Northeastern State University fell by the wayside, and then we built an 8,400-square-foot building that houses us today.”

Coursey said she was skeptical that the homegrown business, which got early financial help from the Cherokee Nation’s Small Business Assistance Center, would be able to use all the space the first two facilities had to offer. But for the past two years, the company has been manufacturing at full capacity and “booked at least two months in advance” with new orders.

The 24,000-square-foot facility that will be built at the Tahlequah Industrial Park will have two kitchens, Coursey said. One will replicate the current one and will be used to accommodate the clients who helped Backwoods Food succeed. The other will have high-speed automated lines capable of producing 1,000 cases of product daily.

“It has been a tough road — we’ve cried a lot of tears and sweat a lot of blood, but we have built this company up,” Coursey said, acknowledging her husband’s support in the business venture while holding down a full-time job. “We are excited, and we are ready for this.”

The $2 million expansion is being financed in part by BancFirst and the Cherokee Nation Small Business Assistance Center. The tribe’s small-business division offers financing and technical assistance to business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs.

“Our partnership with Backwoods Food began about 10 years ago just as Mike and Danielle Coursey were making the leap from a small, home-based business to what is today, a major food packager here in Cherokee County,” Baker said. “Backwoods Food is a shining example of what one Cherokee family’s entrepreneurial spirit can do when it gets the right support.”

Julie Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the tribe, said that during the past five years through fiscal year 2013, the division has issued 108 loans totaling almost $5.25 million that have resulted in the creation or retention of 524 jobs. During fiscal year 2013 alone, 30 small business loans totaling $1.45 million were issued, creating or retaining 163 jobs.

The Courseys accessed a $350,000 SBAC loan for the current expansion and had some seed money from the SBAC available for Cherokee entrepreneurs for start-up costs. Mike Coursey, a construction foreman at Lake Region Electric Cooperative, said starting and expanding Backwoods Food took a lot of work, but meeting the right people with the right resources — such as Cherokee Nation, BancFirst, Tahlequah Industrial Park and NSU — “was instrumental in getting us to this point.”

Applicants for a Cherokee Nation SBAC loan must live and operate a business within the tribe’s jurisdiction, produce a viable business plan, meet certain financial requirements, and be a member of a federally recognized tribe. Applications are available online at www.cherokeesbac.org or by calling (918) 453-5536.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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