Written by Emily Glaser | Photos by Anthony Harden
Red Pepper Chili Beer Bread. Molten Fudge Beer Cake. Beer Fudge Cookies. Corn Beer Bread. For Lin Johnson-Carlson of Mimi’s Mountain Mixes, it’s all about that special ingredient.
Is there anything more synonymous with grandmotherliness than baking? A floral apron dusted with sugar and tied tight around a warm waist; the scent of baked things that catches in curled perms and slick buns alike; the gesture of a timeworn finger, coated in slick dough and proffered to the open mouth of an eager grandchild. Baking is familial, as warm and sweet as a mother’s hug, but it’s principally the realm of grandmothers, grandmas, maw maws, and, as of recently, Mimis.
Or, more accurately, a Mimi.
Walking into the headquarters of Mimi’s Mountain Mixes, home of simple bread mixes to which you add one mere beer, is like stepping into your own grandmother’s kitchen, but on a grand-er scale.
Flour and spices sift through the air to settle on hairnets and in the smile lines around eyes. Scents also swirl in the air, especially when it’s time to prepare the mix for the company’s seasonal specialty, Punkin’ Fest Beer Bread.
“When they’re doing that, then we’ve got the cloves and the allspice and the ginger, and I just want to bathe in it,” Mimi says, then adds, with a twinkling eye and a laugh, “which wouldn’t be code, but…”
Lin Johnson-Carlson, known affectionately as “Mimi” to her three sons and ten grandchildren, and now the world, is full of this kind of contagious laughter and dad-sic-grandmother jokes. But like all good grandmas, it’s not all laughs; Mimi is also prone to pithy, idiomatic wisdoms, nuggets of insight served cool between those effervescent bursts of optimism. When she tells the troubled story of her last office job, she concludes with a sage observation: “You have to do your best, and if you do your best, the rest will come into place.” She pauses, looks you in the eye, a wide smile breaking across her face as she moves on to the next idealistic tangent. It’s the same threads of optimism and wisdom that weave through conversations with your shrewd grandmother, hands wrapped around warm cups of strong coffee, with fresh-baked bread on the table.
In fact, those are the exact circumstances under which this interview took place. The familial feel of Mimi’s Mountain Mixes isn’t just coincidence, it’s intentional. Family is Mimi’s priority. “We feel like we’re family here,” she says, raising a hand from her mug to wave, a gesture that encompasses the building and the people in it. And like the Mimi she is, she puts her people, whom she fondly refers to as “her ladies,” first. “God made family first, actually church came second, and beer bread is so far down on the list. I don’t think God even had beer bread on his mind.”
We get sidetracked, talk about the value of family and optimism and kindness. But although beer bread is far down the line for both God and even Mimi, for us, it’s the subject.
In Times of Knead
The first question is the obvious one: How did she become a peddler of beer bread mixes? You might think the answer is as obvious as the question, a tale of hours logged in commercial kitchens or culinary school, but the answer is, in fact, as antithetical as possible. “I was a mortgage loan officer for 25 years and a realtor for seven years before that,” Mimi notes, adding that she began her career in real estate in 1978. It’s nearly impossible to imagine this image of motherly benevolence throwing around words like “mortgage” and “brokerage,” but for a long time, she did just that.
In 2005 Mimi received an offer she couldn’t refuse. She traveled south from her home in Ohio to Fort Myers, Florida, one of the fastest growing real estate markets in the country. As a mortgage loan officer for Wachovia Mortgage, she managed two counties; the market was seemingly boundless. Until suddenly, it wasn’t. 2008 came, and with it the collapse of the greatest real estate boom in America’s history. Those regions that were so recently buoyed by fast sales sunk the fastest—particularly in Florida.
“I’d had a lot of ups and downs in the industry, but always weathered those storms; but then I was like ‘okay…’” Mimi remembers, of the crash. Paired with a host of other seemingly unweatherable odds—including a divorce from her husband of 33 years, also in 2008—and the road before her must have felt like being in a tunnel. But there was a warm light at the end—the glow of an oven light.
In order to make ends meet, Mimi had reserved a booth at local farmer’s markets and sold baked goods. Prepared lovingly by hand in her home kitchen, the sweet breads and cakes beckoned to the palates of passers-by. “I started out doing all sorts of baked goods with tropical fruit in them because that’s what the tourists want. You’ve gotta know your market!”
Mimi laughs and shakes a knowing finger in that classic salute of advice. “It got to the point where I’d sell out every single Saturday.” Moist breads spiked with the sweetened tang of fruit appealed to Florida’s natives and visitors, a sunshiny vacation baked right into every slice.
But Mimi is, after all, a Mimi, and she missed her family. She returned to Ohio to be closer to her children and her beloved “grandkiddos,” continuing to bake in order to supplement her income. When one of her sons uprooted and settled his family in our Appalachian hills, she followed. It was 2012. It was an easy decision for Mimi. “I said, ‘Let me think about this, it’s a log cabin on a lake, in the mountains… uhh, yeah!’” she laughs. “I was ready for a fresh start.”
And a fresh start, in Hendersonville, is exactly what Mimi found. A new love with now-husband Gene. A sweet home in the woods. Days of respite spent floating down the French Broad and hiking muddy trails. And at the center of it all, a new business.
Beer into Bread
Mimi is the definition of the eternal optimist. She shrugs off negativity with a deft and subtle nudge, turns over topics to reveal the shimmer of a bright side, preaches platitudes with an open heart and an unfaltering grin. But mention her last job—upon moving to Western North Carolina, she took a job as an outside sales rep for a local company in Asheville—and that grin hardens into a tight-lipped line. “There was just ridiculous pressure,” she remembers. “Everybody in the whole company was scared they were going to get fired, every day. And that’s no way to treat people. Hire the right people to begin with, train them well, and then let them prosper.”
In a stroke of fate that seems genuinely ironic, given her success now, Mimi was eventually let go because of what her employer described as a lack of success as a salesperson. In her typical twist of optimism, she seeks out the silver lining in her telling of the tale and its resolution. “It was a perfect opening,” she says, of her experience taking her employer to court in order to receive her withheld commissions. “We used the seed money to launch Mimi’s. All things were for the good. And my personal mission is to never treat people [like that former employer] treated employees. It has been a lesson well learned and has served me well.”
Mimi embraced this final opportunity to change her life’s path. “It was finally a chance at my age to do what I really, really wanted to do. I knew I’d really love it to be with food, and I knew it had to be a full circle thing. If it wasn’t a win-win, I wasn’t gonna do it.” She looks up from her coffee cup, her thumb actively tracing the rim. “I’ve always had a heart for people that have had some challenges, because I’ve had challenges, and if it weren’t for some very loving and embracing folks, there were times when I really didn’t want to go on.”
With a justly-earned bankroll, a hearty supply of optimism, and an idea, Mimi’s Mountain Mixes was born.
Actually, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Mimi had never stopped baking. She tweaked her recipes when she moved from Florida to Ohio and then North Carolina in order to appeal to her new market. “Of course, tropical is not the big push,” she says with her customary wry laugh. “That’s when I started taking baked breads, specifically beer breads, and people loved it, but it is very—to bake and cook and do all the shopping—that is very labor intensive. I was really starting to have some health issues with my legs and my feet; I’d just be miserable. So I thought okay, let’s tweak it, what do we need to do? So I started selling the mixes where they could just throw in a beer or a soda pop themselves. I always had a few baked that they could taste. Boom! They loved it. And so that started really as just, ‘Okay, maybe I’ve really got something.’ And then I started playing around with different flavors and different things, not just breads, but cakes and cookies.”
At farmer’s markets and bake sales, business was booming. In a region where beer flows like water, any auxiliary product is an easy sale, especially one that combines the fizzy favorite with carbohydrates. And just over two years ago, Mimi decided to go “whole hog”—or, more accurately, “whole loaf.”
“We put our toe in the water two years ago at one little small store in Hendersonville, and we sold out the two days we were there,” she says, her eyes widening as if to transmit her own surprise, even years later. “He said, ‘I’ll take your product if you can be here the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.’ I was sure we would bomb. I thought everyone would be at the mall, but it worked! Half the battle is showing up. People were so responsive to shopping local—it was fabulous, and literally we sold out.”
It was the final affirmation Mimi and Gene needed to commit to Mimi’s Mountain Mixes. They rented a space in the basement below Dandelion Café in Hendersonville, carting weighted, industrial bags of flour and sugar down steep stairs. (Mimi: “We’re old! It was aging us!”) Production grew quickly, as did their staff, a collection of young women gathered from less than perfect circumstances, often the local shelters, in need of stable employment.
True success came with their expansion into new commercial markets. Mimi reached out to local grocers and franchised powerhouses alike, pitching her mixes. “The answer’s always ‘no’ if you don’t ask, and I’m not above asking—a couple times,” she remembers. And it worked. Today you’ll find Mimi’s Mountain Mixes in scores of regional grocery stores, including Harris Teeter, Publix, Lowes Foods, Ingles, and soon Whole Foods, sprinkled across the Carolinas, from Raleigh to Greenville, and up into Ohio and Tennessee. Nearly 60 stores in total, including boutiques and, of course, specialty beer and wine shops.
With that extensive and expanding market, Mimi’s Mountain Mixes has to maintain a swift and organized operation. These days, they do that from their new, recently expanded offices in Hendersonville. Half of the space is used for production. Stainless steel tables hold big mixing bowls in a similar sheen. Production manager Daniela explains the process of creating and packaging the mixes. The rotund bowls before her are filled with dusty, good-for-you ingredients: non-GMO, unbleached, and unbromated flour, sugar, and spices. Each of the six bowls holds 12 mixes, 72 mixes in total. On the next table, another employee divides the finished mixes into sandwich bags, which she plops into paper coffee bags and stamps and stickers with batch numbers and labels.
It’s a process that occurs three to four times per day, producing some 200 mixes every day on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Daniela smiles as she points at the powdery goods before her, white fingerprints staining her jeans, a smudge of flour across her cheeks. It’s easy, she points out. And it is.
Mimi’s territory, recently acquired, is the adjacent office. Part storage space, part breakroom, part office, it’s where Mimi convenes to perform the more tedious tasks of the business. Ask her her least favorite part of her job, and her response is immediate, accented by the frustrated flinging of her hands into the air: “Paperwork!” Here, Mimi completes that laborious paperwork, fills orders, chats with clients and retailers. It’s where she drinks her coffee and, on late nights, eats her dinner with Gene.
Gene himself is now a full-time employee of Mimi’s Mountain Mixes, too. Retired from the banking industry, his province isn’t in the office, but on the open road. He travels constantly to check on their retailers, a schedule that gets him to every store every seven to ten days. “He’s a very people person, so he loves going in, taking to the manager, chatting with folks,” Mimi notes. “We would never have grown so much without Gene being so hands on.” You’ll also find Gene in Mimi’s old stomping grounds, manning the booths and tables at farmer’s markets across the mountains.
As you’ve certainly realized by now, Mimi and her team aren’t complacent in their success. They’re constantly growing into new markets—and new recipes. Developing these new recipes is the sole responsibility of Mimi, although she recruits an expert palate for taste-testing. “My poor husband ate so much really bad yeast products. He’s like, ‘Was this in the vows?’”
The hard work—and tireless tasting—always pays off, most recently with her beer soft pretzel mix, which quickly became their best seller. Other recipes range from savory to sweet, including a Red Pepper Chili Beer Bread, Italian Herb Beer Bread, Molten Fudge Beer Cake, Cinnamon Spice Coffee Cake Mix, Beer Fudge Cookies, and Corn Beer Bread, all retailing for a reasonable $6.95. And Mimi’s fiddling with even more mixes, including doughnut and biscuit recipes and, to be released very soon, a beer pancake mix.
New recipes aren’t the only thing Mimi has up her flour-dusted sleeve. She’s already refining their online marketplace (at MimisMountainMixes.com) and gift basket selection, pairing mixes with handy pans and cute accoutrements. A commercial line also seems to be in the cards for Mimi’s: Ten pound bags of the most popular mixes, hand-delivered to local restaurants and food service stores, where chefs can quickly whip up beer-fueled breads to pair with dishes for diners. Another possibility is fundraising. Rather than asking kids to go door-to-door with order forms for citrus or those curly shoelaces, why not outfit them with bags of delicious Mimi’s mixes. It’s easy to imagine Mimi’s mixes as the puzzle piece in a modern 2017 bake sale.
Perhaps the largest and loftiest designation on Mimi’s resume is “author.” She’s currently writing a book, Outrageous Optimism: Surviving and Thriving in a Wacky World! And although it would be easy to dismiss this as an unrealistic aspiration for other entrepreneurs, for Mimi, it just makes sense. Sharing her particular, unshakeable brand of optimism with the world doesn’t seem grandiose, but more a humble gift—a matronly passing of wisdom.
Bread & Butter
Mimi’s is a company rife with traditional measures of success. Sales are booming; expansion is constant; innovations, frequent. Not long ago they entered a competition hosted by the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce. They submitted their business plan alongside a host of other local pursuits, and subsequently won the Chamber’s Small Business Award. Accolades include a billboard, advertising in newspapers, and business counseling advice (not that they seem to need it).
And yet, it all comes back to something so much simpler: a name, the name of the proprietor and the company itself— Mimi. For her, it’s not just about business (although that certainly seems to come easily to her as well), it’s about family. Eight years ago, her youngest grandchildren named her “Mimi” and the epithet stuck. It defines who she is, what she does, every single day. That effortless effusion of love, the hallmark of grandmothers everywhere, is present in Mimi’s very soul and, by association, her business. “My most favorite job in the whole wide world was being a mom. And now being a Mimi to my grandbabies, my grandkiddos.” She pauses, then smiles. “And actually being a Mimi to everyone. I love this job; I love my awesome ladies.”
Her emphatic passion and empathy for her ladies is indicative of her relationship with them: It is indeed family. The women she hires, decked in hair nets and aprons, come from unimaginable odds—just like Mimi herself. They don’t come from traditional means, and Mimi realizes that may make other employers wary, but for her, it makes them even more promising. Among her many varied aspirations is the hope that her unique business model, of hiring folks from all walks of life and all backgrounds, will inspire other businesses, too. “Basically it’s just looking outside the traditional means of hiring, because there are some very fabulous, untraditional means of finding fabulous, awesome people. And not just giving a handout, but you know, a hand to help pull up. You know, ‘Come with me, let’s grow together.’”
To illustrate the point, she grasps her hands, intertwining and lacing her fingers. “And if it’s a win-win for everybody, then sweet! So I’m hoping that perhaps other businesses will look at this and go, ‘Hey, that does work.’ And perhaps model it.”
Though she dreams of influencing other businesses and extending that helping hand to even more women, for now she’s content to share her love with the ladies already at her side. When an employee comes in to grab her bag at the end of the work day, Mimi stops the conversation to bid her adieu, sharing smiles and giggles and a final farewell, along with the words—emphatically yelled as her heels pass through the door—“Hugs and kisses!” It’s the kind of sweet send-off you’d expect to receive from your own grandmother, accented by a sugar-dusted kiss on the cheek.
For Mimi, family is her business model. She treats her employees with the same gracious kindness as she would her own family. On an even larger scale, family is her life model. She shares her mixes with a large community, infusing each recipe, even each bag, with her honeyed, familial good will. Every bag of Mimi’s Mountain Mixes carries a special message, a syrupy sweet note that portends her personal interest for every single buyer: “Mimi would put your picture in her wallet (if it was big enough), but she won’t put these icky things in this mix: no bleached flours and no soy, no aluminum, no eggs, and no dairy, no trans fat.” Another bag’s love letter begins, “Mimi loves y’all. She would put your picture on her fridge, but she’d never put these icky things in her mixes…” It’s these sentiments, so genuine and gentle and homey, that define Mimi and her mixes.
Ask Mimi her one hope for her breads and the folks who eat them and her response is immediate. “Feel the love,” she answers with a grin and a nod. “Feel the love in us here, in our products, in our mission, and even on our bags.” Like every recipe ever authored by a grandmother, the secret ingredient in Mimi’s Mountain Mixes is simple: love.
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