By Charlene Oldham. Photography courtesy of Colts Chocolates
When she was growing up, Mackenzie Colt remembers her family cooked out of practicality, not passion. So her romance with recipes didn’t begin until when she was a teenage newlywed.
“I just kind of got into the kitchen to cook for my husband. But then I realized how much I loved making dessert,” she said. “So I would read cookbooks all the time, take a cookbook to bed instead of a novel, and then get up the next day and experiment in the kitchen.”
Colt was a young mother by the time she landed her first restaurant job at 17. But she was wielding a guitar rather than a rolling pin. She’d always loved playing, singing and writing songs, and found the perfect niche performing at happy hours around St. Louis.
Hoping to be heard by big stars, Colt often booked gigs at a hotel lounge when singers she admired were playing the ballroom. She got a tiger by the tail when Buck Owens saw her perform and asked her to be his opening act.
“I went right from a lounge in a Ramada Inn to a concert for 8,000 people at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City,” she said. “It made me so nervous but … it was a wonderful experience.”
Owens, who was co-hosting the country-infused variety show “Hee Haw” by that time, didn’t tour heavily. So Colt would be home for months at a time between short stints on the road. After opening for Owens for a few years, he asked her to audition for the spot on the show being vacated by Barbi Benton. Colt landed the role as a “Hee Haw” Honey.
Hee Haw was filmed in Nashville, and Colt would often take over a local cast or crew member’s kitchen to cook for everyone. Favorites included Colts Bolts, a confection that combined layers of chocolate, peanut butter and almonds, and her gooey butter pie. The pie was inspired by gooey butter cake, a St. Louis specialty, but was Colt’s original recipe.
She left the show after six seasons and moved to Nashville full time to pursue her songwriting career. Colt was born in Memphis when her father managed the semi-pro baseball team, the Memphis Chicks. Although she left Tennessee as a young child, she felt at home in the state and has hazy recollections of seeing one of her early idols perform.
“My memory is of watching Elvis in the main auditorium of the fairgrounds and just being mesmerized. I just fell in love.”
Despite her country music credentials, she couldn’t break into the industry.
“I found that having been on ‘Hee Haw’ worked against me because no one took me seriously. It was a totally different town in 1984. It was an all boys’ club.”
So Colt decided to pursue her other passion — cooking. She’d make cold calls on restaurants with her gooey butter pie. But she quickly exhausted her savings and could only afford to offer a single slice at each stop.
“So when I got to HoneyBaked Ham, they called the store manager over and all kind of tasted this one piece, loved it, and said ‘You’ve got to send a pie to corporate office in Atlanta.’”
HoneyBaked ordered 500 pies. Soon, she found her own space and founded Colts Chocolates, which now produces more than 40 products, including Colts Bolts and versions of that gooey butter recipe, now in bar form. She still creates each recipe and designs the packaging herself.
“Some people call it micromanaging. I call it overseeing and I think that’s what you have to do. Nobody’s going to care as much as you do … if you’re name is on it and you’re the owner and the creator,” said Colt, who plans to turn the business over to her son, Rob Noerper, in coming years. “So I am very diligent about making sure everything that comes out of here is how it’s supposed to be.”
Colt remembers fielding phone calls in the company’s early days from customers complaining they’d only gotten three nuts in their Colts Bolt. So someone stocks each Bolt with at least four roasted almonds by hand. Juggling the demands of entrepreneurship while maintaining that kind of attention to detail has been far more challenging than performing on stage and screen. But, even after 30-plus years of cooking professionally, Colt’s love affair with the kitchen is still going strong.