Big Cheese and Big Heart
By Michele D. Baker | Photography courtesy of Tom’s Tiny Kitchen
Get ready for National Cheese Lovers Day later this month with cheese dips from Memphis-based Tom’s Tiny Kitchen.
When Memphis native Tom Flournoy was laid off from his job in 2009 at the age of 61, he did what many newly unemployed people do: he stepped up to household chores and he cooked.
“My wife was still working, so I decided to have dinner on the table when she came home,” he says. “I started to cook.”
When it became clear he wasn’t going to find another corporate job, Flournoy expanded his vision to include culinary possibilities as a way to earn a living.
“We took my mother’s pimento cheese recipe and tweaked it a bit,” he explains.
The original pimento cheese spread debuted at a Memphis farmers market in 2011. Preparing, packaging, and selling it soon became Flournoy’s livelihood. During much of the week, he made pimento cheese. The rest of the time, he sold it.
“I was selling at three or four farmers markets a week,” he remembers. “We had so many commitments that my wife Jill and I had to split up on Saturdays, going to two different places. We sold out every weekend.”
The business grew faster than they could have imagined, and the whole family, including their children, pitched in. “My daughter was working with us; our son moved back from California to help out,” recalls Flournoy. “We asked Cordelia’s Market in Harbor Town if they could sell our products in their store. They said yes. They were the first.”
Soon, other independent grocery stores were carrying Tom’s Tiny Kitchen cheese spreads, and Kroger’s Delta Division placed the product line in their 100 Delta regional stores. Whole Foods soon followed because Tom’s Tiny Kitchen products contain only the highest quality ingredients and only a very few, all-natural preservatives.
National Cheese Lover’s Day on Jan. 20 is the perfect excuse for turophiles — otherwise known as cheese lovers — to celebrate with all five varieties of Tom’s Tiny Kitchen cheese: Classic Pimento, Chipotle Pimento, Classic White Dip, Spicy Thai Dip, and Chipotle Bacon Dip.
All Tom’s Tiny Kitchen products are made in a tiny kitchen — a 1,500-square-foot brick building in east Memphis. Trucks deliver fresh, pure Wisconsin cheese, real mayonnaise from Missouri, and the finest pimentos from Moody Dunbar Company in Johnson City, Tenn.
“We’ve always made our cheese for families, not for commercial business,” explains Flournoy. “We could probably cut costs by using cheaper ingredients, but we would never do that — we’re not willing to sacrifice the quality.”
Flournoy jokingly warns customers that his delicious cheese might be habit forming. “I don’t drink alcohol, so every night for happy hour I sit down with a bowl of my own cheese dip and a bag of Tostitos. I’m pretty sure I’m addicted.”
Flournoy’s commitment to quality and integrity shines through in other ways as well. Over the years, he has taken what he’s learned through this journey and shared it with struggling, under-represented entrepreneurs. He has happily mentored dozens of small business owners, especially those with food products when they’ve sought his expertise.
“The one constant that I tell [them] is that as they expand their businesses, there will always be pressure to lower the price,” he explains. “But my philosophy is that you should never sacrifice quality for price. There are always ways to cut costs without giving up the integrity of your product.”
Flournoy’s future appears as golden as the cheddar in his dip. Tom’s Tiny Kitchen delectable dips and spreads are currently available in 250 stores nationwide — including 19 stores in the greater Memphis area — and Kroger and Walmart stores in 13 states (more stores and states coming soon).
“I’d love to be in every one of the Walmart stores and Krogers nationwide,” Flournoy says with a gleam in his eye. “It would mean expanding out of this building, of course, and the kitchen would no longer be ‘tiny.’ But we set out to make the best-tasting, highest-quality pimento cheese and cheese dips available. And I truly believe we’ve done just that. Now we just need to scale it up.”