A Powerful Cheesy Business
By Verna Gates | Photography courtesy of Mississippi Cheese Straw Factory
A family recipe for cheese straws led to an internationally known company that has been a boon for Mississippi and the Yerger family of Yazoo City.
The power of cheese straws cannot be denied, especially when they are as delicious as the ones from the Mississippi Cheese Straw Factory. From school bake sales to hostess gifts to party fare, Mississippi Cheese Straws are always appropriate.
“No self-respecting Southern hostess would have a party without a cheese straw,” says Hunter Yerger, co-owner of the Mississippi Cheese Straw Factory.
The Yergers of Yazoo City have been packing the cheese into Mississippi Cheese Straws for nearly 30 years. Purists, (they scoff at those who pass off cheese-flavored flour as straws) their products consist of more than 50 percent pure, high-grade cheese, just like your mom makes. In fact, it is Mother Yerger’s recipe the company used, the one she inherited from her mother, and possibly her mother before her. Almost all Southern daughters have handwritten recipes somewhere among the family treasures.
As with so many favorite foods, cheese straws sprang from the hands of poor, but creative, women who had to stretch resources to feed big families. Some food historians trace cheese straws back to British “cheese biscuits” and Italian biscotti, or even an old French recipe using puff pastry.
But cheese straws belong to the South, where they have been perfected by frugal Southern cooks who found themselves with left-over biscuit dough. Lacking refrigeration, they did not have a way to keep it for another day. So, they would knead in cheese, spice it up with spices like cayenne, roll it out thin, cut it into strips, and bake it. Soon enough, the cheese straws became sufficiently in demand that cooks made the inexpensive delicacies for company events.
The Yerger food story began in 1967. Jim Yerger passed away, leaving his wife, Mary, alone with five children, four under the age of 14. She suddenly needed a job — and fast. A quick evaluation of skills emerged with cooking as the top prospect. She began working in a school cafeteria, ultimately becoming the supervisor of school food service. When retirement rolled around, she picked her personal favorite to start a new business: cheese straws.
Mary Yerger called upon two sons, who were six and four when their father died, to help her start a business. Hunter, an entrepreneur who had already started several businesses, said he did not have time for a hobby. Mary insisted she wanted to start a real business – the Mississippi Cheese Straw Factory. And in 1991 the family sold their first can of cheese straws. Not long after start-up, the new company turned into big business, quickly selling product across the South and into all 50 states.
Mary Yerger retired 25 years ago, but today the Mississippi Cheese Straw Factory produces 125,000 straws and cookies a day. Still family owned and family oriented, the company’s products are baked and shipped fresh daily all over the world — from Yazoo City.
Hunter, the older brother, takes care of marketing and sales, while Robbie runs the manufacturing as general manager.
“He does the work, and I do the worrying,” said Hunter Yerger.
The company has been so successful, Hunter claims to have put three children through school, powered by cheese straws.
“Once schools find out about the cheese straws, they are quick to get on the cheese straw bus,” he claims. “We have been called on a million times to provide them. Cheese straws come in handy!”
Pushing beyond the border of cheese, the company invented cookie straws. Starting with Lemon Straws, they advanced to Sea Salt Caramel Cookie Straws, Peppermint Cookie Straws, Cinnamon Pecan Straws, and Toasted Almond Cookie Straws. Another Southern-born flavor created the Key Lime Straws, while Cranberry Cookie Straws have become a holiday treat.
Their cookie selection includes Mud Puppies and the favorite treat of Hunter’s daughters, the Red Velvet Cookies. In addition to four varieties of cheese straws, the Mississippi Cheese Straw Factory also makes Trailer Trash, their version of Chex mix.
Annually, the states send representatives to the White House to display local products, and Hunter and Robbie Yerger have been proud to be Mississippi’s choice. Great is the power of cheese straws, the South’s favorite party snack for generations.