A "sweet" family business

May 9, 2013

Alabama Public Radio continues its collaboration on a new television program about business. It’s called Alabama, Inc. and it airs tonight at 10 pm on your local Alabama Public Television station. So far this season, APR news director Pat Duggins has interviewed entrepreneurs who build shopping malls, design high-end fashions, and clean up toxic waste. This Sunday, the topic is a “sweet” family business based in Birmingham. Tricia Wallwork hears the stories from customers all the time.

“Sometimes you’re in a rush, and you don’t want to tell people where you work,” says Wallwork. “People take pride in it, they take ownership in it. It’s what they grew up with.”

Wallwork is referring to Milo’s hamburgers. Her grandfather, Milo Carlton, took a similar path as Dave Thomas, the founder of the Wendy’s fast food chain. Both men worked as cooks in the military during World War II. Thomas worked in the Army, and Carlton for the Alabama National Guard. They took the skills they learned feeding troops, and turned it into a business. Wallwork says growing with her grandfather, Milo, meant the burgers went with it.

“He was always working, while he was growing the business,” she recalls while growing up. “And, he always smelled like Milo’s hamburgers, that’s for sure. He and my grandmother did, because they worked together. It was a family business.”

Milo Carlton also made a decision that impacted the path of his family business. He didn’t want to sell Coca-Cola because he felt the soft drinks were too expensive. His alternative was iced tea, sweetened with pure cane sugar. That’s what Wallwork does for a living at the family’s Milo’s sweet tea factory in Bessemer. It churns out 200,000 gallons of tea which is mixed, bottled, and packed for shipment through the southeast and a growing market farther north in States like Ohio and Oklahoma. Bear in mind, Wallwork didn’t see herself as the future CEO of a tea company.

“I think in the evolution of a family business, children think they’re going to go off and do their own thing,” says Wallwork. “I envisioned myself as a lawyer. But as my family business grew and my parents gave more of it to myself and my sister, wanted to get involved.”

In 2007, the Carlton family decided to specialize in the tea business, and sold off the restaurants. There were apparent bumps along the way, with lawsuits and countersuits when the restaurant owners allegedly use other brands of tea in cups bearing the Milo’s logo. These legal matters were settled, but changes in the market are prompt changes in the Carlton business. Health conscious consumers appear to be leaning toward low calorie drinks, which run contrary to the Milo’s tea formula which includes pure cane sugar.

“We have an unsweetened, which is filtered water and custom blended tea,” says Wallwork. “And, we have a product that’s sweetened with Splenda, which is low cal, but still sweet.”

We’ll tour the Milo’s tea factory in Bessemer this Wednesday at 10 pm on your local Alabama Public Television station.