Meredith McMillan, creator and owner of Merry Cheese Crisps, named her signature treats after her childhood nickname: Merry. Choosing optimism to face the many obstacles she encountered in building her business, Meredith has built a successful, small-batch, high-quality cheese crisp label that is enjoying success in shops around the country. She recently added a sumptuous shortbread to the wildly popular brand, and she looks forward to continued growth for the company. We are dying to learn how this driven entrepreneur discovered her passion and turned it into a thriving business. Welcome, Meredith, as today’s FACE of Birmingham!
Where did you grow up and, if you are not a Birmingham native, what brought you to Birmingham?
I grew up in Alex City, went to high school in Virginia and then I went to college in Florida. After college, I wanted to come back to Alabama, and I ended up going straight from college to graduate school at the University of Alabama. Then, after a year of studying public administration in graduate school, I decided that I wanted to learn to be a chef.
What caused the shift from public administration to the culinary world?
I grew up with a mom who was an excellent entertainer and hostess, and she entertained my dad’s work colleagues a lot. She was a great cook, and I thought, “Oh, I think that’s what I want to do.” So I moved to Birmingham and worked at Arman’s at Park Lane. Then, I figured out in six months that that was not what I wanted to do. But that’s where I met my future husband, George, because he was cooking there! So, in a way, I have gotten back to the culinary industry, because I married him and began working for him at Daniel George as the office manager.
How did Merry Cheese Crisps come about?
There were a couple of years between Daniel George and FoodBar where I didn’t really have a full-time job, and I worked for Sybil Sylvester with Wildflower Designs, doing flowers, which was a great experience and I loved it. But I always made these cheese crisps. And it was during the holidays when I was working for her and I brought her some and she said, “Oh, I want you to make some for me for a friend.” And she kept upping her orders to give them as gifts. And I didn’t really have a job, so I thought, “Why not?!” So it kind of started from there. I mean, when you make a sale, you think, “Well, maybe I have something here.”
What is it about cheese straws that make Southerners love them so?
I think it’s nostalgic for Southerners, and I think that we are one to two generations away from it being a dying art. People aren’t making them any more. I think the flavor brings back a memory for every Southerner. Either it was their grandmother or a good family friend, usually they are not alive any more, and it reminds them of that person. That’s really a marker for me if someone says, “These are as good as fill-in-the-blank’s!”—I know I’m doing something right.
What sets Merry Cheese Crisps apart from other cheese straws?
The round shape, and that was really a mistake on my mom’s part. She was trying to learn from her mother-in-law how to make cheese straws, and she just found it so frustrating to use the grinder thing, so she just started making them round. So that is how I grew up knowing how to make them! I also use a very high-grade cheese, and it sounds simplistic, but you get what you pay for. I mean, it’s really expensive, high-quality cheese that’s been aged for a long time. And I want people to taste the cheese with a little heat at the end, not flour or salt or pepper. But the best flavor comes from starting with the best ingredients.
When did your shortbread join the brand?
I wanted to do shortbread as a way to join George into the brand, because he’s been so supportive and I wanted to honor him and his name. He’s got a very Scottish last name, McMillan, so I put his crest on the label and called it Merry Mac. And I’m very pleased with how the shortbread is being received. I’m getting good feedback.
What are the best ways of presenting and serving cheese crisps?
Honestly, they’re a great stand-alone, but I have seen people use them as casserole toppers, with soup, on salads. But I really think they are best alone.
What does the future hold for Merry Cheese Crisps?
I do have people who order from Washington, D.C., New York, Oregon, Washington state, California, and hopefully that is something that will continue to grow. But besides being a full-time baker now, the business is a one-woman show. I’m the distributor. I’m the broker, I’m the everything. So I want to keep building slowly, but steadily. I don’t want to go too fast and compromise the consistency of the product.
As a woman entrepreneur and one-woman show running your woman-owned business, what advice would you give other women who want to do the same thing?
Evaluate if it’s really what you want. And if it is what you really, really want, be willing to eat, breathe, live and sleep it. And don’t give up. I mean, there were many hurdles in the beginning. But I decided that whatever the barriers are—if I have to jump around them, go behind them, go under them, if I have to invent this thing—then I’m going to do it. And with getting this facility going, you would walk in there and you’d think, “Well, it’s a cute little room.” Well, that was a major to-do! It was harder to open up that little space than it was for George to open up a restaurant. But I was determined. I knew I had a good business, so I figured out a way to make it happen. So for women, I would say, you may wake up with dough in your hair some mornings, but just keep pushing forward.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I think it changes depending on where you are in life, but I really think the best advice is to listen, be open-minded and be flexible.
What’s your favorite thing(s) about Birmingham?
For Birmingham’s size, we have so much to offer. We have amazing permanent and visiting collections at the Birmingham Museum of Art. We have the McWane Center, the Civil Rights Institute, Railroad Park, Regions Field and world-renowned health care with UAB and Children’s Hospital. Obviously, we have an incredible foodie and restaurant community. We’re a friendly, charitable, generous city. I think we really do try to take care of each other with all of our nonprofit and community involvement. I think it is becoming a destination city!
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
Eat at FoodBar with friends and have a nightcap with George at the end of the night. But I do love Lake Martin. That’s where I’m from, so if I can get him out of here on a Saturday night, we would love to be at Lake Martin.
What are your “must-have” style staples?
I’m an accessory girl. I can wear a pair of thrift-store earrings and have as much fun with those as a designer handbag that I’ve had for 15 years. It’s really about accessories for me.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
Icebox coffee, Diet Coke and Netflix.
Order your own cheese crisps and shortbread at Merry Cheese Crisps, where you can also find a listing of local shops that carry Meredith’s delicious goods.
Thank you to Meg McKinney Photos for the terrific images of Meredith McMillan.