Flathau’s shortbread cookies and cheese straws are made right from Petal, MS. Susan Broadbridge/Hattiesburg American
(Photo: Susan Broadbridge/Hattiesburg American)
When Jeff Flathau started a catering business about 25 years ago, he never dreamed he would quickly become the king of shortbread cookies.
The Hattiesburg resident never envisioned his path would lead him to the world of manufacturing and retail.
“I was in the restaurant business at Rocket City Diner, then went into catering,” said Flathau, who studied political science in college and planned on a career in law.
Flathau said he switched to catering after becoming a father so he could manage a business and have time to be with his family.
At some of the events he catered, his cheese straws and cookies received rave reviews, with many fans suggesting he package them for sale.
“Somebody said you really need to package them and sell them in Atlanta,” Flathau said. “And I thought, ‘That’s a good idea, maybe that will work.’”
So Flathau, now 58, made up packages of cookies and took them to the Atlanta International Gift and Home Furnishings Market.
“We spent the big bucks — well, back then it was big,” he said. “Relatively speaking, it was tough.
“We had a good reception but dollarwise it was not what we expected.”
Still, Flathau kept the cheese straws and cookies flowing, selling enough to at least make a profit, “but the catering was really the heart of the business.”
“I wanted to try to get close to what my grandmother used to make — it was a crescent cookie — and my mother made some and they were great, but the shelf life was about three days,” he said. “And that wasn’t going to work.”
His wife, Heather, joined in and worked on the recipe.
“She hones in and she’s like a missile — you get out of the way,” Flathau said. “What was different from everybody else was she put candy in the cookie.”
Heather Flathau crushed peppermint candies and added them to the cookie. When she was satisfied, she worked on a raspberry-flavored version.
“Those were the first two that we did, and they were a big hit,” Flathau said.
The Flathaus also learned to bake the cookies until they were crisp, to give them a better shelf life. And adding margarine in addition to the butter helped even more.
That was around 2002.
By 2004, Flathau’s Fine Foods’ shortbread cookies and cheese straws really took off, even winning two silver sofi awards at a trade show in New York — the first time they entered the show.
“They’re kind of the Oscars of the food industry,” Flathau said. “It was quite a success when we did that. You get a lot of people surrounding you, wanting to do business with you.”
They received more than 300 leads — an overwhelming number, he said.
“We were new to that — that’s not what I studied to do; my wife neither,” Flathau said.
The Flathaus had to set up a manufacturing and distribution system to fill the orders they received, but they also learned it wasn’t — and still isn’t — a cakewalk.
Large distributors can charge back to the manufacturer for just about any reason, which sometimes can lead to the company getting a $1,000 check for a $10,000 order.
Flathau decided to change how he did business and began working with smaller distributors and selling directly to the stores that carry their products.
The cookies and cheese straws may be found on the shelves at Corner Market and Walmart as well as a number of gift shops throughout the country.
Flathau’s Gourmet Edibles include seven cookie and two cheese straw varieties. The original peppermint and raspberry snaps were joined by key lime, lemon, butterscotch, cinnamon and plain. The cheese straw varieties are cheddar and cheddar chipotle.
RARE Design of Hattiesburg created the original design for the packaging, and although it’s been modified a few times over the years, it’s still being used today.
The cookies also are packaged under another brand, Maddy’s Sweet Shop, which is geared toward grocery markets, while Flathau’s products are found in gift shops.
Flathau also co-packs for other brands and will make special labels for their paint can packages, for instance for corporate gifts with the company’s name.
Flathau got into business for himself when he was around 35. He has had to learn the ropes as he went along, sometimes things didn’t work out, but mostly they did.
And while he has seen many successes over the years, he has also had his challenges, like coping with buy-back losses and adapting to the recession that began a decade ago. There’s also the numerous regulations and audits to keep up with, he said.
Today Flathau has a manager who helps run the day-to-day operations and has around 14 employees. Heather Flathau, although still an owner, works in another field.
Flathau said he’s considered giving up many times over the years, but the thought is a fleeting one.
“But I don’t know if I would do it again,” he said.
Flathau, however, keeps plugging along and is currently working on expanding.
His cookies won another silver sofi in 2017, and they have been featured on the Food Network’s “Unwrapped.”
Jerra Allen, office manager for the Asthma and Allergy Clinic of Hattiesburg, said she loves the shortbread cookies.
“Flathau’s has been catering food to our clinic for years and regardless of what the menu consists of, I always make sure to sample the cookies sent along with the meal,” she said. “Usually they’re the highlight of my day.”
Victoria King, a real estate agent with Realty Executives, agrees.
“I ordered them for client gifts and Christmas giveaways last year,” she said. “I love the fact Flathau’s is always on time. Their cookies make everyone smile.”
Flathau has made a few changes here and there to improve operations, packaging and workflow. He’s had to adapt to new computer technology and new regulations. He’s also toying with co-branding options and pairing his products with others.
“To learn something new is tough, but you’ve got to do it,” Flathau said.
Despite the changes, however, the cookie that’s been so successful remains the same.
“I’ve thought about (trying different combinations of flavors),” he said. “But nothing’s really hit me.”
Flathau’s Fine Foods
Flathau’s, under Flathau’s Gourmet Edibles and Maddy’s Sweet Shop labels, makes shortbread “snaps” in seven flavors: peppermint, raspberry, key lime, lemon, butterscotch, cinnamon and plain; and two cheese straw varieties: cheddar and cheddar chipotle.
The products may be found in local grocery and gift stores or purchased on the company website.
Owners Jeff and Heather Flathau of Hattiesburg started the business in 1995. Jeff Flathau still runs the business, which is located in Petal.
For more information, call (601) 582-9629 or visit flathausfinefoods.com.
Jeff Flathau’s advice
Although Jeff Flathau never planned on becoming a manufacturer and entrepreneur, he has embraced the career that he stumbled upon.
It’s not an easy road, he said, and has this advice for the next generation of aspiring business leaders:
I’d definitely get some type of finance education. And not just marketing, accounting and to understand business, no matter what kind of business it is. If you’re going to be in manufacturing or any business, you need to understand those things.
Otherwise you’re going to learn as you go — and you’re going to spend thousands of dollars. You’re going to spend it one way or the other. You’re either going to spend it up front, or you’re going to come back around and lose money by making mistakes.
It depends on how many mistakes you make whether you’re going to be successful or not.
Network. Go work for somebody in that field, and learn all you can about that business and all the pitfalls. Offer to do something (to improve) their business, not just steal ideas and go.
If you have a passion for a certain thing, it’s going to be easy. Or you may find you don’t want to do it.
About the series: Homemade
Homemade is a monthly series that features a Pine Belt company that makes or grows food products sold in retail outlets across the state, region or even country. The series will regularly appear in the Life section on the third Sunday of each month.
If you’d like to recommend a business, contact Lici Beveridge at (601) 584-3104 or email@example.com.