Alecia Warnock turned a Christmas gift-giving tradition into a booming food business. The part-time caterer and full-time mother of two started giving friends jars of her signature tomato chutney condiment about two decades ago. Then, one fateful year, she added a new friend to the Christmas list. That friend was Chef Frank Stitt, who was just starting to have great success with his Highland Bar and Grill and Bottega restaurants. Chef Stitt liked the tomato chutney so much he told Warnock that if she could produce enough of the stuff, he would incorporate it into various dishes at his restaurants.
Alecia Warnock’s chutney is so delicious and unique that it didn’t take long for Stitt’s customers to start asking about the thick brown mystery ingredient. Word leaked out from Stitt’s kitchen staff to other chefs about Frank’s new find, and how it could be had if you befriended the right lady out in Leeds. It didn’t take long for Warnock to have such demand for her chutney that she persuaded her husband, Prince Warnock, Sr. to refurbish a tiny, dilapidated caretaker’s cottage on their property into a commercial kitchen capable of turning out enough batches of tomato chutney to bring a viable product to market.
Fifteen years later, her Alecia’s line of specialty foods can be found in Piggly Wiggly and Western Supermarket stores in the Birmingham area, as well as V. Richard’s market on Clairmont and Catherine’s market at Lake Martin. In addition, she cranks out gallons of the stuff for use by chefs and restaurants. Tomato chutney has always been the flagship brand and remains her best seller. I had my first taste at Guillermo Castro’s Sol y Luna in Lakeview, on his Sabana steak. I bought a jar on my next trip to the store and use it at home all the time. Ms. Warnock now has her son, Prince Warnock Jr., overseeing much of the production, and he has expanded the product line to include peach chutney that is every bit as wonderful as the original. A chipotle chutney is planned for introduction in spring of 2011.
“I’m happy for our success,” Warnock says, “but I hope we don’t ever outgrow our little kitchen in the cottage. It’s truly not about the money. I still do it for the love of food and cooking and gift giving. But recent developments threaten to expand the production by leaps and bounds. Two local franchises, Taziki’s and Baha Burgers, have incorporated Alecia’s chutneys into popular menu items. And both chains are opening new restaurant units wherever opportunities for expansion can be found. Each new location means more gallons of Alecia’s products have to ship out of the cottage kitchen in Leeds.
In addition to her three flavors of chutney, Warnock is ramping up to reintroduce her line of dry soup mixes, which are based around her favorite rice variety from a single supplier in Guidon, L.A. With a Louisiana pedigree you know this rice must make a divine red beans and rice. I can’t wait for the weather to get cold again so I can cook up the sample she shared with me. She originally introduced the line many years ago, but pulled it when the market became saturated with so many lower quality competing products. When store supplies ran out, devoted customers started contacting Warnock directly, attempting to get her special recipes. Her 17 bean soup is almost impossible to duplicate, as many of the ingredients are not available in even the largest supermarkets. She also prevailed upon Chef Stitt, who got her product line started, to do a recipe swap. Chef Stitt uses Alecia’s tomato chutney on top of his “Hoppin’ John” rice dish, so he has allowed Alecia to share his recipe for “Hoppin’ John” as part of her soup line. Black beans with yellow rice rounds out the four dry soup mix offerings.
The holidays are the Warnock’s busiest time of year. It took a couple of tries for me to be able to set up an interview time where founder Alecia could sit down to talk along with her son. Prince Warnock Jr. spent many years as an assistant chef at Hot and Hot Fish Club, as well as Standard Bistro. Now he is busy as one man can be helping his parents with their business. He has other exciting products under development in conjunction with other leading Birmingham chefs, but they are not close enough to market for me to be able to reveal them here. He did give me one simple recipe that I plan to try this summer. Mix up all the ingredients for a good homemade vanilla ice cream in your ice cream mixer. But before you close the lid, add a jar of Alecia’s Peach chutney. That should tell you all you need to know about why Alecia’s has had such success with her chutneys. They are so good that they can make things that are already delicious taste even better.
Dee Marcus writes food-centric commentary for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.