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Roxy Stephens is a serial entrepreneur with a heart for others. Rather than retiring to a life of rest, she and her husband, Harvey, seized an opportunity to start a business. The Stephens Olde Tyme Milling Company, located in the southwest Arkansas town of De Queen, offers a selection of cornmeal-based mixes, jarred pickles, salsas, jams and syrups.
With that same giving heart and an appreciation for providing local food, this couple cultivated their mill from a process that began in their home.
While her husband went to work, Roxy Stephens stayed home with the children. After they started school, she found more time on her hands and a need to make a little extra money. In 1967, she opened the first Merle Norman store in south Arkansas out of a studio space adjacent to her family home. At the time, there were only three Merle Norman stores in Arkansas: Fort Smith, Little Rock and De Queen.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I didn’t even wear eye shadow, but I thought…why not try.” She built a thriving business that eventually included a dress shop. Later, health issues caused her to sell out and take care of herself.
Once she was able, she worked from time to time at other Merle Norman stores in the region, including her daughter’s shop in town.
Harvey Stephens spent his full career with Weyerhaeuser timber company, holding different positions over the years. When he retired in 1990, it was time for both of them to come home and spend this new stage of life together. In the next couple of years, they unexpectedly turned that together time into a new venture.
During his last years at Weyerhaeuser as an office manager, Harvey Stephens would bring a goodie bag, including home ground cornmeal, as a Christmas gift to those who worked in his office. Vendors would ask for it by name, and the Stephenses noted an opportunity. It was no big deal to give away something they were making for themselves at home. They shared a ground meal process with their siblings, buying a 100-pound bag of corn and grinding it down on their mill in the back of the former makeup and dress shop.
They were making the cornmeal for themselves, but they knew they could do more to get the product to others.
Roxy Stephens had an idea. “If these many people want it, maybe we could be selling it.”
Stephens Olde Tyme Milling Company began. The first bag was milled on November 1, 1992, and launched successfully with the Christmas season right on the heels of opening. For the first season, it was just packaged bags of traditional cornmeal. Over the next year, they added various syrups, labeled for their brand from a partner company in south Arkansas.
They sought FDA approval and Arkansas Health Department licensure. Additionally, as they looked for partner companies, they always found other family-based businesses in Arkansas and the U.S. They try to keep their recipes as healthy as possible using garden-fresh vegetables and fruits, eliminating excess sugar, and using chemical-free processing. Roxy Stephens believes in providing the healthiest products possible for the families who buy from the mill.
In 1998, the Stephens’ team expanded to include their son Eddie and his wife, Leesa. Armed with more help and new ideas, the product line grew. The family took a year to develop the perfect recipe blends through kitchen experiments and taste tests.
Roxy Stephens shares a story of their popular spicy-blend fish fry. Once the family got the mix right where they wanted it, they hosted a group of friends and local business owners to taste their new concoction.
“After a blind taste test, 99% of those in attendance unanimously picked the fish fried in our mix. There was one guy…you know there’s always one guy.”
While no longer a primary source of revenue, the Stephenses initially used these new blends to fulfill a sales route across the state and neighboring states as well as regional restaurants. Today that famous fish fry is a favorite of locals and exclusively used by the county judge for local Sevier County events.
“I’ve used the meal for 15 years. It sticks to anything you batter better than the regularly packaged meals. Local people supporting local businesses are the lifeblood of a strong community. Plus, it really is just that good!.”
One of the main things that set the Stephens blend apart is their milling process. For a long time, they used the original mill they split with their siblings. But, when Eddie Stephens joined the team, and business opportunities expanded, they introduced a double grind process. Rather than send the ground mix through the mill a second time, they built a double auger machine that grinds once and sends it to a second grinder before casting it across the room into the bagger. Each step of the process is weighed on three different scales for verification. The scale used in the middle of the process is Roxy Stephens’ dad’s original cotton gin scale used on the Sevier County farm where she was raised.
The Stephens are driven by a “why-not-try-it-and-see-if-it-works” mindset. Whether that includes a right-handed sewing machine for a left-handed business owner, a cement mixer used to blend jalapeño hushpuppy mix, or turning a dress boutique into a dry-goods salesroom floor, Stephens Olde Tyme Milling Company is a gem in south Arkansas.
Products can be purchased by phone or in person at the showroom in De Queen. The primary way they distribute products and support customers is through gift baskets. From the beginning, gifting the mixes and jarred goodies for holidays was the first business model. Today, those gift baskets have expanded to customer appreciation collections, wedding shower novelties, or something special for that tricky guy in your life. Each basket is carefully curated and finished off with a hand-tied bow by Roxy Stephens.
Maybe it’s time for you to get together your list for Santa with more of an Arkansas-Made mindset, and I give you my OK to let your stomach do the talking.
For a full product list and to have items shipped, contact Stephens Olde Tyme Milling Company:
1301 N Pine Street | De Queen – store location
P.O. Box 167 | De Queen. AR 71832
870-642-2680 | Store Hours 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., unless special arrangements are made
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