Grandma: 'So easy...even a man could do it'

Sep 2, 2013

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A Chelsea business known nationally for its blue-and-white boxes of affordable baking mixes is also known for rising to economic challenges. 

For eight generations, the Holmes family has operated  Chelsea Milling Company. It began making Jiffy Mix during the Depression and has weathered all the economic ups and downs since.

Howdy Holmes (yes, the former race car driver)  is the current president and CEO.

He says his grandmother, Mabel Holmes, created and named the all-purpose baking mix after seeing what she called "white hockey pucks" in a young friend's lunch back in 1926. The boy's father, a single dad, had made the offending biscuits.

That sparked an idea with Mabel Holmes.

"She thought, wouldn't it be nice to come up with a product that would save people time in the kitchen and be so easy, even a man could do it," Holmes says with a chuckle.

And so the Holmes family got into the baking mix business. Even the name "Jiffy Mix" came from Grandmother Holmes.

"She remembered that when she was a young girl, her father would come home for lunch and the lady that helped in the kitchen would say to my grandmother, 'Mabel, you tell your dad those biscuits will be ready in a jiffy.'"

Now the company is moving forward with a $35 million expansion plan, and the nature of the business has changed somewhat.

"It's a continuation of a strategic plan that started about 25 years ago in which our company, with our Jiffy Mixes, pretty much was only in the retail prepared food business," Holmes says. "In the early '90s, it was clear the home baking market was faltering. It was becoming passe. People were on the go, convenience was the name of the game, cup holders began appearing in cars, gas stations started selling food -- and the transition was started."

Holmes says the company began tailoring products for food service companies and institutions, like hospitals, prisons and schools.

He says the strategy mapped out 25 years ago also took into account its employee base.

"We could see that between 2006 and 2018, we were going to have a significant number of our employees retire, and it was up to us to try and coordinate as much as we could with new, more modern equipment," Holmes says. "We wanted to penetrate new markets, and still keep our eye on the retail business at a time where we didn't have to sacrifice jobs to reinvent ourself.

Holmes says Jiffy Mix has never advertised, used coupons or inserts or celebrity endorsements. 

"From a business standpoint, that gives us a pretty big unfair advantage in the context that we can sell our products for less money than the alternatives. And when you look statistically at the population of our country, most people live from paycheck to paycheck," Holmes says.

Chelsea Milling Company also embraces what Holmes calls "vertical integration."

"We do everything ourselves, except grow the crops that turn into ingredients," Holmes says. "We store wheat, we have our own flour mill, we make our own boxes, we do our own mixing, our own packaging, our own logistics, our own warehousing."

"It doesn't happen overnight, but that's as good as it gets."