The theme for Women’s History Month in March was “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” And if it’s a great story you want, Angie Cowger, a female business owner, has one to tell. She shared her story with employees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District employees last month during a special presentation and tasting of her famous Custard Stand chili.
Her story starts with a century-old family recipe she inherited from her grandfather. The fantastic chili, a lot of energy, passion, and a philosophy of learning something from every “no” she encountered along the way, made Cowger a successful woman entrepreneur.
The Chili Queen, as she is called, believes women in business have a responsibility to pull each other up and she has done that time and time again. By hiring women, many from her own town, and speaking to hundreds over her 30-year run, she has encouraged many to take a chance and follow their dreams.
In 1991 she and her husband Dee opened a small take-out restaurant called The Custard Stand in rural Webster Springs, West Virginia. She used hot dogs as the vehicle to serve her classic family chili recipe. By 2003, the family’s secret sauce had become so popular that Cowger and her husband also began Custard Stand Food products which now includes a chili soup that her husband developed.
To meet the growing demand, they converted a car wash into an FDA-approved food manufacturing facility. “This decision changed our lives and the lives of our family and many folks in this one-stoplight town,” said Cowger.
The hot dog chili soared in popularity when featured on the TV show “Shark Tank.” Angie and her husband were on an episode in February 2016. “Although we didn’t win,” said Cowger, “we received a lot of recognition, which helped our business soar.”
Though Shark Tank said they were a regional item, Cowger offers another perspective. “We are a regional item, but hot dog chili is not a regional thing,” said Cowger. “People eat something on their hotdogs no matter where they live.”
Today Custard Stand chili is distributed to more than 3,000 retailers in 30 states.
To be successful, keeping your promises is something she can’t stress enough to other women. “When you are working with major grocery retailers, they are not interested in knowing that your internet is down for three days or there has been a snowstorm and you can’t get your product to South Carolina on time,” said Cowger. “You must deliver on your commitments no matter what. Your reputation is riding on it.”
She encourages women to take advantage of the power of networking in all aspects of their lives. As a daughter, mother, grandmother, wife, retired educator, and small business owner, she has relied many times on the strength of her network - personally and professionally. In fact, networking is how Cowger ended up speaking to USACE Charleston employees. Senior civilian Lisa Metheney grew up 15 miles from the Custard Stand and was a regular customer. She and Cowger both attended the same high school as well.
Drawing on skills she learned from her first career in the late '80s as an elementary school teacher has been helpful in the competitive food industry. A solid work ethic, being part of a team, and the organizational skills she learned while teaching helped her start and grow Custard Stand Chili into the successful family-run business it is today. Cowger believes each path leads you to the next and you must take what you gained from that experience.
But entrepreneurship has always been in her blood. Cowger’s grandfather owned a tavern. He and his wife sold chili during the day and added beer to the nighttime menu. With three generations making chili, Cowger sees their products as nostalgic. “We receive a lot of comments and feedback that say such things as, we found your product and it reminds us of our grandmother and home,” she said.
Although Women’s History Month has ended, the stories told by women will continue to grow and excite for years to come. As for Cowger, she will continue to inspire others with a passion for entrepreneurship and a great bowl of chili.