Cooking may be your business, but cookbooks are big business. Just ask the people at Wimmer Cookbooks, a company founded in Memphis and a company still operating out of Memphis. The specialty of the house: reasonably priced but profitable community cookbooks.
Let the titles speak:
Have You Heard ..., by the service organization Subsidium, Inc., of Memphis; Celebrating Our Mothers' Kitchens, by the National Council of Negro Women; Great Performances, by the Symphony League of Tupelo, Mississippi.
Now let the numbers speak:
The Kosher Palette, by fund-raisers at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva High School in Livingston, New Jersey, has sold more than 46,000 copies since 2000.
The Cotton Country Collection, by the Junior League of Monroe, Louisiana, has sold more than 565,000 copies since 1972. ("One of the finest, most exacting regional cookbooks to be found in America," wrote Craig Claiborne in The New York Times.)
And the three volumes of River Road Recipes, by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has sold more than 1.7 million copies since 1959, with the first volume going into its 73rd printing.
Wimmer Cookbooks, though, does more than print the recipe collections of nonprofits, along with a growing number of books by individuals, chefs, and restaurants. Under the ownership now of Mercury Printing and under its parent company, the Houston-based Consolidated Graphics, Wimmer has made a national name for itself by guiding organizations through the nuts and bolts, start to finish, of cookbook production. Soup to nuts, so to speak, and that means conception, development, marketing, and distribution. Which means editing, designing, printing, warehousing, and shipping. And it's all under one, very large roof off Shelby Drive in South Memphis.
Wimmer's hands-on attitude is the very one Joe Wimmer adopted when he set up a print shop in his garage to earn extra money in 1946. His son Fred was suffering from rheumatic fever, and Joe's salary at Rotary Lift wasn't meeting the medical costs. With his brother Jack, Joe turned that side business into Wimmer Brothers Fine Printing and Lithography in downtown Memphis, the so-called can-do printer.
Fred took on that same attitude when he headed the company and steered it into new territory. (The company's "I AM A MAN" placards for striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 have since taken on an iconic status.) Fred's younger brother, Glen, saw the company become a national leader after it successfully produced and marketed a cookbook by the Woman's Exchange of Memphis in the 1970s.
"We were primarily a commercial printer," says Freddie Strange, senior consultant for Wimmer Cookbooks, who's been with the company for more than 20 years. "We soon recognized the peculiar needs that a nonprofit has in trying to put together a cookbook as a fund-raiser. Once we'd helped the Woman's Exchange, people from outside Memphis began to call. The Panama City [Florida] Junior Service League wanted us to come down and do a presentation. We didn't have a presentation! Today we conduct an annual seminar on the entire publishing process.
"Our business has been built on what customers need, what they can't get on their own or from anybody else," Strange says. "We've implemented free storage. We warehouse books that are still selling after 30 years when the shelf life among cookbooks by major publishing houses is somewhere between milk and yogurt.
"In an odd sort of way, we've become advocates for regional cooking. These books aren't just collections of recipes. We look at them as an opportunity for people to tell their stories, make their presence known -- people in charity organizations, schools, churches, Junior Leagues, and auxiliaries who are working their tails off to make a difference in their communities."
That sentiment is echoed by Sarah Wood, director of marketing and distribution: "We say to our clients, 'This book is about YOU.' It helps them to take ownership, but it also helps them to make money. No, we don't necessarily choose the recipes or test them, but a cookbook isn't going to stay on the shelves the way ours do if those recipes aren't true, if they haven't been tested over time."
That doesn't mean that tastes and gadgets don't change over time. But for every new kitchen gadget and diet breakthrough, there's a surprising amount of wisdom and resiliency in those handed-down recipes. The Atkins diet? According to Ashley Schilhab, vice president, "Quite a few of those old recipes are already low-carb, high-fat. Plus, there's no sense in updating. People are using these books to relate to the past." Immigrant cooking? Again according to Schilhab: "We've been working with a lady originally from India, and these are very traditional recipes and methods. But she's in Louisiana. She's substituting alligator meat, crawfish, combining customs."
That Indian cookbook joins the roughly 200 titles currently available out of an estimated 1,600 produced by Wimmer over the years. Which makes the company's current staff of close to 30 sound small. But, as Wood says, "We're close-knit. We're family. A lot of businesses say that, but here it's true. And we're all foodies. We have to be foodies."