By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Working in the grocery business for more than 20 years as a scan price coordinator allowed Antoinette Neeley to do more than change price labels.
“I began to read the ingredients labels on the back of the products. I would write down the ones I could not pronounce, take the list home, and look them up on my computer,” she said. “Most of them … were just synthetic foods and things the body is not supposed to consume.”
The 47-year-old Neeley decided that she could make a difference. In 2009 she founded Ms. Neeley’s Famous Organic Gourmet Oatmeal Cookies, which has now grown into a bakery—Organically Yours—in East Lake.
The bakery, scheduled to open this summer, will also be a venue where customers can learn how to cook with organic ingredients and get information about healthy living from on-site experts, such as a teacher, nutritionist, and doctor.
“The mission of this business, as far as organic, is to help educate the public on organic products and the benefits of eating organic, as well as the effects that foods with pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms [GMOs] have on your body,” she said. “The bakery will be teaching all of that, so it’s not just a bakery; it’s an educational bakery.”
Neeley received a $75,000 Community Development Block Grant Small Business Loan from the city of Birmingham in May that will help jump-start Organically Yours and provide jobs and training for the people in the area. The bakery is currently hiring.
“That area of town, from what I’ve been told, doesn’t have a bakery, nor [does it have any businesses] producing healthy products,” she said. “[Organically Yours] will serve East Lake and all the surrounding communities. I will have the first bakery that’s bringing really healthy baked goods to that area.”
Neeley wants to provide sweet yet healthy options, such as her oatmeal cookies, cakes, muffins, trail mix, breads, brownies, cinnamon rolls, and two different types of chicken salad.
Neeley traces her love for cooking back to when she was 9 years old and in the kitchen with her grandmother.
“My grandmother cooked a lot, and that’s how I learned how to cook,” said Neeley, who grew up in Brighton. “I started off with her teaching me how to shell peas, break string beans, and shuck corn. Eventually, I learned how to make cornbread, and she taught me how to prepare other southern foods like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Now I can make the best of those dishes—and I can prepare them all organically.”
Neeley said she would always make her signature oatmeal cookies for her three children, Sharonica, Jamonica, and Alexantoine, when they were growing up. She made sure the treats where healthy in memory of her mother, Dorothy, who died of lupus when Neeley was 7 years old.
Lupus is a “systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your own tissues and organs.”
“Something causes that,” Neely said. “It could be hereditary, or it could be within some of the foods we eat or something in the air that we’re inhaling.”
According to the Lupus Foundation of America, “lupus is two to three times more prevalent among women of color than among white women.”
Neeley went on to do research and began to pray and ask God to show her how she could help the community become healthier: “I started with the oatmeal cookies, and then I decided to make them with all-organic ingredients.”
“I started studying organic as a whole: what does organic mean and what is it? Come to find out, organic is just the way the foods were grown before man started contaminating them, … it’s foods the way God created them,” she said. “I started from there, using all-organic products.”
After losing their mother, Neeley and her two sisters went to live with her grandmother, aunts, and uncles in her grandmother’s three-bedroom, one-bathroom home in Brighton.
“There were 11 of us in one house, but it was fun because of the neighborhood,” she said. “Everybody pretty much knew each other, and we were very close-knit.”
As far back as she can recall, Neeley was always creative.
“I would do certain things as a child that they [my aunts] would just never imagine,” she said. “I would experiment with nail polish, using different colors and different types of strokes on one hand and using like 15 colors on one finger.”
Her creativity led her to go back to school in her early 30s. She attended Jefferson State Community College and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, from which she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interior Design.
When Neeley returned to school, her oldest daughter was also just starting out at Jacksonville State University and her other two children were also still in school. Being in school while her children were there motivated her to finish.
“We all helped each other, learned from each other, and supported each other. It was great,” she said. “Most people say, ‘Oh, well, I’ll wait to go back to school when my children finish.’ That wasn’t me. I’ve always been a motivated person. If I wanted to do something, I just jumped at it and did it.”
Another motivation for Neely is the response to her cookies.
“When people purchase my products from a store or see me out in public, they mention that this is the best concept ever and they appreciate me for doing it,” she said. “When I get that [type of feedback], that’s how I know I’ve done something to make somebody else happy. To me, that’s success. When you can make other people happy with the products you produce you’re successful, so that’s what I love.”
Plans for the Future
After Organically Yours is up and running, Neely plans to start an interior design business that will be organic, as well, featuring all ecofriendly products. She also would like to start a foundation in honor of her mother.
Currently, Neeley’s products are available at her bakery, as well as local stores, including Piggly Wiggly, Organic Harvest, Cowboy’s, Murphree’s Market and Garden Center, and Andy’s Farm Market.