By Mark Wineka
Matt DeBoer longs for humps, bumps and lumps.
To the new president of Apple Baking Co., the height of perfection is imperfection, because this is where they make the Apple Ugly.
“Look here,” DeBoer says, pointing to a glazed, misshapen Ugly. “That’s perfect.”
Like snowflakes, no two Uglies are alike.
DeBoer keeps eyeing the Uglies on the conveyor belt rolling down from the cooling tower.
“This one here’s a little bit too smooth,” he complains.
The Apple Ugly is a 4-ounce, 440-calorie pastry that has no redeeming qualities except that it tastes good. Insanely good.
It has saturated and trans fats, lots of carbs and sugars and pretty much no nutritional value. But an Ugly connoisseur knows that going in.
Heat one up for 10 seconds in the microwave ó for highest Ugly satisfaction ó and the smell alone will make you gain a pound.
In the Midwest, an Ugly might be called a fritter, DeBoer says. Otherwise, it’s difficult to describe.
It is definitely comfort food, a feel-good delicacy.
Giving in to an Ugly is giving in to that little devil on your shoulder, DeBoer acknowledges without apology. He’s in the snack business, plain and simple.
What the Moon Pie is to Chattanooga, the Apple Ugly is to Salisbury, and DeBoer thinks the Ugly has the same potential as the Moon Pie to be identified with the South as a whole.
“The marketing possibilities are endless,” he says.
The bulk of Apple Uglies are distributed in North Carolina, but its footprint extends into South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Uglies also are available on a limited scale in West Virginia, Alabama and northern Florida.
Uglies make up 75 percent of Apple Baking Co.’s sales to convenience stores, vending companies and wholesale grocers.
Retail grocery stores are an untapped market for the Uglies, which actually come in four other flavors: honey raisin, chocolate chip, raspberry and blueberry.
At past trade shows, DeBoer has been shocked at the brand loyalty the Apple Ugly already has. Everyone had a story connected to the Apple Ugly, then a description of their favorite way to eat one.
With a scoop of ice cream on top.
Dunked in a tall glass of milk.
With morning coffee.
Since assuming the presidency, the 38-year-old DeBoer has looked toward waking up a sleepy, literally backwoods company and making it more visible, in the community and in the marketplace.
Few people have ever seen the tucked-away production plant off Woodleaf Road and only know of its existence from a roadside sign.
Hardly anyone realizes that the plant, which only operates half the week ó employs 40 people and produces 6 million Uglies a year ó some 39,000 in a day.
One of DeBoer’s goals is to expand the work week to a full 40 hours. Some of the growth, he says, may come from cakes.
Apple Baking Co.’s separate Cake Department produces 2,000 cakes in three ovens on baking day, then packages 3-ounce individual slices, 22-ounce half-cakes and 44-ounce whole cakes.
All the cake glazing is done by hand.
DeBoer sees growth beyond Uglies coming from specialty items such as mini-bundt cakes and 10.5-ounce pan cakes that Apple Baking will be aiming at singles and empty nesters.
A food industry veteran, DeBoer says his first order of business has been “to get the quality where it needs to be” and return a feeling of ownership to the employees.
“It’s their product, and that’s what I want them to feel,” he says.
Veteran employees such as “the Ugly Supervisor” Sissy Hardison, Cake Department head Peggy Mills, mechanic/engineer Ronnie Simmons and office manager Carrie Jennings are leading the way.
All the company’s past emphasis as been on production, not marketing.
On the sales end, DeBoer plans to attend six food shows through April.
He wants to have a modern Web site (www.applebaking.com is under construction), increase the plant’s walk-in traffic ($18 per case for Uglies) and make Apple Uglies part of sanctioned food-eating contests (the first could be this year’s Faith Fourth of July).
DeBoer says the Ugly’s name, shape and mouth-watering taste make it a unique North Carolina food item that, with the proper marketing, could be shipped across the United States, especially over the holidays.
Locally, he wants Uglies integrated into sports concession stands and Little League sponsorships.
Apple Baking Co. started in Kannapolis but moved its offices and production facility to Salisbury in 1984. A couple of years later, the baking company turned to the late baseball great Mickey Mantle as a pitch man for its pound cakes.
Mantle, who came to Salisbury for the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association banquet, also was friends with former Apple Baking president-shareholder Gary Schwartzbach. The arrangement lasted for awhile, with Mantle even buying a small interest in the company, but the pound cake sales never caught fire.
DeBoer said the company is privately held by 25 shareholders today. One of the principals, Rob Watts, came to a cookout DeBoer and his wife were hosting last year, and he brought a large sampling of Uglies with him.
DeBoer, a transplant from Minnesota, was intrigued. He soon attended a few regional food shows with Watts and saw firsthand the strong following Uglies had with virtually no marketing of the product.
Now he’s sitting in the president’s office.
DeBoer previously worked for C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. out of Eden Prairie, Minn., handling commodity and transportation sales.
He moved to Salisbury in 1997 to service the Food Lion account, and it was at the Food Lion headquarters that he met his wife, Tammy, vice president of operations for the grocery chain.
The way the dough comes out of the extruder is how Uglies take their odd shapes and pretty much got their name years ago.
After the extruding, the process is much like watching doughnuts being made at Krispy Kreme.
Choppers, proofing trays, fryers, a cooling tower and packaging come next. Between the fryer and the cooling tower, the Uglies also pass under a thick waterfall of glaze.
An Ugly ó start to finish ó takes less than an hour to produce.
DeBoer says it’s difficult to rein himself in and walk, not run, toward change and letting people know just how good the products at Apple Baking are.
He does a lot of brainstorming these days, even thinking about some kind of partnership with Salisbury’s well-known soft drink maker.
Who needs an RC Cola and Moon Pie, when he could have a Cheerwine and Apple Ugly?
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mark Wineka