Ella’s Top Corral, Continuing a Tradition
Every community has that one “go-to burger spot” for locals, and in Valdosta, it’s Ella’s Top Corral.
Ella Mae Brown has been serving hamburgers the “right way” for more than 40 years. Known to her customers, family, and friends as “Miss Ella,” she started working at the original Top Corral while in high school.
In 2006, when the opportunity came to buy the popular family-owned restaurant, which opened in 1976, Miss Ella had no doubt it was time to become a restaurant owner.
“This is what I love to do,” she says. “It’s like family, the same customers have been coming in here for years.”
Keeping quality as the main ingredient, Ella’s Top Corral is a “fast-casual” restaurant that continues to serve 100 percent fresh, never frozen, burgers, along with other sandwiches and an assortment of sides.
Following his grandmother’s career path, Nick Perry also started working at the restaurant as a teenager. “Back then I worked in the kitchen patting the meat by hand, which is one of the things that make our hamburgers standout. Each burger is hand patted and made fresh daily.”
After graduating from Valdosta State University, with a degree in psychology, Perry considered other career options but decided to work with his grandmother.
“We are keeping all the food people love, but making some changes to attract a new generation of customers,” says Perry, who serves as general manager. “Top Corral has been known for years, and what we are doing today is rebranding the restaurant.”
After remodeling the restaurant’s interior, Perry says the redesign of the old drive-thru was the next important project.
“The previous drive-thru was an old call box style,” says Perry. “We didn’t want the process to be difficult. It’s now an express drive-thru, where customers can quickly get our top-selling items.”
Perry says the new express drive-thru has drastically reduced the ordering and pick-up time. “A faster drive-thru process allows us to better serve our growing number of take-out customers. We are located near the industrial park, so a lot of workers need to get their food and go.”
With the single Top Corral burger at the No. 1 spot, other fan favorites include slaw dogs and strawberry shakes. Wanting to add to the menu, Perry says a few new food items are now growing in popularity.
“People love the corn nuggets,” he says. “At first most people don’t know what they are, so think of cream corn that is fried and crusty on the outside.”
Perry says he is focused on marketing Ella’s Top Corral to a larger audience. “We have many long-time loyal customers, and they walk in the door we know their names and what they like to order. But we also want to attract new customers.”
This year, Ella’s Top Corral will host its second Business After Hours (BAH), a partnership with the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce. “This place was packed,” says Perry. “It was a great way to introduce Ella’s Top Corral to people who have never eaten here, but said they would be back.”
Southern Dimensions Group
Food Truck Frenzy
What started as “push carts” selling hotdogs and hand-held sandwiches on busy downtown streets, food trucks have morphed into a thriving industry.
Tracy Bennett, with Southern Dimensions Group in Waycross, says they recently built a customized food trailer for Guy Fieri, the famous chef and host of the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” and “Guys Grocery Games.”
Bennett says Fieri contacted Southern Dimensions to build a customized food truck to feed first responders and other emergency personnel. “He started feeding first responders and people who were impacted by the fires in California a couple of years ago. Now he travels all over, even going to NASCAR races and big music festivals, places where first responders are working.”
Fieri’s food trailer will aid the chef in his humanitarian work. “He had specific ideas of what he wanted,” says Bennett. “We worked with him to meet all of them, and so far, it has It has been the largest food trailer we’ve built.”
The customization process isn’t just for celebrity chefs, Bennett says all orders are built to the customer’s specification and maximized for efficiency and flow.
“We start by asking a lot of questions,” he says. “These are not cookie-cutter trailers. When we finish a trailer, it has everything fitted and is ready to start cooking.”
Similar to building a house, once the design is finalized, then construction starts. “At any time, we may have 40 projects going through our assembly line setup,” says Bennett. “We even customize the outside by adding the company’s name and logo.”
Established in 2002, Southern Dimensions started with outfitting the existing frames on cargo trailers. “Now we do the entire process,” says Bennett. “We build the trailers from frame to finish.”
Southern Dimensions moved its operation to Waycross in 2014, when another national trailer manufacturer relocated its facility.
“When they closed, it left many experienced workers displaced,” says Bennett. “We decided to move to Waycross because of the available skilled workforce.”
With approximately 30 employees, Bennett says he doesn’t see the production of concession trailers slowing down. “We get calls every day from all across the country.
While in college, Cody Cleary and Ethan Guess started talking about opening a business. Sharing a passion for hunting, fishing, and music, the two also connected over the goal of becoming entrepreneurs.
“We just clicked,” says Cleary, “I knew then Ethan and I were like-minded when it came to many things, including business.”
After graduating from Valdosta State University, the Cleary and Guess started considering various startup options, and the idea of a flooring business continued to rise to the top of the list. “My father works in the flooring manufacturing industry in North Georgia,” says Cleary. “I got his advice and have been able to make direct connections with manufacturers.”
While they encountered some skeptics, Guess says they continued to move forward. “Some folks had their doubts and laughed at us, and most thought we wouldn’t last six months.”
Starting with a 700-square-foot warehouse in Valdosta, the business partners quickly gained a foothold in South Georgia’s commercial flooring market. Two years later, C&E Floors relocated to a 6,000-square-foot store that includes a showroom.
“Within six months of being in our first location, we couldn’t turn around,” says Cleary, “now we have plenty of space, and plan to continue expanding.”
The new showroom, located next to a lighting store and home interior shop, has opened up opportunities to reach more residential customers.
“Our customers in the first location were mostly commercial,” says Cleary. “We built relationships with builders in the area, but knew we needed to start focusing on residential sales.”
While the company is steadily growing, Guess says owning a small business takes a lot of personal sacrifices. “We are constantly reinvesting in the business, and always making sure the company is growing, and its needs are met, sometimes above our own.”
Guess says being a boss has its challenges. “Some weeks we work 100 plus hours and eat a lot of fast food. You miss out on some things, but know it will eventually pay off.”
Get Your Glaze On
A self-described “pepper-growing enthusiast,” Eric Wisham has turned his love for peppers into a hot business. While experimenting with different jellies for grilling (another one of his passions), Wisham created Fire! Pepper Jelly, which he describes as “not so hot that you can’t eat it, but it gives you a kick.”
While giving jars of his pepper jelly to friends and family, Wisham started to turn a hobby into a full-fledged business. “I was putting jars out there on social media to see who wanted to buy them, and then it just grew from there.”
In 2013, Wisham Jellies was officially launched. With the growing popularity of the original Fire! Pepper Jelly, Wisham returned to the kitchen and created nine more flavors including cranberry, mayhaw, orange ginger, pineapple, strawberry, peach, mango, blackberry, and blueberry. He also created an all-purpose dry rub, that is perfect for grilling.
Quickly gaining notoriety, Wisham Cranberry Pepper Jelly and Wild Mayhaw Pepper Jelly were finalists in the annual Flavor of Georgia in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The prestigious honor helped Wisham Jellies land shelf space in regional and national grocery store chains including Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Publix.
The real seal of approval came when chefs started incorporating Wisham Jellies in their recipes. In his hometown of Tifton, the Mi-Lady Bakery created the Blazin Blueberry Breakfast Sandwich, which combines Wisham Blueberry Pepper Jelly, sausage and bacon, and white bread, all grilled to perfection. The tasty sandwich even received a spot on this year’s coveted Georgia’s “100 Plates Locals Love.”
When he is not growing peppers or creating more flavors of jelly, Wisham enjoys attending festivals and events. “I am a people person, I have never met a stranger, and I love getting out and talking about my product.”
Wisham encourages other entrepreneurs to have patience. “You have to stick with it and don’t get discouraged,” he says. “You are never going to figure it out 100 percent because there are always going to be bumps in the road.”
Dedicated to Education
Tickle Me Pink Daycare & Learning Center
Pam Carter strives every day to help children succeed and grow academically and socially. As owner and director of Tickle Me Pink Daycare and Learning Center and Tickle Me Pink Academy, Carter is focused on providing a healthy learning environment.“Even with our infants, we are teaching,” says Carter. “By the time most of our students get to pre-school, they can tell you their entire name and home address. We are giving them a solid foundation to be successful in school.”
Recognized as the 2019 Small Business of the Year by the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, Carter says childcare and education is not a job, but a passion.
A Georgia Quality Rated learning facility, Tickle Me Pink Daycare and Learning Center was awarded the 2017 Shape Award from the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. The award recognizes the center’s exceptional nutrition and physical activity practices, which included the Eat.Move.Talk training program.
The nutritional training program provides tools for classroom teachers and families to increase healthy eating habits for young children. Throughout the academic year, Tickle Me Pink teachers led classroom activities that expanded the children’s vocabularies using fruits, vegetables, colors, textures, and movements.
Carter explains that the Tickle Me Pink Academy, which opened in January 2019, offers small-sized classes for kindergarten and first-grade, with plans to introduce new grade levels.
The jump from a daycare learning center to an academy happened organically. “It was our parents that pushed for us to start an academy,” says Carter. “When we got to the end of the school year, parents were asking us to expand.”
Carter’s entrepreneurial spirit comes naturally. Her mother, Elizabeth Jenkins, started Tickle Me Pink Daycare and Learning Center in 1999, and successfully grew the center for seven years.
“I have a love for children and firmly believe in the importance of early education,” says Carter, who worked in public education as a teacher and administrator. “I understand that children need a strong foundation when they enter school.
As a former middle school administrator, Carter says she would see students who were missing many of the basic foundational skills that they should have learned before starting school.
Being a small business owner, Carter says she enjoys encouraging other women to become entrepreneurs. “Many times, women think they can’t own a small business, and then they miss out on a wonderful opportunity.”
In 2019, Carter was a sponsor for She Creates Business, a conference hosted by the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce. “Being part of this conference gave me a chance to speak to other women entrepreneurs,” she says. “It can be scary, many unknowns, and a fear of failure. I am now in my comfort zone. I think if you step out and fail, that’s okay because you are learning on the way.