One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a stay-at-home mom who became a successful country singer and TV star through sheer determination. When the time came for her to embark on a new career path, she used the same gumption to turn her penchant for baking into a multimillion-dollar chocolate business. She's unstoppable! -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
Some might say Mackenzie Colt’s life is what country songs are made of. Married as a teenager, she was carrying a baby by the time she was 16. And as her young husband went on to college, she spent her days at home -- reading cookbooks, instead of textbooks, and singing in front of the mirror -- dreaming of what life might be like if she could only have a singing career.
“I’d sit in front of that mirror,” Mackenzie remembered, “and sing and pray. I knew every Judy Collins song and everything Bob Dylan ever did.”
But Mackenzie did more than pray, she made that wish come true. She marched herself down to the local Ramada Inn and sang her way onto the stage of the hotel lounge. Each night, as her husband returned home, she’d tuck her baby in tight, make sure dinner was on the stove, grab her guitar and take center stage.
It was what sweet dreams are made of -- but she had no idea how sweet they could actually become.
“There was a showroom down the hall,” she said, “where the big stars would perform. If there was someone there that I liked, I’d make sure I was booked in the lounge. I wanted something more and I was determined to be discovered.”
And there, in that St. Louis hotel, Mackenzie Colt began the next lyric of her life. Country legend Buck Owens was playing the big room -- and just like it might happen in a country tune -- when he heard Mackenzie sing, he asked her to join him on tour.
“I went from the Ramada Inn to The Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, just me and my guitar, singing in front of 8,000 people. I just remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe how quiet these people are. They’re actually listening.’”
It wouldn’t be long before even more people were listening. At the time, Buck Owens and Roy Clark were the stars of the hit TV series, "Hee Haw." And when word got out that Barbi Benton was leaving the show, Buck brought Mackenzie with him to an even bigger stage. She became a Hee Haw Honey and the girl who started out singing in the mirror, was in living rooms around the country.
“They’d bring everyone to Nashville,” Mackenzie recalled with a smile, “and half the time we’d bring our kids with us. And since everyone knew I loved to cook, they’d always find me a kitchen. So I was still singing and cooking, just for bigger audiences!”
After six seasons of traveling back and forth between St. Louis and Nashville, "Hee Haw" was making some changes, and Mackenzie thought it was time for her to make some too. So, when her contract ended she moved to Nashville full time -- ready to move from country singer to country star.
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“But when I got there, I realized that having been on "Hee Haw" was actually working against me. The men who were running the record industry at the time didn’t take me seriously, and I was seeing so much of show business that I didn’t like. So many people, who had struggled to make it, were looking for new careers before they even hit forty. I knew I didn’t want to end up that way. So I decided to do the only other thing I knew how to do -- cook.”
And with the same kind of gutzy ambition that landed her on stage, Mackenzie, once again, marched herself into unknown territory. Honey Baked Ham had just opened up in Nashville and she decided it was time for them to try her homemade pie.
“I had to reserve my money,” she laughed, “so I brought them a piece of pie. I couldn’t afford to bring them a whole one! So they all gathered around and took a bite.”
And just like with her singing, it only took one taste for the managers to know they had a hit on their hands. They invited Mackenzie to sell her pies as people were coming in to buy their Thanksgiving hams. By the end of the day, she’d sold every one -- and that’s when the corporate office put in a special request.
“They wanted 500 of them by Christmas,” she said with the kind of amazement that would make you think it happened yesterday. “I didn’t even have a kitchen at that point! So I called up a "Hee Haw" producer who knew lots of people in town, and he set me up with someone who made plum puddings. Her commercial kitchen was in this desolate part of town and I’d go in at night, after she was finished. I was all by myself, with my little Cuisinart. I was still afraid to use her big mixer!”
“But when I saw that big truck pull around the corner to pick up my pies it was as thrilling as anything I’d ever experienced on stage.”
And there were many more trucks to follow. Soon Mackenzie’s pies were in Honey Baked Ham stores around the country, and she was back in the kitchen trying to figure out how to turn the candy she once made for all her friends at "Hee Haw," into her next big deal.
“I had something I called Colt’s Bolts,” she explained, “layers of chocolate and peanut butter and almonds” and I thought I was being really smart by buying the biggest chocolate bars I could find and melting them down. They were all of eight ounces and I was unwrapping enough to get 50 pounds! And I was pretty certain I could find a way to reuse that tin foil!”
But that method didn’t last very long. Mackenzie brought her “Bolts” to the Fancy Food Show in New York and they quickly became an international sensation. A Japanese distributor ordered 60,000 pieces, she won the coveted Outstanding Confection Award and Mackenzie was on her way to making her first million by the time she hit forty.
It wasn’t long before she moved Colt’s Chocolates into a 10,000 square foot facility, with a 750 pound chocolate tank, wrapping machines and a manufacturing line reminiscent of a famous scene from "I Love Lucy." And she also learned how to use a really big mixer.
“After you sing in front of 20,000 people,” Mackenzie said, “you kind of feel like there’s nothing you can’t do. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. It might actually be harder to make your first million than your next five. It’s such a learning process, when you have no background. You just go to work every day and try to figure it out. And when in doubt, throw it out.”
Today, Colt’s Chocolates bakes nine kinds of cakes and pies and produces ten different chocolate confections. And while you can find many of Mackenzie’s creations at stores like Dean and Deluca and Whole Foods, you may have been eating them for years without ever having a clue. She’s produced private label brands for some of the largest hotels, amusement parks and retailers in the country.
And at 61, the Hee Haw Honey who had her second act at 40, still feels like there’s room to grow. Just recently, when Spanx creator Sara Blakely put out a call for entrepreneurs that needed a little advice, Mackenzie was first in line. And she not only ended up on the phone with the shapewear billionaire, Colts was featured in catalogs distributed to more than a million hungry fans.
“People were saying because of Spanx, now I can eat your chocolate!” Mackenzie said with a smile. “This really has been an amazing journey. And there’s so much more help out there today, to find the answers you need, than when I was just starting out. There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t follow their passion."
“It’s just about showing up every day and putting out your best product. And really, chefs are the new rock stars. We just get our applause one bite at a time.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Roy Rogers as one of the hosts of "Hee Haw." The correct host is Roy Clark.
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