It all started at a Hollywood Garden Club party. Millie Ray was planning to make something for the potluck meal and turned to her mom, Essie Mae Stinson or “Mae Mae” to her grandkids, in Evergreen, Alabama, for inspiration. After all her mother had raised her with family life centered around the table, and the same was true of the way Millie was raising her sons and running her side catering business Delectable Edibles. There was no take-out—she cooked every meal for her family. This particular time, Essie Mae gave Millie a recipe for orange rolls, and Millie tweaked it until it just right for the party.
“And everyone went crazy,” her son Ben retells the story today. That was the start of neighbors and friends requesting Millie Ray’s Orange Rolls for years to come. Ben was born in 1978, the rolls were “born” in 1979 and Millie’s younger son Ryan was born in 1980, so they all grew up together. Every Christmas season, the Ray house transformed into a bakery—and smelled like one too. Thousands of rolls filled any and every surface proofing with wet towels laid on top of them. “She’d make that (orange) filling, and we’d get spoons and eat it,” Ben recalls. “And she’d get mad.” All along, Millie would give the rolls away to friends and family. It was never a business, and she never told anyone who asked for rolls “no.”
The Rays moved to Montgomery when Ben was in eighth grade, but the Homewood requests never stopped. Any trip to see Ben and Ryan’s paternal grandmother in Birmingham meant filling up the minivan with gallon Ziplocs full of rolls by the dozen.
Fast forward to 2008. Ben and Ryan had both ended up in Atlanta opening a Zoe’s Kitchen back when the restaurant chain was still owned by the Cassimus family in Birmingham. The now-grown boys went home to visit their parents for Christmas that year and of course encountered the orange rolls. That’s when the idea dawned on them. “We were like, ‘Let’s take these to mom-and-pop shops and butcher shops and delis and give them to people and see what response we get,” Ben says. So Millie baked up a few pans of rolls, bagged them and put stickers on them, and before long the stores were calling back the Rays asking for more.
From there Millie would bake rolls from her home in Montgomery and meet her sons halfway between there and Atlanta to pass them off. Then one day an order came in for 300 sets of rolls for Burris Farm Market in Loxley, Alabama. “I knew when they called me that that would take a month, but I was like, ‘Sure, we’ll get that to you,’” Ben recalls. He then called his mom to tell her and she was vehement: “There’s no way we can do it. We’ll be working through the night for weeks.” But she got it done.
Around the same time, Ben and Ryan’s friends from the Zoe’s world, Andrea and David Snyder, were making plans for a new restaurant concept called Urban Cookhouse. “We wanted to offer a sweet bread or roll with our salads and plates, something you’d look forward to with your healthy salad,” Andrea recalls. They thought the Millie Ray’s Orange Roll could be the perfect fit, so one day the Rays brought some rolls over for menu tasting at the Snyders’ house and the deal was sealed.
When Urban Cookhouse opened on 18th Street in June 2010, Millie Ray’s Orange Rolls were on the menu by name. “That was a blast from the past for all the people who still live in Homewood,” Ben says. “When they saw that name, they knew immediately what that was.” For a while, the Rays would deliver rolls in back of pickup truck loaded in coolers, or sometimes they’d sometimes meet in Clanton to pass them off.
Today Andrea says the orange rolls are one of the three items Urban Cookhouse is best known for, along with their Broccoli Salad and Half-Baked Cookie. “It’s not too sweet, and it goes perfectly with our food,” she says. “It’s the only exception we’ve made to sell something we do not make in-house.” In fact, any sliders on their menu are made with Millie Ray’s yeast rolls too.
Urban Cookhouse customers weren’t the only ones to fall for the orange roll either. Another game-changing moment came when the Rays set up a booth at their food distributor Wood Fruitticher’s Food Show in Destin in 2009. “We sold for two days, and man, at that point, I said, ‘I have to leave Zoe’s to get this business going,’” Ryan recalls. “’Cause we did $70,000 in sales in two days.”
It was time to get down to business. Ben and Ryan would go on to leave their jobs with Zoe’s and move the Millie Ray’s operation back to their roots in Birmingham. Their next challenge was to figure out how to scale their mom’s recipe to taste the same whether the yield was 12 rolls or 1,000 rolls without cutting any corners. Then as today Millie Ray zests oranges for each roll, releasing oils from the peel to flavor the filling and glaze—still the same final product that the Hollywood Garden Club tasted back in 1979.
“One thing (my mom) always stressed to us was no matter how big we grew to keep doing it the right way,” Ben says. “I think that’s why we have grown and why people still like the product. You are getting the real thing.”
The rolls are still rolled out by hand and then smeared with a lightly sweet mixture flavored with orange zest and then rolled up, sliced, baked and topped with a thin orange glaze that hardens as it cools. Lastly, the rolls are placed in pans, bagged and frozen. All in all, it’s a 24-hour process.
Even as they were training employees in their 20s to make the rolls, Millie in her 60s was doing just as much work in the kitchen as they were, all working late into the night seven days a week to get the business going. “It was chaos 24/7, and on top of that Ryan and I had babies at home,” Ben recalls. “Taking that step was a risk where what you produce is your livelihood. You don’t sleep well those first few years.”
But Millie would have it no other way. “For us to work together was the best thing she could ever do,” Ben says. “If she was tired or was hurting, she would never tell you. She would power through. She could work as hard as the 20-year-olds we had working in there. She would stay from 6 in the morning until 12 at night even though we told her to go home.”
“I think that’s what drives Ryan and I is the passion she had for the rolls. She loved the customer and the relationship side.”
Birmingham businesses were quick to sign on to the rolls too. Piggly Wiggly, the first retailer to carry the rolls, accepted Millie Ray’s deliveries in deep sea fishing coolers, and Cajun Cleaver, Mr. P’s Deli and New York Butcher Shoppe were also early customers.
Today Millie Ray’s mostly sells their products to food distribution companies that in turn sell them to local stores and restaurants throughout Alabama and now all over the Southeast. This summer Food City, a family-owned grocery chain with 130 stores, started carrying rolls in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and beyond. As production increased, the company had to move most of their production from Irondale to Atlanta where they partner to use Tennessee Baking Company’s Masada Bakery, but the business operations and their most loyal customers are still in the Birmingham area.
The 2019 product line also features cinnamon rolls with cream cheese icing made similarly to the orange rolls, yeast rolls, dinner twin rolls and new buttermilk biscuits. “(Mom) wanted to use real buttermilk instead of buttermilk powder,” Ben says of the biscuits. “When you are baking them you can smell them, and they are awesome.” You can now buy the biscuits frozen at Piggly Wiggly, or eat them hot at Salem’s Diner in Homewood, Miss Dots in Crestline or Ted’s Restaurant downtown. And you never know when the yeast roll you are eating at a restaurant might be one of Millie Ray’s. Bright Star in Bessemer is just one of many that serves them.
A couple of years ago the company worked with a marketing and branding company, who recommended they change the name to “Millie Ray & Sons Baked Goods” since Ben and Ryan were such a cornerstone of the business too, and Millie herself loved it. By the time Millie passed away in November 2018, the branding change was complete. “What she instilled in us is the passion she had for the business,” Ben says. “She had always wanted to have a food business. She loved food that much.”
These days Ben and Ryan sometimes travel with sales reps who are introducing new businesses to their products. As they tell their family’s story, they pop some rolls in the oven and let the products themselves do the selling. It doesn’t matter if they say that they are “not an orange fan” or don’t know what an orange roll is, the brothers have never met someone who doesn’t like the roll their mom perfected. “Our orange roll is not overly sweet like our cream cheese icing on our cinnamon roll,” Ben says. “That’s why Urban Cookhouse can get away with putting them on their salads and plates. A lot of steakhouses love it instead of doing Texas toast or a yeast roll.”
And it all started on Hampton Drive, just a short drive from where Ben and Ryan’s kids are growing up on Millie Ray’s rolls too.
Editor’s Note: Some quotes in this article were taken from “Ben and Ryan Ray, Millie Ray and Sons,” an oral history by the Southern Foodways Alliance conducted by Annemarie Anderson.
Where to Find Millie Ray & Sons Products Locally
To Bring Home & Bake:
- Andy’s Farm Market
- Piggly Wiggly
- Urban Cookhouse
To Eat Hot:
- Bright Star
- Mark’s Joint
- Miss Dots
- Salem’s Diner
- Ted’s Restaurant
- Urban Cookhouse