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‘Mother’ Gives Manufactured Foods a Memorable, Homemade Touch : Marketing: Industry experts say images of motherhood evoke warm feelings that help sell their products.

THE WASHINGTON POST

There’s no place like home and no cooking like Mom’s. Whether it was a double-rich chocolate cake or a burned batch of canned hash, mother’s culinary capers usually evoke warm feelings--or at least amusing memories.

Just ask the makers of mother’s macaroons, Mom’s Apple Pie and Mama’s Goodies--three of literally hundreds of products that are labeled with some form of the word mother to convey a special home-quality goodness.

The use of mother in the name conveys a “home-cooked feeling, something old-fashioned,” says Kay V. Porter, owner of mother’s macaroons.

That’s one reason Porter--whose business cards prominently note that her cookies are “handmade with love"--decided to keep the name “mother’s macaroons” when she expanded her business by opening a small bakery in Arlington a year ago.

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Initially, she planned to call it Harrison Street Bakery to reflect her diversification into muffins, cookies, pies and other homey baked goods. But after a few months she changed the name back to mother’s macaroons, not only to feature her star item but also to convey the cozy atmosphere and down-home quality that is attracting an increasingly loyal following to her bakery.

“The imagery of mother is as good as it comes,” says Clive Chajet, chairman of Lippincott & Margulies, a New York identification and image-consultant firm. “The word stirs up the image of warm, loving and caring, good quality and homemade. It’s a symbol in the American culture of everything that’s good.”

That’s not to say that the products with “mom” on their label are necessarily better than others. Some are; many are not. It’s just like mom’s cooking -- some mothers do it better than others.

Even so, the image of motherhood is so attractive that companies large and small find it hard to pass up -- from Mama’s Goodies, operating out of a garage in Manassas, Va., to Quaker Oats Co., which sells its grain products to natural food stores under the “Mother’s” label. All these firms are seeking to defy the cautionary words of 20th-Century novelist Nelson Algren, who warned, “Never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play poker with a man named Doc.”

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Everyone knows that necessity is the mother of invention; in the case of the Herndon, Va.-based Mom’s Apple Pie, however, it was motherhood that prompted the invention of the name.

It all began eight years ago with a flippant remark by the company’s founder, Avis Renshaw. She and her husband, Steven Cox, had been selling hot fresh apple pies to the Reston Farm Market for some time. Every time Renshaw delivered the pies, the owner complained that they didn’t have a name. “ ‘You’ve got to have a name for your product,’ he kept telling us,” Renshaw recalls. “I was very pregnant at the time with my second child. Finally, I just looked at my stomach and said, ‘Fine. Call it Mom’s Apple Pie,’ The name ended up sticking.”

Today the company has grown from a home-kitchen enterprise into a $1 million business with a 9,000-square-foot bakery -- complete with a reconditioned pie assembly line from a bakery in Iowa and a dough-mixing machine once used in Mrs. Smith’s pie factory. Between 500 and 2,000 pies (in 26 different flavors) are made daily, with the most made in October; the least in the winter. An additional 500 to 1,000 loaves of sunflower bread are turned out daily.

Looking back, Renshaw believes the company’s name was appropriate. “It worked out kind of nicely because the business is like a kid; you nurse it along until it can take care of itself.” Renshaw, 31, should know. She has four children; the youngest, 2-year-old Tyson, likes to spend much of his day riding his tricycle around the plant and playing hide-and-seek among the 50-pound bags of flour.

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More often than not, however, there is no real mother standing behind the name. Porter, for instance, never met the mother of macaroon fame. She bought the business four years ago from a secretary-turned-baker who had used her mother’s macaroon recipe to start up the company. Porter bought the company -- its name, recipe and wholesale accounts -- and started to expand. In addition to its bakery and increased line of goods, mother’s macaroons now has 60 wholesale accounts.

Similarly, Amena Rahman is not the mom of Just Like Mom’s bakery in Reston. An Afghanistan refugee who came to the United States nine years ago, Rahman is the third owner of the small old-fashioned bakery that specializes in apple fritters and doughnuts. “I liked the name so I kept it,” she says. “It makes people come in and feel like they are in their own home.”

There is a mother, however, behind Mama’s Goodies. Brenda and John Bolling had wanted to start a business in their Manassas home and baking seemed a natural. After all, Brenda Bolling had been baking for a school cafeteria in Manassas, Va., for 15 years and, as she puts it, “yeast is in my blood.”

When it came to naming the business, it was their daughter, then 19, who came up with the title. “It was what I had always done--baking goodies,” Brenda Bolling, 47, says. Initially, “I didn’t think I would like it. It made me feel like I was an older woman” when her customers called her Mama. “Now I don’t mind it a bit.”

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Corporate name experts such as Chajet say that Mother may not always be the best name. For one thing, given the large number of companies that have mother in their names, a business “may end up sharing its identification with any number of brands,” Chajet says.

The name Mom’s Apple Pie for instance, is not as distinct as Mrs. Fields or Famous Amos. “So additional money will be needed to promote” a product, Chajet adds.

Perhaps of even more significance in this day of consumer cynicism, the very name “mother” may produce an effect opposite to what was intended. “Consumers are a little too sophisticated to believe the suggestion that there is actually a mother who stands behind the goodness and purity of a product,” comments Ira N. Bachrach, president of NameLab, a name-consulting firm in San Francisco.

Renshaw found that out when she was delivering pies to Safeway two years ago. As she was unloading the baked goods, she overheard a man say, “it’s probably just another general ruse by General Foods. There’s not really a mom.” As Renshaw recalls it, she went up to the man and said, “No you’re wrong, I’m the mom. My husband and I really do this.”

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Disbelieving,the man went away. Perhaps it was the way Renshaw looks -- tall, slender and more often than not clad in blue jeans. “People expect a plump 50-year-old woman with a smile on her face.” But the man returned a few minutes later. “ ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ he said. He went back in and bought a pie.”

If the name “mother” works, how much better could “grandmother” be? That’s what Rhonda Oh will find out as she steps up her sales of “Nana’s Shortbread.”

A cardiology nurse, Oh began selling her shortbread -- made according to her Scottish grandmother’s recipe -- last Christmas after her friends urged her to go into business. Initially sales were to corporations and professionals for use as gifts to clients and colleagues during the holidays. Now, the New Zealand-born Oh is starting to sell the melt-in-your-mouth buttery biscuits in local stores, including Sutton Place Gourmet and Bradley Food & Beverage.

The name of the product was a given from the day she went into business, Oh says. “It was my grandmother’s recipe and all my life I have always called it Nana’s shortbread. I just didn’t feel I could change the name.”

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Successful or not, the 35-year-old Oh will nonetheless soon find out the true meaning of motherhood. She is expecting her first baby.


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