Cheese please! Becca Wright turns a beloved family recipe into a burgeoning gourmet snack brand.
by Cathy Martin | photographs by Amy Kolo
Running a commercial bakery was far from Becca Wright’s mind when she enrolled in the MBA program at UNC Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in 2019.
But the idea for Piedmont Pennies had been baking since 2016, when the Burlington native drew up an unofficial business plan after sharing the crunchy, cheesy snacks — based on a cherished family recipe — as holiday gifts while working at Deloitte Consulting in Washington, D.C.
“I made Pennies in my Dupont Circle row house for my clients,” Wright says. Impressed, they asked, “Where did you get these? Did you buy them at Whole Foods?” Wright recalls.
Soon after, the Carolina grad returned to Chapel Hill to pursue her MBA, with concentrations in entrepreneurship and venture capital. When Covid derailed plans for an in-person internship at Facebook (now Meta) in Menlo Park, Calif., the idea of turning Piedmont Pennies into a bona fide business returned.
“I had so much free time at home, and I was working on the Instagram [account for Piedmont Pennies] behind the scenes,” Wright says. After completing her virtual internship for the social-media behemoth and mulling a full-time job offer, she quietly launched the brand online in September 2020, renting a commercial kitchen in Chapel Hill.
With the holiday season approaching, the business exploded. “I had my MBA friends in there hand-pinching Pennies from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. People were shipping them as gifts, because no one was buying stuff in person,” says Wright, who then faced a difficult career choice.
With momentum for the brand building, she declined the Facebook offer and decided to make Piedmont Pennies her full-time occupation. “I thought, I just really want to try this. If I’m going to do it, it’s going to be now,” she says. She moved to the Queen City in December 2020 with her husband, Coble, a Charlotte native.
Cheese straws, or pennies, are a holiday staple in many Southern households. Wright’s gourmet version is based on her late grandmother’s recipe, tweaked by her father after her “Grandbetty,” who lived in Rocky Mount, developed arthritis and could no longer “pinch” pennies. The flour is milled by Lindley Mills in Alamance County, where Wright grew up, and the cartons are made in Charlotte.
A $50,000 grant from NC IDEA, a private foundation that assists entrepreneurs, in fall 2021 helped propel the brand further. Today, Piedmont Pennies has five employees, and its products can be found in about 300 stores in 25 states. Priced at $15 for a 12-ounce carton, the snacks are better suited for entertaining and gifting than everyday snacking. They are also popular as wedding favors and corporate gifts, and customized packaging is available.
Trusting others with her beloved family recipe has been one of the biggest challenges, Wright says. Being patient while the business grows is another. While Wright spends plenty of time darting around trade shows and promoting the brand (she was on Good Morning America last September), you’re just as likely to find her in Piedmont Pennies’ west Charlotte kitchen. “I’ll go in and put on an apron and help package,” Wright says. “But that keeps you humble and close to the product.”
Pennies are available in two varieties, the Original with a mildly spicy “Carolina kick” and a more fiery Spicy Chipotle. New products and flavors are in the works, says Wright, who’s always plotting the next step. She attributes her work ethic to her family — her mom and dad, a retired radiologist, have supported her from the start, helping fill orders and make deliveries during busy surges. “I think there’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in my family, and a lot of grit, creativity, optimism — all the things that help you, at least in the first couple years of starting a company,” Wright says. “Humble, but hungry.” SP
Piedmont Pennies snacks are sold in more than a dozen local shops, including Reid’s Fine Foods, Paper Skyscraper, The Buttercup, Common Market and Swoozie’s. Order online at piedmontpennies.com.
Lead image: Becca Wright’s Piedmont Pennies are sold online and at Reid’s Fine Foods, shown here, and other specialty shops