For Sheila and Peter Rix, the longtime owners of Mount Pleasant’s Olde Colony Bakery, a career spanning 31 years has recently come to a close. After decades at the Olde Colony helm, the couple announced their retirement in October. Local business partners — and self-proclaimed devotees of the bakery — Ben Gramling and Mikell Harper took over ownership of the Lowcountry institution.
The venture represents an independent project, the new owners said, and it’s not their first foray into the food and beverage space. Also owners of Water’s Edge restaurant on Shem Creek, Gramling and Harper view the acquisition as another meaningful investment, and a rare chance to sustain a local legacy.
The Rix family vision
At the bakery, business was always a family affair. “I was 11 when we took over,” said Phil Rix, son of the former owners. “It was slightly by accident, and slightly my dad’s good business sense.”
At the urging of a family member in 1990, Peter traveled from Pittsburgh to Charleston to explore possible business opportunities. He first encountered the Olde Colony Bakery’s benne wafer — a crisp, sesame-studded staple of the Lowcountry. While savory iterations are also common, the bakery claimed the oldest known recipe for the sweet wafer, dating back more than 100 years. To Peter’s delight, the bakery was for sale.
“He bought the bakery for the benne wafers, essentially,” Phil said. At the time, his father already boasted a robust food and beverage background, formerly heading up the dining programs at Harvard University and the University of Pittsburgh. By 1990, Olde Colony, which had changed hands several times since its opening in the late 1940s (the Rix family is unsure of the exact date), was struggling.
“Our vision was to change it from a traditional mom-and-pop shop to more of a factory operation,” Phil said. Meanwhile, Charleston was growing rapidly with transplants and travelers flooding in by the year.
“As the city got more popular, so did the benne wafer,” Phil added. “Consequently, so did we.”
Olde Colony linked to benne wafers
It wasn’t long before the reinvigorated Olde Colony became synonymous with the product. The thin, coin-like wafers, packaged with the bakery’s signature gold label, could be found across the region and beyond, including on grocery store shelves, such as Harris Teeter and Publix.
The Rix family had all hands on deck in the bakery’s former downtown Charleston location.
“I’ve done everything from scrubbing dishes, replacing toilets and mopping floors to developing recipes,” Phil said. “That’s how it goes in a family business — at the end of the day, it’s all up to you.
“My dad is a fantastic cook, so I learned a lot from him, as well as the professional folks who were in the kitchen when we bought the bakery,” Phil said. “Sometimes it was like having 20 parents. Eartha Keith, who decorated our cakes, must have worked at the bakery for 40 years. She was like my mom when my mom was busy in the store.”
Through it all, the bakery’s simple benne wafer recipe has remained unchanged.
Looking for new owners
For the Rix family, preserving the wafer’s integrity — and the bakery’s enduring spirit — has always been paramount. The value held true when, earlier this year, the family decided it was time to sell the beloved business.
Despite interest in expanding to North Carolina and Georgia, the family was adamant that the business remain headquartered in the Lowcountry.
“It seemed silly for a Charleston cookie to be made anywhere else,” Phil said. Earlier this year, an offer arrived from Gramling and Harper, partners in Gramling Brothers Real Estate and Development, a multigenerational Charleston firm.
Drawn to the bakery’s success, the duo had a personal angle, too. Avid patrons Harper and his wife had family members who had visited the bakery during its early days at its former King Street location (it’s now located off of Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant).
“When our family bought it, the goal was to get it back to its glory days,” Phil said. “We took that seriously, and so do they. They want to keep the tradition alive.”
The sale, which closed in August, seemed a perfect fit, Harper said. “We’ve been customers for a long time — we’ve personally consumed a lot of their profits,” he laughed.
Intent on continuing the Olde Colony legacy, the new owners said they plan to stay the course, while continuing to thoughtfully grow the brand’s national presence.
“The bakery is very closely associated with Charleston, and folks around here know it well. We don’t intend to change much,” Harper said. “Our goal would be to carefully grow and expand, but we plan to keep the team in place, and be very deliberate in what we’re doing.”
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