MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — A downtown Milledgeville staple and institution is looking to pass its legacy on to new owners.
The owners of South Wayne Street’s Ryals’ Bakery, husband and wife Jacob and Maggie Ryals, along with their son Kenneth, announced recently that the business is up for sale after having been in the family for more than 45 years.
In speaking with The Union-Recorder Friday morning, chief baker and decorator Kenneth Ryals cited time as a major reason for electing to sell the business. Time, because a lot of it has been poured into the bakery over the years by way of 15-hour workdays, and time, because Kenneth still has his health and is able to help the next owners transition into the business.
Lovers of the smiley face cookie and other famous Ryals’ treats need not fret, though, as whoever ends up purchasing the business will have access to a hands-on tutorial in addition to all the recipes and ingredients that have made the bakery famous all these years.
“I’m available to help and train, but I'm not going to run the place for someone else,” Kenneth said. “But in my heart, I really want to keep these products. Anyone who comes in knows what we’ve been selling all these years. I couldn’t think of a reason why they wouldn’t want to keep the same products and then enhance it with whatever they’re able to do.”
Since announcing the intent to sell, Kenneth said he has been busy correcting the misinformation going around that the business will soon close its doors. He assures that is not the case, as he is only putting together an exit plan, but in the meantime, Ryals’ Bakery will continue serving its faithful customers on a daily basis.
“I’m not in a hurry,” Ryals said. “I have my health. The only problem I have right now is the holidays are so overwhelming. There’s more than we can actually do. My biggest problem is I don’t have a backup. If I get the flu, we’re down for three or four days or a week. That’s just the reality right now.”
Ryals added that opportunities to grow the business are there for potential buyers as the bakery currently does not have the time to make specialty cakes or ship out orders due to overwhelming demand. Taking all of that on would require more than one Kenneth, a self-proclaimed perfectionist who has his hand in everything the business currently takes on. He estimates the bakery is operating at 70 to 75 percent of its possible potential.
Jacob Ryals, Kenneth’s father, learned the ropes from the downtown bakery’s previous owner, whose last name was Kirkpatrick, before taking the business over in 1973. He operated the back of the house while his wife Maggie ran the front despite having no experience working in a bakery herself. Both Jacob and Maggie Ryals are still active in the business, though in a limited role from what they had been doing in the past. Kenneth hopes that the bakery will continue being a family affair whenever the next owner takes the reins.
“I’m thinking it would be ideal for a family that could bring in their children to help work, or at the very least a husband and wife team,” he said. “They could both learn the back and maybe one of them could run the front like my momma did. I would think a situation like that would be ideal. Somebody can’t come in and buy this place for an investment and have somebody running it for them. That would be on them, but I wouldn’t advise it. I would like somebody that has the passion that we’ve had all these years to put a quality product out and take good care of our great customers that we’ve established.”
Ryals said he has received interest from “five or six” different parties since putting the business on the market, though only one has bakery experience while the others are looking to break in. Those looking to buy have the option of leasing the space owned by the Ryals family for $425,000 with the first chance to purchase in the future or buying the business and the building outright for $625,000. Ryals said he’s “leery” of leaving his family’s name on the business for the next owner, but would be willing to contract the right to keep it Ryals’ Bakery to help the transition.
Though he feels it is the right time to get out, Kenneth admitted that once the sale is final he will likely have mixed emotions.
“I’ll probably let out a sigh of relief once everything is taken care of, but after you do something this long and you’re proud of it — I'm Cookie Man for a whole lot of people in Milledgeville — but it’s just the situation and the reality. Everybody thinks this is going to go on forever, but I'm not going to be here forever. I’m the last of the bakery working Ryalses.”
To have a business stay in the same family and in the same place for 45 years is certainly a rarity these days. Kenneth said the secret to success in business, like in baking, is simply having all the right ingredients.
“My parents started at a young age where they could work,” he said. “Other than just getting old, their health is fine. Years ago, we used to have a whole team of older ladies come from Hancock County and help us. Daddy was blessed with really good workers back then. Everybody understood what was supposed to be done, and we always had really good help up front. I tell the girls up front that they’re the first thing that people see when they come through the doors of Ryals’ Bakery. Everything just seemed to work out. I don’t know if the bakery business was in our blood, but it’s been a good business and it’s really taken care of mine and my parent's families for years.”