In 2008, the General Assembly passed a bill that decreed the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD) “shall have a Georgia Made program.” And then everyone promptly forgot about it.
The country was in the midst of a deep recession that year, and then there was a change in state administrations. For one reason or another, the law remained dormant for nearly a decade.
“A former chief operating officer for our department happened upon it by accident in 2016 or 2017, and said, ‘Are we doing anything about this?’” says Lindsay Martin, who now oversees the program. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘No, we don’t know what this is or what it’s about.’”
Martin and his team began to set up parameters for the program, hammered out an application and agreement, and created a logo. Then the pandemic hit. Once again, the Georgia Made program was put aside as the state focused on economic recovery from the Covid crisis.
Finally, in early 2022, the team was able to focus on Georgia Made and how to get it o! the ground.
The first step was to define what “manufactured in Georgia” meant. The state took a rigid approach. “We don’t certify assemblers who get all their components from other places,” says Martin. “We look for companies that have a supply chain of parts and raw materials coming in on one side of the building and then a product going out on the other side.”
The state also didn’t want to be besieged by people who create arts and crafts in their basements to sell on Etsy or at flea markets. The program requires Georgia Made companies to have a manufacturing facility and be registered corporations with at least two full-time employees.
An applicant must not only describe their manufacturing process but also provide video and photo evidence. “We can’t send a body out to every corner of the state to look at every applicant and every workspace,” says Martin. “We want to know that they are actually taking raw materials and transforming them into products.”
Originally, there was a line of demarcation between food and beverage manufacturing and dry goods. After all, the state already had a designation for food items: the Georgia Grown program operated by the Department of Agriculture.
Martin consulted with his counterpart at the Department of Agriculture on how they handled the process for Georgia Grown. What questions did they ask on the application? How did they manage the program on a day-to-day basis? “When you have nothing and you see somebody who has something, I’m always in favor of doing R&D,” says Martin. “That’s not research and development; it’s rip-o! and do-the-same.”
In the spring of this year, the two state-run departments began to talk about creating synergy between Georgia Made and Georgia Grown because the lines weren’t as cut-and-dried as the state had originally thought. “We’re currently exploring how we can partner with them,” says Martin. “We see a lot of things that are Georgia Grown that would likely qualify for Georgia Made.”
The manufacturer that jump-started the conversation was an ice pop company from Atlanta.
Hail to the King
In 2008, Steven Carse took a job with insurance behemoth AIG. A year later, during the recession, he was laid off.
“I decided if insurance was not a sure thing, then there likely are no sure things when it comes to work,” he says. “I thought I might as well be doing something fun.”
Carse was a big fan of paletas, the Latin American version of the ice pop, and decided he was going to start an ice pop business. First, he had to learn how to make them. “It was a lot of trial and error,” Carse says. “The secret is not that much of a secret. If you take delicious ingredients and you mix them together, more often than not it’s going to be pretty delicious.”
He planned to have a brick-and-mortar store but didn’t have enough money for the remodeling that would be required. So he opened up his King of Pops company with a used ice cream cart as his storefront. “For the first three years, when it was pop season, I worked the same corner at North Avenue and North Highland Avenue every day,” he says. “The cart turned out to be a lucky break because carts allow us to be in so many more places.”
His brother, Nick Carse, was a Gwinnett County prosecutor who helped in the ice pop business at night and on weekends. During the first year, Nick left the D.A.’s office to become King of Pops’ second full-time employee. His primary responsibility was doing remote work—taking a cart to farmers markets, catering events, festivals, and other special events.
“From an outside perspective, it definitely took off and grew,” says Steven Carse. “Internally, every winter for the first five years we were terrified that when we came back out in the spring, people would have moved on to the next big trend. I think we’re out of the trend status now. We’re just a part of the fabric of the community in Georgia, which is really cool.”
The scariest time for King of Pops came during the pandemic. The company depends on large gatherings of people for a sizable portion of its customer base. The Atlanta Braves played but with no people in the stands. Universities canceled classes. There were no weddings, festivals, or graduation parties. “Like a lot of companies, things fell off a cliff sales-wise,” says Carse. “Covid was really scary. We were a couple of wrong decisions away from not being able to do this.”
But out of that came one smart decision and a new direction for King of Pops. Before the pandemic, the company had always managed all its carts in-house and had about 350 employees. People would often call and ask if they could take a cart to a small event. Carse had always said no. “But we were kind of desperate, so we started saying yes and let them take a cart to small community gatherings during the pandemic,” he says. “That was the beginning of what has become a very successful franchise
program that we call the Cart-preneur program.”
Today, King of Pops is headquartered in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. In addition to its trademark carts, it sells ice pops in eight states and on the shelves of Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and other stores. They have ice pop “bars” that sell “pop-tails” with alcohol in addition to King of Pops staples at Ponce City Market and Colony Square.
The brothers formed a distribution company—Perfect 10 Foods—to ship their products and other Georgia-made food goods across the South. “The mission with Perfect 10 is to support and help food entrepreneurs in the South get their products in front of people,” says Steven. “We want to help out new brands that we are just a few years ahead of.”
Being certified in the Georgia Made program is especially meaningful for the King of Pops cofounder. “We’re very interested in growing in the South, in our community, rather than trying to go national,” says Steven. “Putting the state you’re from on the label and being proud of where you’re from is a big part of our brand story.”
With Covid finally in the rearview mirror, the state did a soft launch of Georgia Made last year and brought in some obvious major companies, including Bridgestone Golf, Kia, and YKK (the zipper manufacturer). Products that carry the Georgia Made logo are certified by the GDEcD to be manufactured here.
Over the past six months, the state has started to put real energy into the program. About 40 companies are now either certified or in the application process. Martin says there are nearly 12,000 manufacturers in Georgia that employ 400,000 people. And the average weekly wage is $1,200 a week. One intent of Georgia Made is to amplify the benefits of being in the manufacturing industry.
Another important component is to celebrate smaller manufacturing companies. “If I mentioned some of their names, you would not know them,” Martin says. “But they are providing jobs for us.”
One of those small companies is Savannah’s Benedetto Guitars. The company employs 10 people and made just 88 guitars last year. But Benedetto models start at $5,400 and rise to as much as $40,000. Benedetto was named one of GDEcD’s Small Business Rock Star companies for 2023.
“I’ve often had the opportunity to see products being made from one end of the state to the other,” Martin says. “My background is in architecture and engineering. I love anything being built. But seeing Benedetto Guitars being made by hand, station to station, that blew me away.”
The company let Martin hold a guitar made in 1988 by the company’s founder, Robert Benedetto, that was valued at $50,000. “I held it for about two seconds,” Martin says with a pause, followed by a laugh. “And then I put it back.”
Hitting the Right Notes
Benedetto is considered by many guitarists to be the finest jazz guitar in the world, with a trademark rich yet delicate sound that is instantly recognizable. The company was founded in New Jersey in 1968 by Robert Benedetto. In the beginning, Benedetto hand-built every
guitar his company sold. Within 10 years, many of the great jazz guitarists were playing his instruments and he had a five-year waiting list.
In 1999, Benedetto entered into a licensing agreement with Fender, the world’s largest guitar manufacturer: Fender would build Benedetto Guitars under its oversight. The ill-fated intent was to enable the company to produce more guitars and get them into music shops across the country. Benedetto eventually soured on the deal—he wasn’t a corporate guy and Fender’s luthiers (makers of stringed musical instruments) weren’t always receptive to his supervision and exacting standards. In 2006, Benedetto ended the relationship with Fender, determined to reestablish his guitar brand on his own terms.
Howard Paul, the company’s president and CEO, was a Benedetto Artist (the company’s formal designation for a performing artist who has released an album) before he became the founder’s business partner. For years, Paul led a double life: with a day job as an Army officer and later as a business executive with Chatham Steel, while also performing 150 nights a year as a well-respected jazz guitarist.
Paul’s two worlds merged when Benedetto convinced him he would be the perfect president and CEO for the guitar company: He was not only an experienced businessman, but also a musician who understood and would never betray Benedetto’s obsession with high standards.
Benedetto was looking to establish a work facility and showroom in the South where he could train a small staff of guitar builders. Paul pushed him to consider Savannah,
but Nashville was Benedetto’s first choice because the capital of country music had already-made supply of luthiers experienced in making guitars.
“My argument was people would come from anywhere to build guitars under his tutelage,” says Paul. “After he visited Savannah and saw the allure of a small town like this, he realized we could pull it off here.” The company moved in 2006.
This year, Benedetto Guitars became part of the Georgia Made program. “We’re very honored,” says Paul. “We know we’re small and unique, and our marketplace is very niche. But we are delighted that the state of Georgia makes such a big deal out of a small company. And we want to promote the state as much as they promote us.”
Robert Benedetto is 76 and retired several years ago, though he still keeps his hand in the company and trained the new master luthier who now oversees production. He is at work on a new line of instruments that will be called the Founder’s Series. “These will probably be some of the last guitars Bob has his hands on,” says Paul. “He’s very proud that his company continues on. That is his goal, to have his guitars outlive him.”
Like Steven Carse and King of Pops, Benedetto Guitars has no aspirations to grow beyond its means. It builds instruments unlike any other guitar company. Many of their guitars now have a 10- to 12-month wait from the time they’re ordered. There are no factory seconds; if a flaw turns up during the production process, the guitar is either reworked or destroyed. The guitars are not available in retail stores, only through the company’s website. “It’s a very stressful business model,” says Paul. “Cash flow is entirely dependent on what you can deliver, not what you can sell.”
Benedetto will likely never be a major player in the retail guitar market. And that’s okay. “We’re doing something to preserve a tradition,” says Paul. “We know who we are. We’ve worked really hard to be in the footprint that we’re in. If we’re lucky, we can make a little more money and share it with the employees who work here. That’s the goal.”
That kind of pride in product and place is the footprint of the Georgia Made program. The state hopes to have conferences and networking opportunities in the future. It will feature companies on its Georgia Made website. But the chief benefit for companies is being able to tell the world where they are from.
“That’s pride: we’re hardworking Georgians. We’re proud of the things we build here,” says Martin. That’s music to the state’s ears.