How Tonya Council Started a Southern Food Empire

The granddaughter of Mama Dip has made a name for herself beyond her famous family but continues to carry the Council name with pride.

Brent Clark Photography
Photo by Brent Clark Photography
Photo by Brent Clark Photography

When Tonya Council was growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she went to her grandmother’s restaurant every day after school. Her grandmother, Mildred Council a.k.a. Mama Dip was Southern food royalty and the owner of the restaurant Mama Dip’s. But to Tonya, she was just Grandma.

“We never really thought of her as famous or anything, but we saw how other people perceived her, because she was always giving back,” says Tonya. And, she was lucky enough to learn how to cook from her.

“I always watched everything my grandmother did: baking pies and biscuits, making chicken and dumplings. I used to just sit by her side, and I was always in awe of all the stuff that she could do without using a recipe,” says Tonya. “She would bring us back, me and my cousins, and she would have us help her, like anything from grate cheese to helping put stuff together for different casseroles to washing dishes—we learned everything from the front of the house to the back of the house.”

It turned out to be good training. According to Tonya, cooking food was always in her blood, and she never considered a career in anything else. But she insists it was her own decision.

“We weren’t pressured to stay in the restaurant or anything like that. We were more so told to follow your own dreams. Once I came up with my cookie recipe—I thought about making a pecan crust cookie that tastes like her pecan pie, which is famous—it was my grandmother that told me, ‘You know, I think you got something, you may want to start doing your homework and how to get your cookie out there.’ She pushed me to start my own line of cookies.”

In fact, Tonya was about to throw out her latest batch of funny-looking cookies after trying for months to capture the essence of Mama Dip’s beloved pecan pie in cookie form, when her grandmother stopped her. She tasted one, and said that was it.

“It’s my grandmother’s kitchen, and she’s gonna have to give you the seal of approval before she lets you put anything in the pastry case,” says Tonya. “She told me to put them in there and test them with the customers and they sold out in an hour.”  

Once her cookies (which she also makes in oatmeal and chocolate chip flavors) started selling out at Mama Dip’s, customers told her she should sell them in stores. After a local grocery store agreed to sell them, she began creating more flavors and got into more stores. She ended up taking over a kitchen space across the street from Mama Dip’s where she could bake her cookies.

Tonya never felt like she was in her grandmother’s shadow though. “What she accomplished was so great that I just wanted to keep it going—with my own spin on it. I’m showing people what I was taught growing up.”

Mildred had eight children, and five of them worked in the restaurant, and countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom work in the restaurant or food business. But even the ones who don’t are entrepreneurs, and many of them, like Tonya, own their own businesses. 

“I always tell people I went to Mama Dip’s University,” says Tonya, who left university after one semester because she was homesick. “I called my grandmother and I was like, I’m just miserable, I don’t know what it is. And it dawned on me that I just wanted to be at home, I just wanted to be around my family. I wanted to cook, I wanted to be in the restaurant. I missed all of that, because we’ve always all been together. And so she just told me to come home and help in the restaurant. And so that’s what I did until I branched off on my own.”

When she started her cookie business, Tonya faced some challenges in getting her cookies into some of the larger chain stores, not to mention then she’d have competition from bigger brands. “I thought it'd be kind of cool to have local products featured in a mall setting,” says Tonya. So she pitched her store idea to Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh and Sweet Tea & Cornbread was born, selling North Carolina and Southern-made food and gift products. 

The shop sells Tonya’s cookies, pies, and other baked goods of course, as well as things like locally made Videri chocolate bars, Vivian Howard’s Blueberry BBQ Sauce, Valleybrook Farms Scuppernog Jelly, and the Peanut Trading Co.’s Southern Fried Peanuts. Once word got around, people starting sending product samples, so she and her staff began tasting and testing them to decide what to carry. Still, she tries to carry as many makers’ products as possible, frequently rotating the lineup.

“I want to give everybody a chance because I know how hard it is to get products into stores,” she says. This need to help her community has been ingrained in Tonya since she was a child.

“It goes back to my growing up by my grandmother. She always gave back. She had one charity that she started on her 80th birthday called the Pumpkin Seed Foundation,” says Tonya. “She gives back to kids that are trying to go to school, whether they need money for textbooks, or stuff like that. So giving back is what we were always taught—don’t make it about yourself. Once you help the community grow, it helps you to grow as well.”

In 2019, Tonya was at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh for a speaking engagement with her mother during Black History Month. On their way out, they walked by what looked like a closed café. Tonya asked the receptionist why it was closed and she told her the owners had decided to retire. Even though she had never thought of opening her own restaurant, she went home and left a message for the director of the museum asking if she could open a Sweet Tea & Cornbread cafe there. He called her back in an hour to set up a meeting, thrilled at the possibility of having Mama Dip’s granddaughter run a restaurant in the museum

“A lot of doors opened for me because of the sweat that my grandmother put in,” Tonya says. Her parents, aunts, and uncles helped her with the equipment and menu, and she took on her third business. The menu features a lot of Southern classics and some of her grandmother’s recipes after customers started requesting things like Mama Dip’s chicken and dumplings. 

While the café has remained closed during the pandemic, Tonya came up with Porch Drops, delivering classic Southern staples to people’s homes.

In case it’s not clear, Tonya is not one to rest on her laurels. “I’ve always thrived on chaos,” she admits. So when the woman who owned and ran the North Carolina-themed gift box company NC Made decided to quit during the pandemic, she asked Tonya (whom she knew because she bought her cookies) if she wanted to buy the business. Tonya said yes, acquiring what’s now her fifth food-related business.

Because of her schedule these days, Tonya’s not too involved in the original Mama Dip’s but her mother and aunts and uncles who run it know they can call her anytime they need help, like during the recent large catering order they got for Amazon.

“We were always taught to support the family and always be there when we needed each other,” says Tonya. “I tell people, I want to see the restaurant live just as long as the old well does on UNC campus. I’ll always be a part of the restaurant.”

Devorah Lev-Tov is a Thrillist contributor.