A Gem of a Cookbook

Store owner Brian Alter has sold nearly 1,000 copies of his cookbook that has recipes ranging from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to venison cassoulet. 

The kitchen at Alter’s Gem Jewelry is more than just a room where lunches are stored in the refrigerator and warmed up in the microwave. It’s a place where people who have worked together for a number of years come to together to cook for each other with time-tested, homespun recipes.

With such a family dining approach to the midday meal at work, the progression from kitchen table talk about recipes to one day producing a cookbook was a natural one. And, in the fall of 2007, the 11-month effort to source the 270-plus recipes and the stories behind the foods gave purpose and meaning to lunch time at the Beaumont, TX, jewelry store for Brian Alter and his staff.  

Gems to Enjoy
Brian Alter’s Gems to Enjoy.

But the goal of the book wasn’t just assembling recipes for the sake of producing a book. Profits from “Gems to Enjoy” are earmarked for the Red Cross’s Disaster Relief Fund.

When Alter started the effort he first sourced recipes from people closest to him, including family, staff members, friends and, “anyone who wanted to help [with disaster relief efforts],” says Alter. “That included the local bachelor who can’t cook but who submitted the peanut butter and jelly sandwich recipe. It may be in the back of the book, but it’s in there.” 

PB & J, the classic combination.
PB & J, the classic combination.

But Alter needed more recipes. Over 5,000 mail notices were sent out with 270 people submitting recipes from appetizers to desserts. To give the book some notoriety, Alter even sent word of the proposed first edition to politicians, rock stars within the trade and celebs outside the gem and jewelry industry. “Getting the actual letter in front of politicians and celebrities was the hard part,” says Alter. “My goal was to have at least 10 noteworthy people and celebs in the book.” 

Former President Jimmy Carter.
Former President Jimmy Carter.

For a jeweler from a small Texas town (the population of Beaumont is 110,000 with a market reach of 250,000), Alter was able to lasso (Texas style) some real culinary celebrities. Most notable were former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Barbara Bush. And, of course, Texas Senator Kathryn Ann “Kay” Bailey Hutchison, named one of the thirty most powerful women in America by Ladies Home Journal in 2001.  

A classic Red Cross recruiting poster.
A classic Red Cross recruiting poster.

The community-based appeal of a cookbook to benefit the Red Cross got the attention of a number of well-known people outside the world of politics. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy, actor-turned-producer Rob Reiner, actress Kate Bosworth (best known for her role as Lois Lane in the 2006 movie “Superman Returns”), and noted chef, author and TV personality Mario Batali all have recipes in Alter’s book.

Alter even got some rock stars within the gem and jewelry industry to submit recipes, including Sybil and David Yurman, Penny Preville, Bellarri and Laura Gibson.

When speaking with Alter about his book today, it was discovered that a second edition is in the final stages of editing. With 1,000 books sold from his store, Alter admits that he’s “not even close to breaking even” on the cost to produce the book. Alter realizes that even though the book has “publishing credibility” found online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, he’s proud of the fact that all 1,000 copies sold were from his store.

Sales directly linked to the cookbook are almost impossible to track, but Alter is confident the effort has made a large and an indelible impression on his community. 
“Was this a business success?” Alter asks himself. “Not really [in terms of actual sales]. But the money goes to people who have suffered in natural disasters, and that means a lot to everyone who helped produce this book, and the second edition.”

Alter’s Gem Jewelry at night.
Alter’s Gem Jewelry at night.

Altruism aside, Alter’s innate business sense tells another story of the book. A store effort that tapped into his marketing and promotional budget, Alter wrote the forward of the cookbook and has a picture of his store on the back cover of a coffee table quality book. “This is a cookbook that people keep for many years and use often,” says Alter. “It’s hard to buy that kind of long-term advertising in print.” 

On the topic of print ads, Alter wanted to do something outside the box, and the cookbook seemed like a good alternative to traditional forms of print advertising. When the book was completed, Alter and his staff held a party at their store last December. The event was a book launch party with foods prepared from recipes in the cookbook, a Christmas celebration and a way of thanking those who participated in the production of “Gems to Enjoy.”

Alter was keeping details of the second edition close to the vest. The only details leaked were the second edition would contain 75 more recipes than the first edition and that he’s sticking to his goal of having at least 10 celebrity recipes.

As Alter looks back at the first and now second edition, he says: “It’s been real fun. The book is more than just recipes, it’s the stories about the recipes, foods served and what these dishes mean to the people whose recipes were published.”

Any plans for a third edition? Such ideas are in the most suitable place – the back burner, more specifically, on the stove top of the oven in the kitchen at Alter’s Gem Jewelry.

For those interested in buying “Gems to Enjoy” the cost is $29.95. Copies can be purchased at Alter’s website, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.