Last month I wrote about Stephen Ashburn of Murfreesboro and his dreams for Alley Cat Tea, a family-handed-down recipe that is apparently destined for greater things.
Stephen recently had the University of Tennessee Food Science Department conduct tests to see how the product would respond during major manufacturing processes. Here to date, most production of Alley Cat Tea was perfected within the confines of Stephen’s home – one he shares with his mother, Lynn Rooker.
UT scientists proved that the integrity of the tea holds together when placed in a manufacturing environment – a confirmation for Stephen. What lies ahead? One thing for sure, Stephen is even more determined to introduce his tea to the marketplace through bottling and distribution.
He knows that the task will not be easy. But if everything in life was easy, everyone would probably be doing the same thing.
Stephen, 44, has experienced several challenges in his life – more than just the challenge of manufacturing and marketing his Alley Cat Tea. He characterizes his life as “The Pretzel Promise.”
He says, “Being an only child in a home divided by divorce, my mom was the true leader in the family. Her Christian faith and support have been constant. “I must say that I have been blessed with the most beautiful, loving, compassionate mother, and also my grandmother, Ione Calhoun. Am I prejudiced? Believe it!
“My first brush with death occurred at the age of 14 when I was a freshman in high school. While running and playing as kids do, my friend slammed a door in my path with the plate glass dissecting my arms like a frog in a science lab.”
Stephen admits that his life took a turn that was not consistent with the way he had been taught by his mother. He explains, “College life opened the door to a downward spiral, including alcohol abuse.”
Concerning his college days and carefree living, he remembers, “One day while driving at a high rate of speed in a fast car, I lost control nearly killing myself and my best friend, barely missing oncoming traffic at a speed of over 100 miles per hour. I didn’t walk away. I limped, broken knee and all."
After earning a Bachelor’s Degree from MTSU, but continuing in his spiraling lifestyle, he almost met mortality. It was Oct. 19, 1996.
“I had a Honda F-3 600, the smallest of the fast bikes which was an experience of flying without leaving the ground — better than any drug," he said. 'It allowed me at times to reach a speed of 160 miles per hour – pure ecstasy.
“On this particular day, however, I was riding at a normal speed. Ahead was a sign indicating a curve and at the same moment I observed a vehicle approaching the highway from a side road. I saw the driver looking in my direction, but she didn’t stop. I had the right-of-way.
“The women in her Ford Bronco keep coming at me. While slamming the brakes on the bike, I still hit the front of her vehicle sending me through the air for about 20 feet. Twisted like a pretzel, I couldn’t move.”
Stephen was airlifted to Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga. Not only was his shoulder broken, but the worst injury was with his right leg.
After several agonizing surgeries and more than 15 blood transfusions, it became obvious that his leg would have to be amputated.
Time passed during rehabilitation and a new chapter was begun. He says, “I always enjoyed cooking even at an early age. With the aid of Mom’s 'Southern Living' cookbooks, I gained the confidence to pursue my dream for Ashburn’s Alley Café in Smithville, my mother’s hometown.
Readers will remember from last month’s article that the restaurant was struck by lighting and was rendered a loss. What is ahead for his unique Alley Cat Tea?
“I’m not going to say that I’m a better person because of my trials," he said. " I can say that I will be able to do all things through Christ who strengthens me. A personal relationship with Jesus, being blessed with great genes from my mother and my grandmother are why I will persevere.”