The Breadwinners

There’s more to a good slice of bread than you might think. It’s not only got to be nutritious and fresh but the right balance of firm and fluffy, says Mark Edmond, “so if you are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the peanuts in it, it’s not going to break through.”

Those were just some of the challenges he faced in founding what is believed to be the world’s first Black-owned gourmet sliced bread company. With two friends he set out to secure a foothold in the huge staple food market—some 9 million large loaves are consumed every day.

The simply named Black Bread Co. has proved wildly successful in just a couple of years, earning an enthusiastic consumer base and winning shelf space in the bread aisles of some of the nation’s largest grocery chains (including Target next year). The story of how three friends from the South Side of Chicago with no prior experience set out to disrupt a long-established industry—and during an economic slowdown at that—is both inspirational and instructional.

The business isn’t just about making money; it’s also about making a difference, because Black Bread Co. was born out of frustration. When now-chief executive officer Edmond’s wife sent him to the grocery store during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, following George Floyd’s killing, he was determined to buy everything on the list from Black-owned businesses as a gesture of solidarity. “It was really my personal protest.”

He spent 45 minutes in the bread aisle, trying to find a bread company he felt he could support. “I’m looking for an excuse,” he remembers. “Is there a Black executive, somebody that’s making some decisions? Give me some reason to support this bread. And I could not find any… we didn’t have any participation at all.”

Amped up, he called a longtime friend, Jamel Lewis (now company president), out in the parking lot to vent. “It was a call to action,” Edmond remembers, “like, ‘Yo, this is a problem.’” They then looped in a third friend, Charles Alexander (chief operations officer), and the seeds of the new business were planted.

It’s just our duty right now to put forth the effort and operate in the most excellent way that we can.

A focused plan
Creating a business plan in 2020, the trio spent the next year doing their due diligence. Though they had a sense of mission, they knew that their passion had to be twinned with professionalism, so they didn’t start experimenting in their own kitchens.

“I knew for a fact we didn’t know how to make bread,” says Edmond. “We weren’t even going to try. We know what we know and we know what we don’t know and we are resourceful, so the first thing we did was find a few different chefs and ask for help.” They ended up sampling lots of different kinds of bread, looking not just for quality but for bread that was “as clean as possible for our community.”

The first Black Bread Co. premium white and honey wheat loaves (taglined “Bold. Fresh.”) finally rolled out in February 2021; today they are available in stores within 24 to 48 hours of being baked. Online shoppers can buy a two-pack of the 20-ounce loaves for $9.98.

The partners pooled their skills. A serial entrepreneur, Edmond first dabbled in the food industry in his early 20s, when he ran a gourmet popcorn company with his younger brother. Later he worked as a construction superintendent and owned his own company.

Lewis had a background in music, a singer-songwriter who got into marketing to promote his work. When Edmond first called him after his grocery store epiphany, “I knew in my mind, by him calling me saying that something didn’t exist and he was going to create it, that it was going to happen. So instantly my mind just went into action: what can I do to serve this brand to make sure that the mission is fulfilled and that it’s done in excellence?”

While they had a big dream, they weren’t being too ambitious. “We did not want to change what the consumer is buying,” Edmond explained. “We wanted to change just who they were spending their money with, right? What company they were supporting.” At the same time, they didn’t want to “niche ourselves out,” as Edmond puts it.

“We had limited funds, limited knowledge of the industry, and we didn’t want to put too many eggs in too many baskets. So, we just focused on two staple types of bread.”

Hamburger and hot dog buns have followed, and having secured a solid footing in the bread aisle, Black Bread Co. is looking for more shelf space. Coming soon are bagels and English muffins, plus some jams and mustards. Also in development is a signature biscuit, but this isn’t something to be hurried.

“They have got to be right,” acknowledges Edmond. “One thing we cannot do with our culture is play with it. We can’t call ourselves the Black Bread Co. and just put anything out. When you bite that biscuit, you have to feel like your grandmama made it with love in her heart. And until we can get that, where we can be consistent with it, we are not dropping a biscuit.”

You can always be a waymaker for someone, no matter what you have or don’t have.

A helping hand
Taking on an established industry with zero background is a daunting enough prospect in the best of times, much less during a pandemic when businesses and factories were shut down and “no one was really taking meetings at all,” Lewis says. “Just through perseverance and taking action and making call after call after call, Mark found us a manufacturer that was willing to actually meet with us and put their hands to work toward the recipe that we had designed in our minds and the things that we had chased, and all those things began to come together.”

Looking back, Edmond sees that the timing of the launch could not have been better: Two social media livestreams announcing the birth of Black Bread Co. drew large audiences because people were in lockdown with nothing else to do. That buzz led to an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where the founders received $20,000 from Shutterfly to help the business get going.

Black Bread Co.’s efforts continue to be rewarded by people who like the taste and love the vision. The company was recently evaluated at around $50 million—not bad for a still-young startup that at one stage had just $1.87 in its business account. Its mission has captured people’s imaginations, though; the company raised $1 million after offering a total 10% ownership stake to the community. There’s currently a waiting list of a couple of hundred would-be investors.

“The demand for our community is there,” says Edmond. “Our people are ready to be a part of an amazing Black company. And so it’s just our duty right now to just be good stewards of the money, to put forth the effort and continue to make this company sustainable and operate in the most excellent way that we can.”

The trio know that their success is not just due to their efforts but others’ support, so they are keen to lend a helping hand. Lewis encourages everyone to “consider that there is somebody that we are further along the way [than] that may be looking to us . You can always be a waymaker for someone, no matter what you have or don’t have, or where you think you are.”

The ingredients for success

Black Bread Co. leaders Mark Edmond and Jamel Lewis offer six fundamentals for anyone wanting to start their own business.

BELIEVE. “In yourself, in what you know,” says Edmond. “Know that anything is possible. Have faith and believe.”

PREPARE. “Don’t skip the business plan,” says Lewis. “Write one out. Take your time, get professional help with it. Set it out and then execute, execute, execute.”

PROTECT. “Be extremely cautious and careful who you tell your dreams to,” says Lewis. “There’s a lot of people that are afraid and they don’t see your vision. Protect your dreams.”

HUSTLE. “Do the work,” says Edmond. “Show up every day and do the work. If it’s your business, it is not a 9-to-5. It is not something that you pick up and put down; it’s 24/7.”

STRETCH. “Don’t be afraid to compete,” says Lewis. “The bread industry is one of the most saturated industries in the market, period, but yet we have had a lot of success.”

PERSEVERE. “Be consistent and trust the process,” says Edmond. “It will come to pass.”

From an interview with Louis Carr