Charles Alexander, Mark Edmond, and Jamel Lewis are the founders of The Black Bread Company, the first black-owned gourmet sliced bread company in the world. Best friends for over 20 years, their visions are to inspire others to believe in the power of their own individual contributions to improve the world around them, one great idea at a time and generational success.
TG: How did you start The Black Bread Company?
ME: The Black Bread Company got started right around the George Floyd incident. It made me very conscious of how I was spending my money. I was at the grocery store, and at the top of the grocery list was bread. I went to the bread aisle and spent 30-35 minutes googling to see if there are any African American bread companies or at least if it had a black executive, and I couldn’t find any. Out of frustration, I left the grocery store. I called my friends Charles and Jamel in the parking lot, and from there, The Black Bread Company was born.
TG: What was the driving force to become entrepreneurs?
CA: Being an entrepreneur was based on necessity and the need for representation. I have been in education my entire career. I have never been a full-time entrepreneur until now. The entrepreneurship journey started because of a necessity and representation needed in the bread aisle.
ME: I’m huge on African American ownership. My first passion is real estate and construction. We all know how our communities became how they are from being red-lined, denied loans, access to resources, libraries, hospitals, schools, and proper grocery stores. Ownership in our communities has always been on the decline. Every time we have a prosperous neighborhood, for example, Bronzeville, they usually tear it down. They come through and bulldoze our neighborhoods and harass us. But yet, every other community you go through, you see the impact their business have on their community. They have thriving businesses. Their families can send their kids to school and live off of their own family business. You go in our neighborhood, and every business doesn’t have us as owners. For me, that was huge. Just being able to own something and pass it down to my children and being able to retire my parents has always been a dream of mines.
It’s not just for me, I want it for all of us. It’s important that we own our grocery stores, housing, and businesses. We have so much negativity going on in our community, and it’s because the lack of. Ownership is very important just for us to start the healing process.
JL: Entrepreneurship found me. I like to go against the grain. Entrepreneurship is a safe space for me. I like to be in control of my destiny. I feel like I’m driven creatively to express myself. Growing up, I wanted to be a musician. I come from a musical family. Expression and creativity comes from me, even within our culture. Being able to flourish in the area of music, the arts, and being on stage, has given me so much life and joy. I have been able to make a living off the things I’ve been able to create, such as videos, singing, and performing. Entrepreneurship found me, and I’m grateful. I’ve always been able to find a way to make a way.
TG: What challenges and obstacles did you all face with The Black Bread Company?
CA: We face double stigmas. One, being black men in an industry that has never been for us or created for us. Second, being African American in general. Many of the spaces we’ve been in have been predominately white men. When we go into these rooms, there is already preconceived notions of who we are and what we represent. Every obstacle that comes our way, we tackle it as a team. By the time we leave those rooms, they know that we are serious about our product and what we represent.
ME: For me, its resources. Where are our resources? Who do we ask how to start a bread company? That’s why it’s very important for us to be in this position. It’s not just for us and our personal growth. It’s to help others. We understand that there will probably be other bread companies that will come after us, and we are open to that. Now, they have somebody that they can go to and ask questions. They can reach out to us, and if we are able to help them, we can push them in the right direction for them to succeed.
Like Charles said, every room we went into, we had to prove that we belonged there. One meeting we had, it’s was almost like we had to show them we have clean records. We’ve never been arrested or locked up. We are college graduates. We had to prove our worth in order for them to take us seriously. After that hard conversation, it kind of made us feel incompetent. After we got over that, then the real conversation was able to be had. People started opening up to us and realized that we were serious and belonged in the room. We definitely faced our share of challenges.
Crashing through these ceilings, you don’t realize how hard you have to hit these ceilings to actually break through them. We feel every bruise and get beat up pretty bad, but at the end of the day, we get our point across and we are not taking no for an answer. If you tell me no, you have to have a valid reason why. Otherwise, I can’t accept that because we are the only African American company that should be everywhere.
CA: We have a quality product. We know our bread is good. It’s premium gourmet sliced bread. Everybody that purchased our bread loves it. We don’t have to talk about how good the bread is, the people are. Since we know we have a great product, and the sliced bread industry started in the early 1920s, and it’s 2021, and there is no black representation, saying no doesn’t sit well with us. They have been saying no to someone else. We know we are not the first that tried to do this, but we are the first that got through. Every obstacle that comes our way, we look at it as a challenge and as a way to get better. We are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. Sooner than later, someone will be standing on our shoulders. Our goal is to be the representation overall. Even throughout the challenges, we have to keep pushing because it’s bigger than us, and we realized that from the start.
TG: What has been the highlight of your business?
ME: The response from the people. It’s nothing like when we support us and believe in us. We know people will support us because we are a black-owned business. But we want to change the narrative that black people can have a superior product. Some major corporations have been very supportive. We were on the Ellen Show. Ellen and her team were very supportive, and they really wanted to push us. It’s a lot of businesses and people who are willing to support us, and that has been some of the greatest contributions I’ve seen so far.
CA: The Ellen Show was huge. It was a great experience overall. Over the years, people say black people don’t support each other. The Black Bread Company is a prime example that it’s not true. Everybody is supporting us, but our black brothers and sisters are supporting us big time. That’s the highlight for me. It’s debunking the myth that we, as a community, don’t support black businesses. In general, people support the product they want. They put their money towards what they want and what they believe in. Our people do support each other.
JL: The highlight of our business has been the response from the community. We intended to launch on February 1st. We told our families a few days before that date. One of our family members got a little excited and shared it on social media. We didn’t know, but it literally presented us to the world. We thought we would start in a couple of stores in Chicago, and people would learn about us gradually. Our business went literally through the roof from the beginning as a national brand. So many people from day one were interested in supporting us and even switching over to our bread from various brands that they used in the past. The overwhelming amount of support that we received has been the highlight for me.
TG: How important is it for young black men to see three best friends own a business together?
ME: It’s extremely important. It’s so critical that we give our children a different view outside the entertainment, music, and sports industry. We can do business, be friends and everything can go well. You hear, if you start a business with friends, relationships can go sideways. It’s understanding who you are in business with and allowing them to do the best that they can do at what they are doing. When it comes to the business, Charles, Jamel, and myself, we roll together. We all want the same goals. We understand the path in which we are trying to go. It’s important that the youth see that they can create a business with friends, do great things, change the world, and do things that have not been done before.
CA: It’s important for black men to see three black men who are best friends work together and start a business. It’s equally important for others to see three black men in a positive light.
They need to see this. Because that’s the challenge, that’s the issue. I live by the quote, “It’s hard to be something you never seen before.” If someone lived on a specific block and they don’t see adults leave home with a nice suit on, going to work, I don’t think it’s even possible for them to be a businessman or businesswoman. They just see the negative on their block. When young people see us, and we look, dress and sound like them, they can say “I can start my own business.”
JL: It’s so important to me. We grow up as a young African American male. Typically, we sometimes see and experience negative influences and opportunities that are readily available and even praised by our peers and older influences from our neighborhoods that we have many opportunities to do the wrong thing. I’m honored to be in this position with my brothers doing this business and navigating life together. We are all fathers, husbands, godfathers, and uncles of each other’s children. To have that testimony with my brothers, we hope that people can see and know that we are honorable men and that this is the standard and that should be the norm and displayed.
ME: It’s important to understand that you don’t need to have a million dollars to make a million dollars. That’s why we choose to be transparent as possible about our business. We are not rich. We didn’t start out with a silver spoon in our mouth. We are from the south side of Chicago. We had the same struggles as any other black kid or man in the city. We’ve been through it, but we didn’t have to go another direction. We are protective of each other. When certain obstacles come up, we immediately have each other’s back. We know how to protect each other. We are not going to allow each other to fall. As long as we keep not allowing each other to fall, The Black Bread Company will never fall.
TG: What advice do you have for young black entrepreneurs?
JL: Trust the process and your vision. If you have an idea that you are passionate about, trust that. Don’t get away from that. Sometimes your plans might change. Trust what God has put inside of you. When Mark called Charles and me and said, “There were no black-owned bread companies,” we collectively said we need to do this. That’s where the vision started. We trusted the vision that we would be the first black bread company once we realized that there were none. Trust your vision that is inside your mind and heart.
ME: My advice would be to take the first step. Don’t give yourself an excuse. Give yourself a plan. Jamel’s mother use to tell us growing up, “A man who fails to plan, plans to fail.” It’s always been embedded in us through our parents that we didn’t realize it at the time. If you want to be an entrepreneur, do it, but plan it out. Don’t jump into something, and you didn’t do your research. Our first step was contacting an attorney. Getting our affairs in order and doing our homework. We researched and planned for months. When we felt we were prepared, we moved on to the next phase. It’s important to do your homework and plan.
CA: Before we went public, we were in the planning process for almost a year. Sometimes when you think of something, you want to go public, put it on social media, and nothing is together. We took our time. My advice is to take your time, trust the process, and don’t rush it. Because when people see your product, you want to put your best foot forward. Take your time and be patient.
TG: Where do you want to see The Black Bread Company in the next five years?
JL: We want The Black Bread Company to be a household brand on countertops for generations to come.
TG: How is The Black Bread Company giving back to the community?
CA: We started The Black Bread Foundation. Our goal is to assist marginalized communities. So far, we gave away 500 loaves of bread to the Houston Food Bank due to the devastating winter storm. We saw photos of no food in grocery stores, and the bread aisle was completely cleared out. We have also partnered with Betty Shabazz Charter School and recently sent them 200 loaves of bread to give to families. Weekly, we partner with other organizations because we want to make sure we are doing our part as a company that is also mission-based.
JL: That has been the most rewarding part for us. We enjoy the different opportunities and being on the Ellen Show. But giving bread to schools and sending bread to Houston, TX, has been the most fulfilling part for us.
ME: I love speaking with the kids, telling them about our story, and seeing their eyes light up. I want them to understand that they, too, can be an entrepreneur.
To purchase bread from The Black Bread Company, visit http://blackbreadco.com/.
Tammy Gibson is a travel historian and writer. Find her at Facebook, Instagram @SankofaTravelher, and Twitter @SankofaTravelHr