How often do you consider who owns the companies putting the food on our grocery shelves? A Chicago father and construction superintendent gave it a great deal of thought during the pandemic when he went grocery shopping. The calls to buy Black that came out of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Moment were still on the mind of Mark Edmond and his two best friends. Jamel Lewis tells the story of Edmond’s light-bulb moment.
“He went into the bread aisle, and he was looking to support a Black-owned sliced bread company. He said he was in the aisle for about 45 minutes, looking and Googling all of the brands in the aisle to see if there were any African-American owners or executives. He couldn’t find any.”
Edmond called Lewis and Charles Alexander to talk about the store experience. Their conversations produced an ambitious plan to open the first commercial sliced bread company owned by Black Americans. “We just realized that instead of going on Instagram and social media to complain about what we didn’t have, we should learn, research and work towards filling that void,” says Lewis, co-owner and director of marketing and advertising for The Black Bread Co.
Building The Black Bread Co.
The three owners officially launched their company at the beginning of Black History Month on February 1, 2021. They selected the date to celebrate their history and heritage, as they’ve always done. Edmond recalls how they came up with the company’s name. “It was actually the brainchild of Jamel. We were having a conversation about starting the first Black bread company. What do you name a Black bread company? Jamel was like, ‘That’s it right there, The Black Bread Company.’ It was brilliant,” says the company’s sales director.
As director of communications, Alexander wants people to understand the deeper meaning behind the company’s name. “The sliced bread industry started in the early 1920s. We knew that 100 years later, we were just getting representation in the industry. People who see it will realize exactly what it is and know we are here now,” he adds.
In the best sales months, the customers the three men call “breadwinners” buy as many as 5,000 loaves of the company’s gourmet premium white or premium honey wheat bread a week. “I would say overall the response to our brand has been overwhelmingly positive from around the world. From the moment that we launched, we became a national brand due to the response that we got from social media,” Lewis says. “We have so much support from so many different nationalities. It is amazing to see what happens when we all come together with thoughts and ideas.”
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The Black Bread Co.’s in-store and online sales put products in places near and far. All 44 Mariano’s stores in Chicago stock their bread. It is available at Fairplay Foods, Dill Pickle and Sugar Beet Food Co-ops and South Loop Markets. The Bureau Bar + Restaurant and the Bureau Pizza Co. also use it. The company ships to several states and other countries, including the U.K. and Africa. Customers can expect the loaves of bread to arrive fresh and not smooshed.
The partners sampled hundreds of bread slices to find the right taste and texture for their premium white and honey wheat. Alexander describes what they wanted. “We wanted it to be fluffy. We wanted it to be flavorful. We wanted it to stand out among all the different sliced breads that were already in the industry, specifically our honey wheat.”
The co-founders chose a manufacturer capable of producing the quality of bread they envisioned. Their products are as close to natural as possible with no preservatives, bleached flour or artificial ingredients. The loaves have a short two-week shelf life. “It’s made with love, and it’s the most perfect, in my opinion at least, that you can truly buy at a grocery store. And it’s all ours, 100 percent ours,” says Edmond.
One particular response to The Black Bread Co. captures the essence of what starting the enterprise means to Lewis, Alexander and Edmond. A mother posted a photo of her daughter standing at a store cash register holding a loaf of their bread. “She had the biggest smile on her face. That’s what it is about, what this whole thing is. My partner Charles likes to say, ‘It’s hard to be what you’ve never seen,’” Edmond explains.
Making Sacrifices for Success
Creating a Black-owned sliced bread company now visible to their children and people of all races required the three husbands and fathers to make significant sacrifices. Their wives, families and other supporters joined them in investing time, energy and thousands of dollars. “The sacrifices were different for each family. During the pandemic, I left my job and used up our savings to invest. Shortly after that, my wife lost her job because of the pandemic. For us, it was a real struggle,” says Edmond.
Lewis, a singer, songwriter and performing artist, lost both of his jobs during the pandemic. He and his wife kept the faith, believing in the bread company despite all the challenges. “It was just a very tall leap for all of us, both from a financial standpoint and physically not being able to meet. We did a lot of Zoom calls and late-night calls,” he says.
Restrictions on in-person meetings, difficulties completing contracts and dwindling savings did not stop The Black Bread Co. from becoming real. “After we had used all of our savings to get the things we needed to launch, we literally had $1.87 left in our account the day we launched,” says Lewis. “We are indebted to our wives and also all of our breadwinners out there that supported us from day one. It wouldn’t have been possible without them. We’re super grateful that things are working out well. We’re still here and going strong.”
While COVID caused the owners to delay the launch for several months, they persevered through long days and weeks of planning, producing and promoting their vision. Edmond and his wife Natasha have three children, 6-year-old Carter, 4-year-old Madison and 1-year-old Riley. Lewis and his wife Christie are parents to 2-year-old Jamel Michael Lewis II.
Alexander and wife Dontevia’s 3-year-old daughter Bellarose will soon have a baby sister. The bread company co-owner is a full-time communications professor at Chicago’s Saint Xavier University. “We sacrificed time with our families. We all have young kids and wives, so our weekends are now very sacred because we are in our warehouse every day, all day,” says Alexander.
Family, Friendship and Favorites
The intrinsic value of their hard work came to light on March 25 when the three entrepreneurs appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Edmond shared a story on the television program about his son deciding to do his Black History Month school project on the bread company. Carter had heard his dad talk about the importance of ownership. He made his presentation to classmates wearing a Black Bread Co. t-shirt and holding a loaf of bread. “To hear that he actually understands what I’ve been saying is breathtaking,” says Edmond. “To see that type of smile on his face was extremely rewarding.”
Whenever the co-owner and his son spot Black Bread Co. in stores, Carter insists on buying a loaf no matter how many they have at home. It is another reminder to the three friends to never give up on their company or each other. “Mark introduced all of us. We met freshman year of high school in 2000. Once Mark introduced me to Jamel, we’ve been rocking and rolling ever since,” Alexander says.
The qualities each man recognized two decades ago benefit both their friendships and the business. “Charles still is one of the smartest guys I know: brilliant, loyal and a heart-felt guy. And Jamel is equally intelligent and super loyal. Right or wrong, he’s always going to have your back,” says Edmond. Lewis contributes his own view of Mark. “He is a very selfless person. You won’t find Mark talking about himself or thinking about himself, to be honest. He’s a man’s man, a man of his word.”
The bond the Chicago businessmen share helped them impress the Ellen Show viewers and
supporters. Shutterfly awarded $20,000 to The Black Bread Co. The owners used the money to cover payroll, buy advertising and hire delivery drivers. The company recently put out the word on social media that they are hiring sales associates, customer service representatives and an administrative assistant. They hope to hire some of the new employees from within their own communities. “We want to make sure we are giving back in every form that we can. It means the world to us to be able to hire people right here in our neighborhood,” Edmond says.
The partners understand their true purpose, as Edmond makes clear. “Before we stop being friends over money, business or anything else, we’ll quit the business. For us, it’s purpose over profit. So what is the purpose if we lose ourselves in the process? We are very conscious of that, and we make sure we check in with each other.”
Loyalty, Lessons and Legacy
Loyalty for the businessmen includes supporting their brand at home. The friends each have a favorite sandwich made with the company’s bread. “My choice would be either a corned beef or pastrami sandwich with pepper jack cheese, spinach, tomato and chipotle mayo on lightly toasted premium white,” says Lewis.
Edmond uses premium white for his go-to butter-grilled cheese and barbecued beef brisket sandwich. “Just make sure you toast the bread with butter in the skillet, not in the toaster. You can throw your barbecued beef brisket on there. You can put some nice American or cheddar cheese on there.”
For Alexander, it is also premium white for the sandwich he and Bellarose favor. “I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, specifically crunchy peanut butter. It’s good bonding time for my 3-year-old daughter and me. That’s our thing. She even has a song to it, ‘Peanut butter jelly time.’”
The Black Bread Co. will begin selling hamburger and hot dog buns soon. The company’s bread products will be featured at major ballparks in Chicago and Detroit. Its sales director expresses the importance of strategic growth. “We don’t want to put too many types of bread out too quickly. We have to find our market and where the company can be sustainable before we start adding a lot of breads. We call it intentional scaling,” says Edmond.
The three men rely on other valuable lessons acquired from parents, mentors and life experiences. Edmond recounts some of the wisdom passed down. “Jamel’s mother used to always tell us to represent. She would also say, ‘Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.’ Another one of her favorite quotes was, ‘A man who fails to plan, plans to fail.’”
From the start, the partners planned to keep their sliced bread company idea under wraps, telling very few people about their vision until it materialized. Their success gives them a platform to encourage others to go for it. “Do not be afraid. Go ahead and compete. If you feel like you don’t have the money or know-how, guess what? We didn’t have it either. You just have to go and do it, and do it in silence,” Edmond advises.
“It’s okay to look for a mentor or to look for someone you want to mold or model your company after, right? Figure out how that person thinks. What habits do they have? How did they reach the level of success they’ve reached, and how can that apply to you in your life?”
Lewis recommends having a purpose, a process and plenty of perseverance if you want to be an entrepreneur. “First, realize you have all you need and use all you have. Trust the process and what you feel in your heart that you were destined or created to do and be. Every day it seems like we face a hundred challenges. But what keeps us or anyone else locked in is remembering why you started and focusing on your goals.”
The Black Bread Co.’s owners hope to become a household name someday and sell their products worldwide. They are working on establishing more partnerships with major companies and sports teams. Their online sales of merchandise in addition to bread products attract supporters. They sell everything from t-shirts and hoodies to coffee mugs and baby onesies. “Some people don’t necessarily eat bread or the type of bread that we offer. So we are grateful for anyone who wants to come along on the journey with us in whatever capacity,” Lewis says.
Alexander points out that being thankful for their shared journey to independence, self-sufficiency and leadership may be their greatest gift. “It’s a blessing all the way around, even with the challenges that come our way. We’ve had so much great success early on. There is not much we can really complain about or be down about because we’re in such a great position, and all we’re interested in doing is moving forward.”
The future goal the best friends care about most is building a legacy. “It’s a sign of hope. It’s a sign of freedom. Everything that we see, someone is making generational wealth. Someone’s kid is able to go to college,” states Edmond. “That’s why we continue speaking to be heard and to encourage our people to go out and compete.”
Lewis sums up their plans for tomorrow this way. “This is absolutely just a stepping stone that has changed the trajectory of our lives. We love business. We love ownership. We love creating things,” he says. “We are here daily to prove to ourselves and the world that it can be done, brick by brick, step by step and moment by moment. We’re here for our legacy, our families and the generations to come.”