Charisse McGill has an energetic candor that goes hand in hand with years of wisdom gained from the ups and downs that come from entrepreneurship. The Temple University alumna used skills she developed as a business owner to teach at the collegiate level and a chance opportunity managing a farmers market opened her eyes to the possibilities of working in the open air economy.
After helping her teenage daughter start a successful business selling lemonade, McGill laid the groundwork for Lokal Artisan Foods and her trademark French Toast Bites by selling the popular breakfast foods at local markets and outdoor events. With 118 events planned through the end of the year and a licensing agreement secured with supermarket chain ShopRite, McGill took time to discuss the joys of entrepreneurship and her goal to be the Auntie Anne’s of French toast.
When did you begin to have an interest in entrepreneurship?
I don’t think there was much of a before entrepreneurship. It first [started] with Kool-Aid lemonade at the age of nine. I don’t think there ever was a Charisse that wasn’t always doing something. I think when I got to sixth grade I was making mixtapes for people so I don’t think there was ever a time that I didn’t have an entrepreneurial spirit. When it really became a thing was when I graduated college. Two years after I graduated I started an event management company and we did national conferences.
Conferences were a big deal for me in understanding their impact. A lot of these organizations were nonprofits so these conferences were their fundraisers. People plan the fee to go, book the hotel rooms and set up the audio visual. I was left to that responsibility for a number of companies and my top client oversaw vocational high schools.
One of their programs was a hospitality and management program, so one of the program directors came to the event in Philly and asked me if I had ever thought about teaching. I never thought teaching and she said that the kids enjoyed working with me. She asked me, “What if I gave you an offer you couldn’t refuse?” In 2009, Benjamin Franklin High School had an opening for a hospitality and management teacher and I got the opportunity to still run my events while being a full-time teacher. That was one of the best things I ever did because that led for me to teaching at Rutgers and other places in higher education. I’m a huge supporter of entrepreneurship in education.
What led you to begin working with farmers markets?
I had the conference management company and lost my biggest client in 2011 and needed to make up for that revenue. I saw the opportunity to manage the Lansdale Farmers Market. I had never been to Lansdale and had only been to a farmers market once so I didn’t know much about the local food economy, but I did know how to plan events. I did know how to book vendors and how to make sure insurances were in order. I was hired on May 11 and started May 15. I was baptized by fire.
The first couple of weeks, I just thought it was a gig and was still mad about losing my big client. Two or three weeks in, I was sitting on the cooler of the pound cake vendor at the time and I asked, “How’s it going today?” Having not worked with farmers markets and vendors before, I didn’t know that asking “How’s it going today?” translated to, “How are your sales?” He replied, “I’m doing okay. I’m at about $300.” I looked at my watch and saw we had only been there two hours. I asked, “You made $150 an hour?” Ever since then, it changed my whole perspective on open air economy, markets and everything.
I had the opportunity to study these high profile vendors. A lot of them started in their backyards. My first year managing the market I saw Backyard Beans Coffee at work, and seven years later it’s in 50 stores including Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. From that I said, “Wait a minute, I can do something.” I just never had a product.
My daughter Madison is 13 now and has been coming to farmers markets half of her life. When she was eight she said she wanted to sell cupcakes and eventually she came up with an idea to sell lemonade. Lemonade seemed like a good idea, but one of the requirements to participate in farmers markets in this town is to have a local sourcing component. Since lemons aren’t grown in Pennsylvania, I asked what she would do to make the product local. She said she’d ask the farmer’s for fruit. I asked what she’d do when there was no fruit, and she said we could use mint, which was correct. The farmers would sell her their seconds, like ripe or bruised products that she would cut up and put in her lemonade. In 14 weeks, which was really 14 days, she made $6,000 selling this lemonade. I was jealous and decided that I really needed a product, so I came up with French toast. The money she raised from lemonade, she invested in me and I later gave her the money back.
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What made you decide on picking French toast as your product?
I picked French toast because I like French toast a lot. I think people can have fun with it. We’re a family that eats breakfast at night a lot. We’re gradually changing the opinion of when you can eat French toast with one bite. They were sticks at first and went through six variations before we brought it to market for concepts to see what would work. I did small focus groups in my backyard with friends to see how they responded to different packaging and how easy the French toast was to walk around with.
I paid attention to what people eat at markets and what they take pictures of when they eat. If you’re an independent food producer and people aren’t taking a picture of what they’re eating before they take a bite, you’re going to fail. The camera eats first. So if the camera doesn’t eat first, you’ve failed. That’s marketing for you. There’s a lot of thought put into the presentation of the French toast. It was the most flexible thing I can do all of this fun stuff with and have a successful street food. Before, French toast was never thought of as street food.
My Dad is a Pittsburgh Dad and is generally supportive of everything I do. If I said I was opening a business on the moon, he would start checking for the temperature and flights. When I told him I wanted to quit my day job to make French toast, he asked if I was sure and, “Just French toast?” I asked him, “Do you think Auntie Anne’s dad asked her, ‘Just pretzels?’” I want my business on that scale and to be a household name. People ask if I’m going to add to the menu and the answer is, “No.” The most successful businesses in my space are known for making one thing, so I’m totally okay with being known as being the French toast lady. You want to be known for that one thing. With Auntie Anne’s, you immediately think of pretzels. With Cinnabon, you think of cinnamon rolls. With Mrs. Field’s, it’s cookies. That’s the space I want to be in but you have to be damn good at that one thing. With the French toast you will smell it before you see us.
Everything we do is surrounded by French toast. The spice is a French toast spice. Can you use it on oatmeal, apple sauce or salmon? Of course. So the whole business model surrounds French toast. The basis will always be French toast.
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Outside of selling French toast at farmers markets and events, what other business plans do you have for your products?
We’re working with all six ShopRites in Delaware, and upper management with ShopRite in Philly, the Browns, their demographic may not be excited to buy a spice at $8. Instead, they offered me a licensing agreement and now we’ll be a part of their hot food service, starting at the Cheltenham location this summer. We’re really excited about the opportunity and are starting a residency at the Mann Center this summer for eight shows. I’m pumped to be in these spaces where people can have fun eating French toast.
We have a permanent location here at the Pod Park and are continuing to grow. We just picked up shows in California and are waiting to hear back from some bigger shows in Chicago and taking it across the country to see who responds to it and how they respond to it. This whole year is about research and development and proof of concept. I know we’re cool in Philly, so we took the show to Maryland to see if it translates. It does translate because we did a great job. We’re taking a handful of seeds and throwing it into a field to see what grows.
Northern Liberties wanted to bring back their farmer’s market and somebody told management that one of their operators is a farmers market operator. We had a meeting about what the farmers market would look like and projected having ten vendors. A month out from the opening and we have 20. It’s one of the most diverse farmers markets in terms of women owners and owners of color.
As a Black woman in business, how has the open air economy helped you grow?
I love the open air economy. A farmers market vendor fee in this town is going to range you from $28-$48 a week. You can’t open a storefront for that little and know people are coming. Farmers markets as incubators. You get direct response from customers and can make changes on the fly. One of the most notable ones for us was not putting syrup in the middle, so people would come back asking for more. A lot of times when people start businesses, they overthink. So it’s better to just do it because people will let you know anyway.
We have over 118 events this between now and December 31. I never had a business loan so this is all still from the muscle and is a sustainable business. My social impact is that I hire youth from underserved communities between the ages of 17-24 and pay 34% more than minimum wage.
Lead image courtesy of Aversa PR.