Grace Dickinson | June 2, 2022, 01:58 PM CDT
Launching out of a single stall in Philadelphia’s annual popup Christmas Village Market, Charisse McGill’s French Toast Bites has grown rapidly in its three-and-a-half years. What began as a business of selling freshly fried, bite-sized cinnamon bites has blossomed into an enterprise raking in six figures that now includes everything from a French toast ale to a spiced coffee blend to a strawberry French toast gelato, all bucketed under Lokal Artisan Foods. And McGill continues to hold big goals for the original product.
“My goal is for French toast bites to be a Philadelphia staple food, just like water rice, like the cheesesteak, like the pretzel,” says McGill with the kind of confidence that just might make it happen.
McGill currently operates out of two open-air food market locations, pops up at dozens of seasonal festivals and events, runs an active catering business, and sells retail products through partners like GoPuff. We chatted with McGill to learn more about the backstory behind her French toast concept, the importance of building industry relationships to grow, and the role the pandemic played in shaping her business.
Walk me back to when you first started French Toast Bites.
For seven years, I had the opportunity of managing a suburban Philadelphia farmers’ market, and I got to see independent food and beverage producers up close. The ones that were doing it right were earning six figures under a 10-by-10 [tent]. I thought, I’m on the wrong side of this tent.
I have a daughter who essentially grew up in farmers’ markets. Every summer, she’d ask me, “Mom, can I have a business in the farmers’ market?” When she became 12 [years old], she wanted to do lemonade because there was nothing to drink for the kids at the farmers’ market. Fourteen weeks later, she made $6,000, and again, I said, “I'm on the wrong side of this tent”.
I took the local food market and open-air food market economies super seriously, and I went back to school to get an MBA in marketing in January 2018. By November 2018, I resigned from my cushy director level day job and launched French Toast Bites at the annual Christmas Village Market at [Philadelphia’s] City Hall. In the first 45 days of that event, my gross sales were 75% of the salary I left behind, and that’s how I knew I was on to something.
How did the actual food concept of French toast bites come about?
It’s flexible. It’s fun. And when I was doing my research and development, I went to tons of festivals and food trucks, and it was always sweets and tacos that had the longest lines.
In 2016, chicken and waffles was also huge in Philly, but chicken’s expensive. I’m big on margins, so that played a big part, and my family just loves when I make French toast.
I wanted to be the Auntie Anne's of French toast. What does that mean? It means that you have a product that people smell before they see it. It means that you're in places where there are high-traffic areas. There's no Auntie Anne’s storefront, but you can go to the mall and get some or drive on the highway and see them at the rest stop. And we’ve maintained that model. We don't have a storefront or a food truck, but you can find us in Philadelphia’s hottest locations where there's always 50,000 people or more.
So you launched at Christmas Village Market, and then in the spring, you took the concept to a temporary pod park set up in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood. Can you share how you decided on that location?
It was this new public space that modeled everything I wanted – a high-traffic area, in a hip part of town, in the open-air market economy.
It wasn't a traditional brick and mortar or a storefront. The issue with French Toast is that everyone doesn't like French Toast, but in these areas, one person can grab a taco, my other friend an empanada, my other friend a beer, and I get the French Toast, and then we all meet in the middle. That makes for a great experience for everyone.
At the time the pandemic hit, you were mainly operating at street festivals and other major events, which I imagine could’ve been catastrophic to your business, especially without a storefront delivery model. How were you able to navigate that?
Now we’re at Cherry Street Pier and Spruce Street Harbor Park, but before that, we did 189 days of street fests and popups, and for 2020, we thought we’d take the show on the road and do all the major concerts, and I built the staff so we could do it all. And then the pandemic came, and my plan came to a screeching halt.
I had resigned from my day job, was still in school, and I was like, “I don’t know what to do”. But I had to pivot.
[Philadelphia’s] Penn’s Landing reached out to me about the location at Spruce Street Harbor Park, and I was down there before I could even get off the phone. At the time, July 2020, outdoor dining was allowed, and they have this easy grab-and-go model where you can walk along the waterfront [on the Delaware River]. Here’s another place that fit my business model. Then it made headlines because I was the first black woman to ever own and operate a food establishment on Penn’s Landing.
You also recently became the first known African-American woman in Pennsylvania to have her own beer. How did you end up getting into the beer business to create your French Toast Bite Ale?
A brewer named Joe Modestine from Doylestown Brewing Company slid into my DMs. He saw me on TV and always talked about my energy and said I looked like someone who’d be fun to collaborate with.
We have a retail spice we sell, and he asked if I could bring that so we could come up with a flavor profile. I’d never even been to Doylestown but I shot up to Doylestown so fast, and from there I became very involved in the recipe creation because I wanted to keep the essence of the flavor.
It was a hit. We made what he thought would be enough for a month based off numbers from his other sales, and it sold out in a week, and the second batch sold out in a day.
And you sell it on GoPuff, right? How did you establish that relationship?
They read the headlines about the first black-women-owned food business at Spruce Street Harbor Park. A few of the executives from GoPuff came by unannounced to order French toast, and they were overwhelmingly impressed.
They said, “We want to get these on our platform.” I didn’t know what platform they were talking about. They asked if I could drop [the French toast] off to their warehouse, but I still didn’t know who they were. So I said, “No, it’s made to order. If it gets cold, it’s going to taste like cold McDonalds’ fries.”
So they asked me if I had anything else – mind you, I still don’t know who these guys are. I said I had a beer, and two days later I get a call from the VP of alcohol sales, and to date they’re my highest wholesalers.
You’ve since also partnered with a coffee company and you’re about to release a gelato flavor. Was it always your goal to use the French toast bites concept as a platform to launch other similarly playful ideas?
It was an expansion that happened organically as a response to the pandemic. You had to get creative.
It’s super textbook. You form a strategic partnership, maintain your brand identity, and respond to a changing marketplace. We needed to be in those places that were finding success during the pandemic, and grocery and alcohol sales were one of them.
We wouldn’t have expanded this greatly if the pandemic hadn’t happened and also the uprisings that happened that summer. There was magnification of representing underrepresented minority brands. So I think it was a combination of both, and it's kind of bittersweet. You know, I'm very sensitive about the businesses and the families that were impacted by the pandemic, but we actually found some silver linings that were very trailblazing.
What other major factors do you consider important to your success as you’ve grown?
The food industry in Philly is super small. What I’ve learned more than anything is that relationships are more valuable than money.
Drake says, “Do right and kill everything”, and that’s just been my driving force – do right, do it with integrity, and knock it out of the park every time.
We also strive to continue to reach niche markets. We have a vegan French toast, and when we go to these concert festivals, we’re maybe one of two vegan options. The vegan stuff is 30-percent of our sales.
What do you consider your main challenges as the business has grown?
I don’t have a problem with ground level staffing, but the issue comes more at the high level. This year presented some challenges that I’ve never experienced before, in that at any given time, we have two retail locations going, and three consumer package food items we have to manage and market, plus catering, concerts, and street festivals. I had to hire an operations manager to manage all of these new revenue models that we’re now experiencing all at one time.
Do you have any advice for other food entrepreneurs who may be looking to expand beyond their current concept?
Just stay true to who you are. People always ask me if I’m going to expand my menu, but no. I want to be the Auntie Anne’s of French Toast, and they have the pretzels and that’s about it. I went in to sell French toast bites, and I’d rather do other things with the flavor profile than the actual product itself.
Then know the difference between what you make and what you sell. We make French toast, but that’s not what we're selling. We're selling the idea of a woman who quit her day job to launch her dream, who was impacted by the pandemic early on and rode through it. That’s what people are buying when they stand in line.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Photo courtesy Lokal Artisan Foods]
About The Author
Grace Dickinson is a staff reporter at Back of House. Prior to joining Back of House, Grace worked as a features and service reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Send tips or inquiries email@example.com