The latest #myBOBstory is one that will have you think about what is most important in life. This myBOB story introduces you to Founder and Owner of Vassell Foods (product line: Arawak Farm), Lloyd Vassell. You can listen to the full interview with Lloyd, as well as read the abridged version below.
You may have noticed that Vassell Foods was featured on our Instagram. If you’re interested in being featured in the #myBOBstory, reach out via email. This series brings awareness to Black businesses from the owner's perspective. At myblackbox co it's important to know the vision and purpose behind a business.
Lloyd has been an entrepreneur for over 30 years, but first began his professional career in Corporate America. With his West Indian background, strong familial ties, and an appreciation for alternative food options for sensitive stomachs.
Why did you start your business?
Couple of reasons; one I've been an entrepreneur since 1999. I left Corporate America because I am the proverbial nail in the wood. When a nail sticks out the first thing you want to do hammer it back in. I'm not really a conformist. I like my own destiny; I like creating my own destiny. Two, in my lifetime I've been in the media, I've been in consumer goods, I've been in high tech. But my passion has always been food. My dad was a chef. I'm a chef and it's something that I've always come back to. When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped in with both feet and started this business.
I'd love to learn a little bit more about the experience you had in corporate that helped you find that you did not want to be in that environment, in that type of work structure, since a lot of people are either working at a corporate office or they work at the front lines of a corporation and aren't always able to get out of that.
Well, getting out of it is probably the hardest thing that you're probably going to do. I was in upper management, senior management in my corporate experience. But I was never in charge of my own destiny. I had to report to somebody. It's funny how you report to somebody who's either younger, less educated, or some of the other adjectives I won't use. Let's just say that I'm just not the kind of person who's going to sit behind a desk for 8 hours and be completely productive. I was productive obviously because I was in management. It was always that inkling of I could do more. In Corporate America you really don't get the opportunity to do more, until they're ready, until they tell you it's time to do more. Secondarily, I had a little bit of a push out the door in the sense of that my youngest son had sickle cell anemia and he had a bone marrow transplant coming up. In my last corporate position I was Director of Corporate Branding and Global Sponsorship for Sun Microsystems. I was constantly traveling and I had to make a decision do I continue to travel or be by his side for the next six months as he gets the bone marrow transplant and then recuperates—it wasn't a really hard decision.
I've worked for several corporations and startups as well and I've found that what you're saying in regards to them not letting you do more until you're ready to do more...you just don't get to be your authentic self completely. When you have life moments that arise they're dismissed and you're seen as like not 100% committed to the company, but human beings are supposed to be 100% committed to their life and those who are their loved ones in it. Not a business or some entity.
Some of the listeners might have heard Steve Harvey talk about this experience called jump. In life you have to jump when it's right. God has a way of protecting all of us even though we don't fully believe or not, you're protected. There were times in our lives when we have to drop off the cliff and an opportunity might face you and you look at it and go well I'm not ready. You're never ready. You're never ready to start, but you have to believe in yourself, and you have to jump.
What inspiration do you use to fuel your entrepreneurial journey?
My family inspires me because they are the reasons why I'm out here. Starting your own business is not an easy thing to do. I want to give the impression that out of the [businesses] that I've started, they've all gone on to be a glorious success. No they haven't, but you have to realize that it's not for everybody. Entrepreneurial life is not for everybody. There are some people who need a check every two weeks to come in the mail or go to your bank account to feel secure. And there are some people like me who look at though I might not get paid every two weeks I determine my direction, I determine my lifestyle. When I do get paid it's considerably more than what I would have made every two weeks. I think family inspires you; friends can inspire you. If you don't inspire yourself to make it happen, then you'll fall to the whims of your friends and family.
You have to maintain that value that you know your business product or service is bringing, what you put into it, and say no friend I can't give it to you for free. I think my next question plays into how value strengthens brand love, your business love, and repeat business hopefully. Who do you consider a great example of Black entrepreneurship?
I go back to Reginald Lewis and people will go, "Who?" Growing up he was a Black man that bought [what is now known as] Tropicana and you have to understand that back then a Black man buying Tropicana was completely unheard of. Tropicana is huge. He bought it and took it private. This is back in probably the 80s too. To me it's like, "How did he do that? How did he pull that off?" To me Reginald Lewis was a true inspiration that I can buy Tropicana...and to me, that set me on the path to be an entrepreneur. If he could do it, I could do it.
Those are strong examples because for Millennials or Gen Z-ers they're not always that astute on historical figures in Black communities that have done these amazing things that were never supposed to be done by a Black person or when it was first achieved it was the first time a Black person had made such a large accomplishment. We have so many amazing examples to refer to from our past, which helped pave the way for these ones today who are becoming the first XYZ. [This] leads me to my next question for you, why should consumers purchase from your business? What is it that makes your business so unique?
I'm West Indian by heritage and [we're] known for eating spicy food. I don't like incredibly hot food, but I do like spicy foods. When I looked at starting a business, I looked at my heritage and I'm a descendent of Arawak Indian. They are the indigenous people of the West Indies. Our products are vegan, gluten free, low sodium, and low sugar. I was vegan before vegan was cool. I was gluten free before gluten free was cool. People who buy my products care what goes into their bodies. They have a quality of life that is expressed in their palate. My consumer, my customer, has an expanded palate and with any product, not every product is for every person. I'm not trying to be all things to everybody; that's not my goal. My goal is to provide products that are of the highest quality, are of unique flavor profiles, and good value. We have three lines: we have pepper sauces, we have spicy food spreads, and we have dry rub spice blends. We're working with the American Heart Association to get a [claim] on our packaging because it's so low in sugar that even pre-diabetics buy from me. Most dry rubs on the market...the sodium content [is] 25%, or 28%. If I'm going to sell you salt, I'm going to sell you salt. I'm not going to sell you a product laid down with salt so I can make another quarter.
Of the product lines and offerings that you have, which is your most favorite and why?
Well that's like saying which one of my kids are pretty?! All my kids are pretty! On a serious note, the jerk would be my favorite because that's most reflective of my heritage. All these recipes are my recipes. I have to admit that the jerk is my grandmother's recipe, well my great grandmother's recipe. This is the way my family has always made it. If you look at some of these jerk recipes online and in stores they'll have 12 to 15 ingredients. Jerk has 9 ingredients, period; 10 if you add seasoning. No preservatives, no thickeners. Nothing. I'm not going to sell you something that I can't eat. I have a very sensitive system and so if I can't eat it, I'm not going to serve it to you.
How did you financially start your business considering all of what you knew you were going to be intentional with your spices?
I didn't have to reinvent the wheel. Our pepper sauces, I'd been making these years. But I’d just been putting them in jars and giving them to friends, and they come back and say "Can I have some more please?" And everybody tells you, "You should bottle this and sell it!" When I left Corporate America, I left with a pocketful of stock and I had a few dollars stashed away. But also my wife has a good job. I couldn't do any of this without her support. You know every stool should have at least three legs because [with] two legs and you know what happens to the stool. I also have investors and I'm glad to say that they're all minority investors. It wasn't like I had to twist arms to get people to invest with me. People who invested with me knew me and they knew me well enough that if I'm getting in food, I know what I'm doing. I had a chance to be Famous Amos and he said people come up to him and say, "You're such an overnight success!" And he told me, "Look, Lloyd, I've been in business 10 years. It took me 10 years to be an overnight success."
Could you share any advice that you have for Black boys and men who are struggling or struggle with finding their place in society? With your business, you've carved out your space and I'm sure probably in your personal life too. But for those who are trying to have that personal development first, I'd love to have your advice to Black boys and men who are struggling to find their place in society.
Education, you've got to stay in school. Go back to school. Don't leave school. Doesn't mean you have to go to college, but you have to know how to read and write. You can't keep money if you don't know how to add money. You have to believe in yourself. Imagine if Avis listened to their competitors and said don't compete against Hertz because it doesn't work being number two. Avis has been around for a really long time as number two. You don't have to be the best. Don't let perfect stop you from being good. We spend months and months and months of writing a business plan, and all we've done so far is write a business plan. You've got to jump! You've got to find something that you're passionate about because when you're told no more than you’re told yes, you got to be able to wake up that next morning, go dust yourself off and keep going. As young Black men we're told no way more than we're told yes. Find a mentor. A friend of mine once told me you can't make a $1 million by following people who are broke. If you want to make a $1 million find somebody who's made a $1 million and ask them how they did it. And don't take no for an answer, because sometimes that no is out of jealousy.
I've got one last question for you before we wrap up our conversation and that's for the myblackbox audience to learn what we can expect from Arawak Farm in 2019, the rest of 2019, what do you have in store?
Well if I told ya, I'd have to kill you [laughs]. Not everything that you plan goes your way. At this point retail is now one of the third on my list of things to do. Food service and private label are where we're making our mark There are some companies that we're negotiating with that are allowing us to create spices [and] custom blends for them. There are companies who are taking some of our seasonings as they are and getting exclusive rights to them so they can put them in their jar, with their company's labels on them. There are large restaurant chains who are coming to us and asking us to sell them our products in bulk. For us in 2019, is to keep pushing with the food service and private label. Yes we're still doing retail. Yes, you can still buy our products online.
There is that saying of moving in silence but I'm excited for your private labeling opportunities and also that I could still buy your sauces and spices online at www.vassellfoods.com, correct?
Thank you Lloyd for joining and all the best for the rest of 2019.
Thank you for the opportunity.
Lloyd’s story hopefully inspires you be passionate about what you’re doing and don’t allow a no or requests for freebies to deter you from launching your business.