Delco Profile: Charisse McGill and Her Growing ‘French Toast Bites’ Empire
A solid history running a seasonal market, special event experience, plus a graduate degree in food marketing, and — according to family and friends — the world’s best French toast, all together put Aldan’s Charisse McGill on a very tasty and profitable path. What started out as an open-air market and food truck business has blossomed into success with coffee, spice and beer.
McGill owns Lokal Artisan Foods, the birthplace of lightly fried, melt-in-your-mouth artisan French Toast Bites that are hand-tossed in “the only French toast seasoning you’ll ever need” and topped with other seasonal toppings and syrups, if you dare. McGill has been delighting hungry snackers at Cherry Street Pier in Philadelphia and through catering, and was even bold enough to launch at her dream location during the pandemic. Last March, French Toast Bites became the first female Black-owned business at Spruce Street Harbor Park along the Delaware River, often known as “Philly’s beach.”
We caught up with McGill to find out why she chose French toast, and how she expanded her business during a global crisis.
Why did you choose French toast as your signature sweet?
I’d managed the Lansdale Farmers Market while I was working as the director of Special Events at Valley Forge Military Academy, so I saw the food truck craze happen before my eyes, and I had the opportunity to meet independent food distributors. I quickly saw there’s real money in the open-air food market economy, and I started to think, “I’m on the wrong side of the food business!” I observed that the longest food truck lines were for tacos, funnel cakes, chicken and waffles. When talking it over with friends and family I kept hearing, “make your French toast!” When you think about it, the smell, the irresistible cinnamon and sugar and nutmeg, plus the idea of making it portable, made it hard to ignore. French Toast Bites are easy to snack on when walking around, hanging out at the park, and when sitting at a concert.
How did you make a vegan option that holds up to the original?
Part of my inspiration was the The Roots Annual Roots Picnic June in 2019. Questlove is vegan, so we figured we had to have a delicious vegan option! We found a great egg replacer and chose almond milk. We experimented until we got it right! Turns out 30 percent of our sales at the Roots Picnic were our vegan bites! That September Jay-Z and Beyoncé — also vegans — were in town for his Made in America Festival, so we were glad to have the vegan option on the menu.
How did your daughter, Madison, encourage you?
Well, she showed me, really! She would hang out at the farmer’s market and got the idea to source fruit from those at the market to make lemonade. Wouldn’t you know it — she was a success! So I actually took a loan from my daughter, left Valley Forge and the market, and kicked off French Toast Bites in November 2018 at the Holiday Market in Dilworth Park outside of Philly’s City Hall.
You’ve got an interesting educational history, too.
I went to Temple University and graduated with a degree in sports and recreation management. That just happened to be in the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, and I took a liking to event planning. I recently graduated with an MBA from St. Joseph University’s Haub School of Business; that really coincided with these new opportunities. Before I left it, I’d grown the farmer’s market from 22 to 44 stands, the second-biggest in the area. I loved special events at Valley Forge. But entrepreneurship was calling, and I answered.
How did you leap from bites to beer?
I like doing business with people I like, so when Doylestown Brewing Company approached me, and we talked, I was all in. We took the flavor notes people love in the bites and made a slightly sweet, amber-colored French Toast Bites Ale with notes of maple syrup, rich brown sugar, spicy cinnamon and delicate vanilla, and it’s just 5.5% ABV. Turns out I was the first Black woman in Pennsylvania to launch a beer! And, it sold out — fast.
We realized we wouldn’t be able to meet the demand in subsequent brewing runs, so I got connected with the people at Yards Brewing Company. We hit it off right away! We struck a deal: They did a mock-up of a can — I own the name and the recipe — and they said if we can pre-sell 1,000 cases they’d do it. We sold 1,000 in three days! It was really exciting, and we’re on our second 200-barrel batch right now. You can buy it at Yards in Philly, and at select bars, bottle shops, beer distributors and ACME stores — including in Delco! You can use the Yards Beerfinder to find locations and where it’s sold on tap.
And then there was coffee!
This collaboration with Philly’s Bean2Bean came about during the pandemic. My model is to go to the people, and 2020 brought that all to a standstill. I thought about what is deemed essential in pretty much every home: coffee! I hit it off with the people at Bean2Bean, and the rest is history. It’s a medium roast using my signature spice blend. Now that we’re out and about again, I see a real pattern: Our Cherry Street Pier customers like a good hot cup o’joe. Over on Spruce Street, it’s all about our 16-hour cold brew. Cherry Street is artsy with cool installations and a beer garden in the back. Spruce Street is bars, hammocks, oversized chairs, kid- and family-friendly. Yet everyone loves that coffee! You can get it online or use the Bean2Bean store locator.
You also sell the spice that launched it all — tell us more.
It’s “the only French toast seasoning you’ll ever need” — the container says so! It’s my secret blend of cane sugar, cinnamon and ground nutmeg. I started selling it in 2019, and stores began to pick it up. When it first hit Swarthmore Food Co-op, sales increased by 100 percent! Even before the pandemic, I figured Americans have a good six go-to meals in their arsenal; then, they have to get creative. People have told me they put it on everything from breakfast foods to popcorn. My favorite: on salmon.
Do you have a non-bites menu item on the food truck that’s really popular?
Bacon on a stick, hands-down. Put some spice on bacon and the smell just drifts and brings people in. I’ve seen the wait time go up to 35 minutes! And you know what? A line draws more people, because they want what’s popular. Plus once you get a whiff of bacon with French toast seasoning ….
Anything else coming out of Lokal Artisan Foods?
I’m working on refrigerated take-home bacon-on-a-stick, and frozen bacon for grocery stores. Did I mention we cater? And who knows what else!
How’s Delco received your products?
Delco has been super-supportive from the start. It feels good when your community embraces what you’re doing — and loves your products! Swarthmore Food Co-op was the first to pick up the spice. The ACME on Baltimore Pike picked up the beer. I get such a huge sense of pride when I walk into my local stores and see my creations on the shelf.
Learn more about everything French Toast Bites online at Lokal Artisan Foods.
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All photos courtesy of Lokal Artisan Foods