News From the Kitchen
If you stroll through the LK facility, you’ll find three huge freezers that don’t belong to us — they belong to Top Box, a community nonprofit focused on healthy food access. Here at Liberty’s Kitchen, we’re all about that! We sat down with Co-Founder and Acting Director Sam Heyman to learn more about this great cause.
What is Top Box?
Top Box Foods-New Orleans, is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization with a simple mission: to empower communities in the fight against food inequality by providing access to healthy foods at an affordable price. We accomplish our mission by partnering with community organizations and houses of worship located in areas that are flooded with fast food restaurants but lack full service grocery stores. We offer community members high-quality fresh produce and frozen lean meats sourced from the same suppliers as major grocery stores and restaurants. We employ mostly volunteers and with little overhead, we are able to keep our prices affordable, typically half of what our customers would pay at the store.
We saw the need to start Top Box after learning about the dire state of nutrition in New Orleans’ food deserts. High rates of diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol plague areas of the city that lack access to a grocery store. In some parts of the city, individuals must drive over 4 miles to get to a store with fresh produce.
For the past three years we have worked tirelessly to make this social business thrive. We have sold over 85,000 pounds of fresh produce, over 81,000 pounds of frozen groceries, and saved our customers over $150,000 dollars on fresh produce alone. As our sales steadily increase we will approach self-sustainability. However, we will always need some donations and development dollars in order to keep our prices affordable for our customer base.
Unlike some charitable organizations, we offer our customers a hand up, not a hand out. Our customers are proud people that only wish to live happy and keep their families healthy. They are mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. They are black, white, Hispanic, old, young, and everything in between. They rely upon Top Box for their monthly intake of fresh produce and we want to empower them to make healthy choices.
Tell us about yourself.
I was raised just outside of Philadelphia and went to Tulane University. During my underclassman years I became enamored with Tulane’s Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (SISE) minor. For the first time in my life I was exposed to an alternative to the charity model and I became absorbed with the social business concept. During the spring of my freshman year, I was able to take some of the theory I learned in class and use it to help start Top Box. I enjoy my work with Top Box because it connects me to our partners at a grassroots level. Every day I connect with New Orleanians who, in the face of incomprehensible inequality, turn to community for help. I am just happy that we can offer the communities we work with a hand up. Later in life, I hope to effect societal inequities at the policy level.
What’s the vision for a year from now? For thirty years from now?
Our team would love to see Top Box expand, not just survive. We are working to make the business model as sustainable as possible. Our hope is to drive sales to a point where we can rely less on grants and donations. In a year from now, we hope to take Top Box into new markets in South East Louisiana, boosting both our impact and our monthly volume.
What’s the connection between Top Box and Liberty’s Kitchen?
In 2015, Top Box Foods was accepted into the Propeller Start Up Accelerator. During our time with Propeller, LK founder Janet Davas consulted us on our current operation and how she thought we might be able to grow. Her help was invaluable and crucial to our vision for the business.
Additionally, LK executive director Dave Emond has watched us grow from a small club at Tulane into a fully functioning business. He invited us to join the LK community in our current capacity a few months ago. We were in a fix. We had to find a space to store our frozen groceries in the days leading up to our monthly delivery and Dave came through in the clutch! Our partnership with LK has allowed us to increase the variety of lean meats and frozen items we offer. Additionally, local storage allows us to customize each order to a specific customer’s needs. Customers with a choice are happier, and for that, we owe Liberty’s a ton of appreciation.
Anything else you’d like people to know?
If you are interested in learning more about Top Box, give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org! We are constantly looking for more volunteers, for new funding sources, and for additional partners in our fight against food inequality and hunger.
“We make things that make people happy,” says Cheryl Scripter. We’re sitting in Bittersweet Confections on Magazine, a light and airy space with blue chairs and pastel flower decals hanging in the windows, and it’s hard not to feel a little happier just walking in. The owner and founder of Bittersweet, Cheryl started out crafting confections in her home kitchen for friends. Fifteen years later, the success is dazzling: Bittersweet now operates a six-year old busy boutique on Magazine as well as a second location in St. Roch Market, in addition to catering and wholesale lines.
Beyond their business success, Bittersweet has been a steadfast and valuable partner of Liberty’s Kitchen, taking on four of our trainees over the past year for on-the-job training via our externship program. We sat down for a round-table conversation with Cheryl, Operations Manager Ben Kunz, and LK grad and Bittersweet employee Chondra Allen to talk about where the business is headed and shine a spotlight on one of our most treasured partners.
Ben: If I’d had Chondra come in for a regular interview I might not have hired her based on her resume. But having her come in and extern – it’s basically a four week stage – and seeing that she comes from the same mentality we do has blown a lot of our expectations. The four young women who have come in and worked as externs for us – they work so well because the same way we approach business problems is the way they overcome things in their personal and professional lives. At the end of the day, our mindsets are the same. Nothing is going to stand in the way of Chondra getting here on time and doing her job. They’re the hardest working kids I’ve ever worked with. Some of the best hires I’ve made have been from Liberty’s Kitchen.
What’s important in a work environment?
Ben: We’re trying to bring a large educational component. We want our staff to be able to leave here and get gainful employment at any third wave coffee shop in the city –to know their stuff better than anybody and even if they don’t look like they’re expert baristas, be able to go in there and throw down with any of them.
Chondra: It feels like a family, but you still get the job done.
What’s the vision for six months from now?
Cheryl: Six months from now, we want to keep growing and improve our processes and grow the number of businesses we offer our desserts to. And we want to keep making really high-end products that people can be proud to give to someone. If you buy 1 or 2 things that are sweet in your life in the week, you want to make sure they’re really superior. People want to eat things that are made with love and made with quality ingredients. It’s nice to work somewhere you can be proud of everything you put out.
For us at LK, it’s been incredible to watch Chondra’s growth over the past year at Bittersweet. And she recently won Employee of the Month! Let’s talk about that.
Cheryl (to Chondra): You’re an extremely valuable employee. You’ve grown from someone who started as a quiet shy young woman to someone who’s very positive all the time, and wonderful with customers.”
Ben: When you started we paired you with a strong worker to train you up, and then you became a strong worker and now we leave people with you. You’re the lead whether you realize it or not.
Chondra: I’ve learned a lot. I learned the proper way of preparing a latte and the exact coffee grams: water ratio for strong coffee. I learned an ideal workplace is where you can work properly together as a team to reach a goal. The hardest thing when I started was memorizing every single last cupcake in the case – it took a while but I got it. I felt proud when I saw the other girls start because I knew they’d be successful. They’d have a question about the case, and I’d tell them the answer and then quiz them on it. And now I have a lot more confidence in what I can accomplish here.
What would you say to an employer considering taking on a Liberty’s Kitchen extern?
Ben: You’re supporting your community, making the city better, and getting people who are hard workers and hungry to make themselves better. A lot of people are looking for a paycheck. Liberty’s Kitchen people are looking for a way to transform their lives.
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. We’re truly thankful to Bittersweet Confections for providing such a great training ground for our young people. Stop by and try their sweet treats today!