Even Undercover Boss fans would be hard-pressed to recall any show where the “boss” was black, let alone from the Caribbean.
But on Sunday, May 22, Lowell Hawthorne, President/CEO of Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill, the nation’s largest manufacturer, distributor and franchisor of Caribbean baked products and largest Caribbean-owned business, changes that.
In 1989, Hawthorne, with the support and partnership of his 10 brothers and sisters, spearheaded the launch of a family business in the South Bronx that today includes over 120 stores spanning nine states, supplying Jamaican patties to 18,000 supermarkets, Family Dollar stores and Wal-Marts nationwide. Golden Krust distributes widely to the Caribbean and employs over 44 family members, including his three sons and his wife of over 25 years, Lorna, the company’s Director of Human Resources.
On the show, the normally clean-cut Hawthorne dons dreads and braces to mingle among his Golden Krust workforce—one that’s over 70 percent Jamaican by his own estimation. The Root caught up with the business mogul and family man, who came from Jamaica at age 21 and has cashed in on his American dream. We talk about Undercover Boss, his family’s investment in him, overcoming the company’s biggest obstacle and more.
The Root: How did you and Undercover Boss hook up?
Lowell Hawthorne: With 120 stores in the market and in so many supermarkets and with a name like Golden Krust, CBS reached out to us directly. It is not something that we sourced. They called us and they thought we [were] the right fit for this show, a company of this magnitude and size. And I think it represents what CBS is looking for, especially a company that is African American and from the Caribbean; they have not had a company from the Caribbean before. It is a great piece and we are pleased that we [are their] 101st episode.
TR: When you guys started this company in 1989, what were your intentions? Did you ever imagine this day where you would have over 120 stores?
LH: My intention when I started was basically to ensure that my family and friends were well-taken care of from a financial perspective. Had I known I would be on Undercover Boss? No. Had I known I would have 120 stores? Maybe not. But I’ve always had great vision and aspirations that I would take this company to the maximum visibility and potential and I certainly think we have achieved that.
Just being on Undercover Boss gave me the opportunity to be identified with the employees, the franchisees and the consumers. Just being on the front [lines], interacting with them and listening to their various expressions, were they expressions of appreciation, satisfaction or dissatisfaction, but certainly just listening to them and being out there with them, working in the field with my staff members. I was trained over the 10-day period I was undercover [which] certainly created a tremendous impact in the organization that has caused us to [make] several changes within the company since that experience.
TR: Was it hard at first to convince your family to raise money and get behind you and Golden Krust?
LH: I’m blessed you know. I’m from a wonderful family. I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit. Coming from Jamaica, I was a deejay and I was a minibus driver. Came to the United States and ended up working for the New York City Police Department as an accountant for the pension section. I had my own accounting business on White Plains Road in the Bronx. So I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Although I’m not the oldest of my siblings, certainly I fall somewhere within the middle, all that’s important is they believe in me because they’ve always seen me as an entrepreneur from when I was a young boy growing up in Jamaica. So it was easy for them to appoint me as president, and, second, they believed in me enough to mortgage their homes, borrow money from their friends, to really invest in this business. It was a no-brainer. My father was there and he encouraged them as well. Everybody basically bought into the concept and the vision.
My father had always been coming back and forth to the United States to sell buns for the Easter season and we would sell the buns to friends within the community so it was quite evident that this would be easy if we were to open a bakery. If we could sell goods from my sister’s basement to friends in the community, it’s a no-brainer that if we were to open a restaurant, it would have been a success.
TR: What has been your biggest obstacle in business?
LH: My dad never taught us how to make patties. So we were buying patties for the first three or four years and there came a time when they thought we were growing too fast and tried to cut off our patty supply in 1993. And that was when I had to dig deep, be innovative and creative and make that big move to search and travel across the globe in quest for this perfect Jamaican patty recipe and eventually, after about nine months of searching for this perfect recipe, we finally came away being the owner of our own recipe.
TR: How pivotal was that event?
LH: Oh, of course there [were] trepidations, nervousness. We depended on Jamaican patties to survive and your [supplier] has basically discontinued your supply and you’re left without recipes, machineries and equipment. We had four or five stores at the time and all of my siblings had quit their jobs so it was a tough deal. It was a tough nine-month battle. But what was happening at the time was molding into shape what God wanted us to be—to be independent rather than dependent. Had [the supplier] not cut us off, we would not be the number one producer of Jamaican beef patties today. So all things work together for good for them that love the Lord.
TR: After more than 25 years, what keeps you going?
LH: Family, friends, faith in God and making a difference in the lives of our young people. Being able to amplify the dreams and aspirations of this generation through scholarships and mentorship and the partnerships that we’ve formed in various communities.
TR: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
LH: To keep it simple. Hold on to your faith. Use the alchemy in faith, which is four things: aspire to be all that you can be; information, take it all in; be tenacious and, of course, humility, be humble.
TR: What was your greatest takeaway from Undercover Boss?
LH: Being able to identify with my employees and staff and see what is necessary to be done to change the organization and put us on the pathway for the next five years as we seek to take Caribbean cuisine mainstream by 2020.
Catch the Lowell Hawthorne and Golden Krust episode of Undercover Boss Sunday, May 22 at 10 p.m. EST on CBS.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.