Meet The 3rd Generation Of Entrepreneurs Carrying On The Johnson Hair Products Legacy By Way Of Baldwin Richardson Foods: ‘What We Do Well, Allows Us To Do Good.’

Darcel Rockett
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  Sisters Cara Hughes, 40 and Erin Tolefree, 41 are third-generation entrepreneurs who are helping lead Baldwin Richardson Foods Co., a global manufacturer of custom ingredients for the food and beverage industry. The company is one of the largest Black family-owned businesses in the food industry.


If you grew up with Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen hair products on your bathroom shelves, the Johnson family has already been a part of your household for some time.

Joan Johnson and her husband, George, co-founded Johnson Products Co. with $250 in 1954, bringing those hair care products to a previously unserved African American market. By 1971, Johnson Products Co. became the first Black-owned company to be listed on the American Stock Exchange.

So it shouldn’t be a shock to see Johnson’s legacy of Black entrepreneurship going strong in 2021 under the auspices of Johnson’s granddaughters, Cara Hughes, 40 and Erin Tolefree, 41, third-generation entrepreneurs who recall being mischievous when they used to get their hair done in the testing salon as children.

“We were both Bantu and Gentle Treatment babies,” Hughes said.

“We used to drive in with my grandparents from the North Shore, and we actually thought we were at work,” Tolefree added. “We would start with sharpening everybody’s pencils, making sure that they had all their supplies, and then we would get sent down to the test salon, and we thought we were really working. When we would go to school and our teachers asked what do your parents do. I literally would write ‘shampoo maker.’”

Sisters Tolefree and Hughes are now helping lead Baldwin Richardson Foods Co., a global manufacturer of custom ingredients for the food and beverage industry. The company is one of the largest Black family-owned businesses in the food industry. The filling in Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain bars? Baldwin Richardson Foods is responsible for filling them for North America. The company also manufactures pancake syrups, syrups for flavored coffee and savory sauces — anything found in cups or pouches that goes on chicken or burgers.

Headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, with a culinary innovation center in Westmont and manufacturing facilities in Macedon and Williamson, New York, Baldwin Richardson Foods Co. employs 370 people and produces nearly 300 million pounds of food annually.

“And sundae toppings, … any sweet goods,” said Hughes, Baldwin Richardson Foods Co.’s Vice President of Customer and Community. “We have our own retail brands too — Nance’s mustards and condiments, and Mrs. Richardson’s Sundae toppings that you can buy in the grocery store.”
“In the food industry, we call that liquid food products,” said Tolefree, president of Baldwin Richardson Foods Co..

Need an innovative space to tweak a food formula? Baldwin Richardson Foods Co. is a one-stop shop for companies looking for help to enhance their product and/or find/fill holes in their consumer marketing. Baldwin Richardson Foods’s work can be found in restaurant chains, consumer packaged goods brands and retailers. And it all began when their father, Eric Johnson, BRF’s CEO, left Johnson Products to do his own thing.

In 1992, he bought the Black-owned, Chicago-based Baldwin Ice Cream Co., which was conceived in 1921. That company grew from a single ice cream parlor at 53rd and State streets to become a product sold in grocery stores around the country. In 1997, Tolefree said her father purchased Richardson Foods, creating Baldwin Richardson Foods. The new entity moved from a retail business selling directly to consumers into the retail and food service ingredient company with strong relationships with some of America’s favorite quick-service restaurants and coffeehouses.

Looking back, Hughes and Tolefree laugh at how their young daughters envisioned their jobs.

“For many years our daughters thought that Cara worked at a drive-thru and I ran a warehouse that was supplying her product because they listened to our conversations all the time and that’s the story they put together — Cara supplying sauces and syrups at the window, and me delivering them,” Tolefree said. “This is mentorship, this is what it looks like early on.”

Tolefree said she and her sister are taking the organization to its next chapter, a chapter that entails mentorship and servant leadership within the organization and the Black community. The third generation of Johnsons wants to pass it all on to more Black youth and women.

“Being surrounded by the family business was being surrounded in Black excellence and entrepreneurs who were servant leaders that led with their heart, that’s all we knew,” Hughes said. “We have an obligation to give back and to create opportunities where there aren’t any, especially for children, especially for Blacks, especially in education and for women.”

Hughes serves on boards of directors at After School Matters, Spelman College Board of Trustees and Chicago’s Perspectives Charter Schools, while Tolefree is on the boards of Foodlink and the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce Women’s Council. The pair believe that by being integral in their communities, they can move the needle forward when it comes to helping others with their economic mobility and generational wealth.

To set others on that path, Baldwin Richardson Foods has established scholarships at Massachusetts-based Babson College (Eric Johnson’s alma mater) and Spelman College (Hughes and Tolefree’s alma mater). Baldwin Richardson Foods takes it further than providing school funds — the company also wants to help students through challenges they weren’t anticipating when at college.

“We’ve purposefully not restricted any of the scholarships to food because our goal is we want entrepreneurs that’s going to get developed out of this group that’s going to go into their communities and create the next Baldwin Richardson Foods — hiring hundreds of people, creating opportunities,” Tolefree said.

Tolefree says by funding the next generation of Black leaders, the Johnson family is paying it forward.

“If they go into communities and launch their own businesses and can employ people, it’s an amplifier effect,” she said. “That’s the piece that got us in, what the business enables in the lives of others. When Cara and I are going to a company picnic and someone says: ‘I’m able to send my kid to school for four years, we can pay the tuition’ or ‘I just bought my new house.’ At the end of the day, yes, the products are cool, and the legacy story is cool, but how it makes a difference in the lives of our community, our people, and the organizations we are able to support — that’s what makes it all worth it.” Or as Hughes phrases it: “What we do well, allows us to do good.”

Given how the pandemic has hurt many Black businesses, the Johnson sisters are currently looking to set up a program where leaders of a consortium of Black-owned food businesses mentor other businesses leaders to a level where they can conduct business with Fortune 100 and 500 companies.

“We’ve traveled that road, and if we can be advocates/mentors and grab someone by the hand and take them through that, then more (leaders) will stay or come into that higher-risk fold, but with the same support that the other counterparts in our population, receive every day,” Tolefree said.

“We all had mentorships that helped; our obligation is to recreate that,” Hughes said. “Given everything that’s happened in the last year, and the fact that we can make an impact that’s broader than what it has been historically, we’re formalizing our goals. There is an entire business behind food, and it’s big, wide and deep. Anything you could possibly think of, there’s an opportunity within the food business.”

While Joan Johnson and Eric Johnson have left their mark on the family tree, when the sisters envision what their legacy will look like, Hughes said part of it is the students they sponsor and the jobs they create and the jobs that their work will create.

“We’ve got so much ground to cover,” Tolefree said. “We feel like we’re just getting started.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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