In 2003, Emile Johnson left a comfortable job in the pharmaceutical sales industry to enter the food distribution industry as CEO of Goode Foods. Together with his son Andrew, they founded the first Black-owned baby food brand available in major retailers. 

As the regional sales director at Abbott Industries in Chicago, Johnson helped to build and market familiar nutritional products such as Ensure beverages and Similac baby formula. In more than 20 years in the role, he built relationships with national grocery and retail corporations, the FDA and with farmers nationwide. 

Johnson’s transition to entrepreneurship catapulted in a major way when he inked a deal in 2007 to provide cereal to Chicago Public Schools (CPS) under a short-term contract. 

His son Andrew says going into baby food in 2018 with Pic Select Fresh wasn’t necessarily the initial plan, but the same can be said about much of their progress so far. 

“I think that the theme of the business has been taking an opportunity and going with it,” he says. “I can’t sit here and say we were planning to do baby food. It fell into our lap, we ran with it [and] retail took it. Now this is a sustainable business.” 

The Johnsons spoke to The TRiiBE about how they made the transition to baby food, what it’s like being the only Black-owned company on the market, and what the future holds for Goode Foods and Pic Select Fresh.

Q: You mention not having any background in agriculture. How did you end up running a canned food and baby food brand?

Emile: I was able to use that experience with CPS to show that I was no joke, so when I turned my attention to the FDA, they took me seriously. They were in need of a supplier for beans, mainly, for the Women Infant Children (WIC) nutritional program. I looked at the guidelines for WIC approval and saw that they aligned a lot with my views of providing clean, quality food. 

So I went and found these farmers that have a co-op up in Minnesota. They were able to provide us with not only beans, but corn, peas and carrots as well. That got us approved, and the brand grew from there. Then a similar thing happened when they were in need of a baby food supplier that used safe plastic rather than glass containers. We found another farming co-op in California that provides us with our baby foods and a manufacturer out there who makes the containers.

Q: How did Goode become a family-operated business? Andrew, what has been your role in the company?

Andrew: [In 2012], I was coming out of Loyola University on the North Side, and as a 22-year-old fresh out of college, I didn’t have an idea of what was going on. I just knew my dad had this company. I was a PR major, so I started doing my own thing, doing booking and promoting in the music space around 2012-2013. Then I started tagging along to trade shows and meetings with customers. 

Soon I was delivering products to stores personally, I was a PR guy. I was the sales rep. I was doing anything I could get my hands on. In 2014, I came on full time, handling the marketing side of the company. When I came on, we didn’t even have a Facebook page. Now we have recipe videos on Tik Tok.

Q: What challenges come with being the only Black-owned baby food company in retail? Are there any extra considerations you feel you must make?

Emile: Making sure we’re accessible to people is a major consideration. We see that most of our consumers are high income, highly educated, who are looking for premium quality rather than the lowest price. 

Part of our thing about being on WIC is that it disproportionately goes to support Black women and children. It allows us to provide clean, high-quality produce for families who might not be able to afford it typically. 

One thing I get from stores is that my prices are too high. Then lower your margins on my stuff. They tell me they need to make 90% on anyone who comes in there, no you don’t! I sold you infant formula which you sold at negative 25% profit margins to get consumers in the store. You claim you wanna support Black businesses [and] local businesses? Then get your margins somewhere else. Don’t tell me my prices are high. I know the market. Just tell me you don’t want to put me in.

Q: You're in a space where you're competing with giants like Beechnut and Gerber. How have you been able to maintain growth in a market that has long had the appearance of being impenetrable?

Emile: When we pick our crops, we take only the best, like what you might grab for yourself at the store. Most of these companies don’t have that same process. People are paying for a premium product when they buy our stuff. On top of that, being able to let people know we’re Black-owned doesn’t hurt. 

This past year, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement encouraging more people to support Black businesses, retailers [such as] Jewel, Albertsons and Kroger have diversity programs or initiatives to partner with locally owned and Black-owned businesses that help make the playing field a little more level.

Q: Expansion seems pretty high on the list of priorities for Goode Foods. What does that expansion look like so far, and where can people find your products now?

Andrew: So a lot of people know us for the beans, but we have so many more products on the shelves and in the works. We’re working on sourcing new fruits for the baby food brand. We’re gonna be moving into Kroger’s Atlanta division soon, so expanding across the country. Right now we’re in Jewel and Albertsons stores, Kroger, Mariano’s and 

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.