A deep personal connection to food and cooking runs in Deven and Marquita Carter’s families. The children of a caterer and a chef, respectively, the Carters grew up knowing the importance of good quality, healthy ingredients and food made with love, but didn’t expect it would become their legacy.
Both graduates of Wake Forest University, the Carters met in college and bonded over their mutual interest in entrepreneurship. “We were both young and ambitious and this was part of the core of our relationship,” Deven says.
But they didn’t start thinking about becoming business owners until 2012, when health complications from the birth of their second child forced Marquita to make major changes to her diet. “We made this change as a family, a whole lifestyle change. We looked at everything we were eating, we looked at the back of the bag and at the ingredients, and ate nothing processed, no high-fructose corn syrup,” Deven recalls.
With a growing family and two full-time careers, the Carters realized that making all their meals from scratch, while better for their health, was often time-consuming and laborious. Store-bought products for restricted diets, however, were limited and expensive at this time. “Unfortunately in 2017, there weren't many options, and the ones available had premium markups and were really bland,” Deven says.
Frustrated with the commercial offerings, the Carters decided to draw on their experience and business training to solve this problem. Deven describes how they developed their family recipes into products for retail. “We decided to take our favorite foods and make them ourselves so we didn't feel like we were cheating. We started with syrup, and it took a couple years to perfect the recipe. We had friends, family, and our church community taste it, and then brought it to a farmers’ market.”
While the Carters had dreamed of retail sales, they knew that there would be a lot of legwork, persistence, and patience in store for them before they’d be working with major grocery chains, and they purposefully took a slow and steady approach to building their business. “We wanted it from day one, but we knew was a matter of timing,” Deven notes.
With these challenges in mind, the Carters also understood their strengths. “We complement each other well. Marquita is creative, and I'm more practical. She laid out her vision and I made sure it all made sense. We started with farmers' markets and specialty shops, pop-up opportunities and demos, and around spring of 2018, we really started selling the products.”
Adapting to Difficult Circumstances
Like many businesses large and small, however, the Carters faced the challenges and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Deven recalls how they hit a roadblock when the urgent need for COVID-related products overtook all other concerns for large retailers. The Carters knew they’d have to adapt or put their dream on hold.
“If you weren't selling PPE, they just weren't interested, so we focused on selling online,” Deven says. “We revamped our website and used our home kitchen as a studio to give cooking demos on Facebook Live.”
Deven notes that the increased attention to racial justice in 2020 also helped to bring awareness to their products. “Things started picking up and influencers were really interested in supporting local and Black-owned businesses. At one point, we were doing 200 orders a day and making $25k a month,” he recalls.
“We understood, though, that this energy and attention on Black-owned businesses wouldn't last forever, so we put the money we made into scaling up.” The Carters focused on expanding their capacity by securing commercial kitchen facilities, developing a brand, and building relationships with manufacturers and retail stores.
“We spent the whole time getting ready. It was a busy couple of years, but we had a very clear vision, and we're also a good team,” Deven says.
By 2022, the Carters were ready for a large loan to take their business to the next level. They were already familiar with Self-Help and knew they wanted to work with us for their loan.
Enjoying Success, Thinking About the Future
Five years after they started testing family recipes, Deven and Marquita are more successful than ever. The Carter’s Blanket™ line of syrups and pancake and waffle mixes is now carried by large multinational chains around the country. The couple is enjoying both the creative process of developing recipes and designing packaging as well as the satisfaction of building a secure and stable future for their children.
Their day-to-day operations present logistical challenges, but Deven notes that the biggest challenges come from the steep learning curve and ever-present uncertainty of entrepreneurship. “You always hope for the best, but you can't guarantee. But I'm so fulfilled with pushing our business forward and building on the legacy of my family.”
In addition to the hard work of starting a business from the ground up, the Carters understand the challenges that entrepreneurs of color still regularly face. “We're very cognizant of the struggles of Black businesspeople compared to others. We had a lot of condescending and demeaning interactions, often from people who didn't seem to know what they're doing,” Deven says.
Despite these experiences, Deven emphasizes the importance of persistence and investing in his and Marquita’s strength. “We had no choice but to be successful; we’re not about to prove bad bosses right. And we feel we have a responsibility as parents to provide a future for our kids. It's now for us to build on what our parents did for us and help our kids succeed.”
Deven offers a few tips for aspiring entrepreneurs: start slow, establish good relationships, and learn from the process. “The most important thing for us is that we operated very lean — we took a slower, steadier approach so we could stay lean. Then when we partnered with bigger businesses and retailers, we looked for funding.”
“It's also about establishing relationships with lenders and bankers. And being able to articulate the vision clearly and back it up with numbers is crucial. Everybody has dreams and effort, but it's important to back it up with preparation and presentation.”
Partnering with Entrepreneurs of Color
At Self-Help, we know that independent small businesses like the Carters’ form the core of the communities we serve. As we close out Black Business Month, we’re extra appreciative of the impact Black entrepreneurs have in our communities. We’re privileged to partner with many Black-owned businesses as their lender.
We also actively partner with Black, minority, and women-owned businesses as part of our Supplier Diversity program. If you’d like to join us, you can learn more about our supplier diversity program and vendor relations. Check out these directories of Black-owned businesses if you’d like to support Black entrepreneurs in your community.