WASHINGTON, D.C. (SPECTRUM NEWS) — Twenty years ago, Brandon Byrd graduated from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, convinced he would go into a much different career than he’s in now.
“I always wanted to go into the business of sports, so when I started at Eau Claire, I wanted to go into the medicine side,” Byrd said. “Athletic training, or physical therapy.”
Byrd had grown up an athlete, from his days in his home state of Alabama, eventually spending much of his youth in California and Wisconsin. His mother works for the federal government and his family moved a lot.
The one thing he will always remember is her cooking.
“My mom was always cooking,” Byrd said. “She’d cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday.”
That talent for making good food got passed down to him. During his time at UW-Eau Claire, a predominantly white college, Byrd used food as a way to connect.
“My very first roommate had never been around Black folks,” he said. “I would cook and he’d be like ‘Brandon, what is this?’ and I’d be like ‘This is soul food, this is what Black folks would eat in the south.’”
Post-graduation, Byrd ventured into the corporate world. He spent about a decade working in marketing for big-name brands such as Bacardi and MillerCoors. At one point, he was responsible for booking gigs for hip-hop artists, but that wasn’t where his heart was.
“My 13-year-old cousin would sing the lyrics to these songs and I was like, ‘This is influencing these kids,’” he said. “The messages weren’t always positive.”
He came back to food. He realized his talent for cooking, paired with his marketing skills were the gateway to making real change.
“Young people, if they can sing those lyrics, they can also scoop frozen custard,” Byrd said.
He now owns and operates a frozen custard truck in Washington D.C., after moving there eight years ago, again for his mom’s job. The truck has garnered national attention from Forbes, Southern Living, Food Network, and more.
It’s not the media attention, however, that fuels Byrd’s passion. It’s his desire to inspire the next generation of Black men and women. He employs many of them, like his 13-year-old cousin.
“Hopefully when you leave at the end of this summer, you’re going to know how to tie a bow-tie,” Byrd said. “You’re going to have great penmanship because you’re writing the specials of the day on the chalkboard everyday.”
His 1950s inspired, vintage custard truck looks like it came straight out of a time machine. Byrd serves up his homemade vanilla custard, the only flavor on the menu. He wears a bow tie and newsboy cap. The sultry sound of iconic Black musicians fills the air.
“While you wait in line, you’re rocking out to Marvin Gaye and you’re not even thinking about the fact that it’s 95 degrees out,” he said. “You’re in line with other people having great conversation, listening to Marvin Gaye and Mahalia Jackson.”
It’s those lyrics Byrd hopes resonate with the next generation.
“You hear Marvin Gaye, or Tammi Terrell and all the messages were very strong and positive and it really shed a light on positive images of Black folks,” he said.
During this time of civil unrest, he hopes these messages also inspire the world.
By the fall, Brandon plans to open his first brick-and-mortar frozen custard shop. The building is currently under renovations in Alexandria, Virginia.