Charisse McGill sees her future in French toast, pools of maple syrup, and a dusting of powdered sugar. To her, the bite-size pieces of grilled bread she serves daily at Dilworth Park’s “Made in Philadelphia” holiday market might as well be shaped like dollar signs.
Only a few weeks ago, McGill, 37, worked as the full-time director of special events for Valley Forge Military Academy and College. But now she is betting on the business she started this year, and hoping to build a snack-food empire.
Four weeks after she left her job and set up shop outside City Hall, McGill said she’s selling about $1,000 worth of French toast per day. After the holiday season, she will move into a kiosk at the Philadelphia Premium Outlets shopping mall in Montgomery County.
“I would like to be the Auntie Anne of French toast,” she said, referring to the pretzel shops. “I’m talking malls, festivals, pop-ups. A brick-and-mortar store, forget that. Put me in a high-foot-traffic area where people are ready to spend.”
A Pittsburgh native and graduate of Temple University’s hospitality program, McGill is also the longtime manager of the Lansdale Farmers Market. She has taught classes at Montgomery County Community College on becoming a food vendor and is currently getting an MBA in food marketing at St. Joseph’s University. In conceiving the idea for her own business, named Lokal Artisan Foods, McGill said, she drew from everything she has learned about open-air food markets.
“First of all, you got to have something that smells good,” she said. “Look at the food trucks. You know which is the taco truck, which one has the funnel cake.”
She also knew she needed to offer something unique. The Made in Philadelphia market has other food stands, but none offering made-to-order treats. And her concept needed to be simple, focused, and easy to replicate.
McGill, who lives in Delaware County, tested her product last summer at pop-up events and markets in the region. At her first such event, the Abington World Music concert series, she sold almost nothing for the first part of the night — until people had finished buying dinner from the other stands and came to hers for dessert. At the holiday market, too, many of her sales come later in the evening, after the date-night couples and skaters get hungry for one more snack.
Her “loaded” French toast bites go for $7 in a shareable package similar to a sleeve of fries, and can be topped with any combination of maple syrup, whipped cream, fresh strawberries, chocolate, and powdered sugar. On weekends, she offers bacon.
“They’ll line up first thing when they smell that,” she said.
McGill likes the immediacy of open-air selling. Already, she has made small adjustments to the recipe based on customer feedback. The work also gives her an opportunity to use her hospitality training. Anyone who passes within a few feet of her stand gets a smile and a greeting. Sometimes, if she senses someone is thinking about stopping, she’ll add something like, “You look like French toast kind of ladies — and I mean that with the utmost respect." The lines work surprisingly often, but McGill acknowledged there are still periods of downtime.
“I’m not going to romanticize it,” McGill said of the long hours on her feet and in the cold. “This ain’t pretty. But I love people, I love talking to people, and I love providing good food with good customer service.”