Keith Johnson once prepared nutritious meals for legendary boxer Muhammad Ali’s daughter. Today, he sells his line of sweet potato baked goods through Wegmans supermarkets throughout the region.
Johnson, 42, walked away from his career as a fitness trainer three years ago to launch Keith’s Treats & Eats in Laurel, which celebrates the sweet potato. The 10-employee company provides as many as 800 products per month to local restaurants and grocery stores, including nine Wegmans stores in Maryland and Virginia.
“Everybody’s looking for fresher food,” Johnson said. “They’re tired of fast food. When they eat, they want food that still has life to it.”
Prices range from $7 to $8.50 for pies, bread and bread pudding, all made from sweet potatoes.
Even when he managed his Health First Wellness & Fitness Center in Capitol Heights, Johnson said, he was drawn to providing people with healthful food.
“I would cook for people as I got them ready to fight,” said Johnson, who has worked with boxing stars such as Lailah Ali and Isra Girgrah. “One of the major downfalls for an athlete is nutrition.”
Johnson, a former amateur boxer himself, has decorated his store and manufacturing plant with items such as boxing gloves, sketches and other memorabilia.
He said the recipe for his sweet potato bread, which he refers to as a “super food” for its abundance of Vitamins A and C, was born during his training sessions with athletes 18 years ago. He came across the sweet potato’s benefits through frequent research.
“People would tell me, ‘You need to take that bread to market. You shouldn’t be doing a gym,’” he said.
With these assurances and $200,000 in startup capital, Johnson set out to share his recipes with the world. He left behind fitness contracts with the National Institutes of Health and a career that had resulted in several instructional DVDs.
“A lot of people thought I was going through a midlife crisis,” Johnson said.
His initial attempt to set up shop at his wellness center in Capitol Heights fell through, leading him to rent kitchen space from local churches and eventually find his spot in Laurel.
Not long after opening the Laurel site in March, serendipity led Johnson to demonstrate his product at the Food & Wine Festival at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, where Wegmans also happened to be exhibiting.
“We tried the [sweet potato bread and pie] and loved it,” said Jeanne Colleluori, spokeswoman for the Rochester, N.Y., grocery chain. “We brought it in as a test in Potomac; it was so successful, we brought it to the [Woodmore Towne Center] for the grand opening of that store.” That Wegmans opened in October in Landover.
She said Johnson’s products have been a “great fit” for Wegmans, and the partnership is enhanced by Johnson using Wegmans-purchased potatoes in his foods. Johnson also provides samplers for several stores.
“He’s a very upbeat and positive individual. He’s very easy to work with,” said Ayana Douglas, manager for the Landover store.
Debbie Davis, manager of Edgewater Restaurant, which serves Johnson’s sweet potato bread pudding, added, “It takes a while once the order’s placed to get it, but once we get it, it’s great.”
Johnson said he hopes to sell his products at the 78 Wegmans stores throughout the country and also plans to begin a chain of sit-down stores within the next two years. In the meantime, he’s focused on promoting his business through trade shows and health fairs.
Small food manufacturers such as Johnson racked up more than $300,000 per employee in median sales in 2010, according to a survey by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Annual sales growth for such manufacturers ranged from 3 percent to 5 percent.
Johnson declined to disclose his company’s revenues.
The challenge for most of these businesses is pricing correctly for inflation, which small manufacturers struggle with more than their larger counterparts, according to the survey.
For Johnson, the challenges mostly lie in managing suppliers for his raw products, maintaining taste consistency and keeping the equipment running.
“There’s so many things that can go wrong,” he said, joking that the recipe itself can be fickle. “It has a mind of its own. ... If you treat it bad, she let you know.”
Johnson lives in Glenn Dale with his wife, Nina, and four children, including 12-year-old David, who prepares Johnson’s signature cookies. Johnson also is a minister at the Church of the Olive Branch in District Heights.