A former Army officer who used to jump out of airplanes for a living has found a way to turn his passion for banana bread into a profitable business. But there was nothing in Mike Lawrence’s military background that prepared him to be become a baking entrepreneur.
The closest the retired lieutenant colonel came to a kitchen in the Army was two stints at KP , one during basic training and another when he was in Officer Candidate School. Nonetheless, he was a natural with a flour thumb.
“I was always pretty comfortable in the kitchen ,” the Laurel, Md., resident told BusinessNewsDaily.
Bananas came into his life in the early ‘90s when Lawrence, then a single divorced father, was raising his autistic son, Robby.
“He always enjoyed bananas,” Lawrence said.
He often found himself, though, with overripe bananas on his hands, and rather than throw them away, he began researching alternate uses for the fruit.
“It was one of those ‘aha’ moments,” he said. “I found a couple of formulas for banana bread.”
His company, Havana Banana, was born in the late ‘90s as Lawrence started looking toward his post-Army future. His picked the companyâs name , he said, because he loved warm climates, the name was easy to remember and it rhymed. And he began dreaming up recipes, eventually coming up with some 30 variations of banana bread.
“If you can put toppings on pizza, why can’t you do it with banana bread?” he said.
While on a three-year assignment with the Army in Florida, beginning in 2001, Lawrence began testing the baking waters by moonlighting. He rented a commercial bakery and baked on nights and weekends. He started selling to customers locally and on the Internet and eventually was making 50 to 75 loaves of bread each week.
After Lawrence retired from the Army in 2009 he plunged into baking full time and found a retail bakery in Ellicott City, Md., that would let him use its equipment. Though he is totally self-taught, Lawrence says he has acquired several mentors in the baking world. Their first suggestion to him was to pare down his menu.
“The human mind cannot process 30 flavors of banana bread,” they told him.
Today, Havana Banana produces six varieties, all variations on the basic banana bread theme.
“It’s the same base for all the flavors,” Lawrence said, whose nom de baker is Top Banana .
His lineup includes the original, which has no nuts, and roasted pecan praline banana bread, his No. 1 seller.
“What makes it unique is that I make my own praline,” he said.
The other flavors are dark chocolate chunk, coconut with dark chocolate chunk, coconut with white Belgian chocolate and a blend of dark and white chocolate.
His breads are available locally at Whole Foods in Washington, D.C., at select coffee shops in the area and on the Internet. At Whole Foods, each two-pound loaf is priced in the $14 range. His breads are made with no chemicals and no preservatives.
“I use the best ingredients,” he said. “I’m obsessive about cleanliness and quality. My breads have to taste the same way every time. There’s no reason for them to change, whether you make 25 at a time or 200.”
His production today is 350 loaves a week. But he’s at capacity.
“Until recently, I’ve been a one-man bakery,” Lawrence said.
He recently hired an assistant and hopes to find his own facility and expand production.
“I’m ready to scale up,” he said. “I’m debt-free in the business and I’m making money. I’ve not taken a dime of salary in two years.”
That will change, be believes, in 2011.
For Lawrence, baking is a passion.
“Baking for me is the easiest part of the business,” Lawrence said. “Once you get into the bakery, it’s kind of like an oasis.”
But Havana Banana is also a business. And Lawrence, who has an MBA , is a realist. He thinks he’s on the right track.
“I can read the tea leaves,” he said. “The telling moment for me was when I was at a farmer’s market. It was ten degrees outside and the market was empty. But my breads sold out.”