St. Louis knows master baker and entrepreneur Josh Allen as the man behind Companion Baking, which he started in South City in 1993. Companion moved to a more expansive facility in 2015, taking acclaimed restaurateur Josh Galliano along for the ride. The baking company has gone on to achieve massive success, renowned for its library of flavorful breads and low-waste practices.
Now, Allen is taking on a new project: Baked In with Josh Allen, a podcast that focuses on uncovering the unique ideas and values that are “baked in” to innovators’ businesses. He’s come out of the gate strong, with major players like Katie Collier and Gerard Craft sitting down to talk about their experiences and what makes them tick. And this early success is no wonder – Allen is gregarious and easy to talk to. So easy in fact, Craft let the future return of his much-missed fast-casual concept Porano slip during his sit-down.
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We caught up with Allen to talk about the podcast, navigating COVID-19 and how it feels to be behind a beloved St. Louis company.
Companion Baking is celebrating its 30-year anniversary. How does it feel to be approaching such a big number?
The really interesting part for me is that I honestly feel like we’re just getting started. When we moved from our original South City bakery and built our factory in 2015, it was truly a new beginning for our business. We had just begun to figure things out again by the end of 2019, and I was prepared to ride the wave for a bit. Then – boom – COVID: three years of utter chaos, keeping our people safe, keeping our business afloat. Lots of starts and stops. Watching folks I really admire struggle mightily and feeling helpless. We’re finally finding our post-COVID footing so I feel a little foolish reflecting on 30 years when the world feels pretty precarious. That being said, I am amazingly grateful to the St. Louis community and to our customers for continuing to support us. We’re very fortunate.
Tell me about how this podcast came to be. What made you want to explore this avenue?
Curiosity. As I’ve navigated the ebbs and flows of business, I’ve always been capable of recognizing where I need help and where I have more to learn. So much of that learning has come from other folks (both in and out of the food industry) that I admire. Podcasts are such a unique opportunity to dive deeper into conversations and issues and challenges. I’m fascinated by how other leaders have overcome obstacles as they’ve built their businesses. If the 30 years in building Companion has done anything for me, it’s given me a little bit of credibility to engage in these conversations with some really cool innovators. And hopefully these podcasts can inform and inspire the leaders of tomorrow.
The podcast centers around industry innovators and the “secret sauce” that’s led to their success. As you interview people, are you finding any common threads?
Yes. It’s not very complicated. Everyone strongly believes that they have something worth building and the unwavering commitment to make it happen. Confidence coupled with perseverance is tough to beat. That certainly doesn’t mean that failure isn’t a part of the dialogue. What impresses me most about these folks is that they all have the ability to reframe failure into a vehicle for growth.
Who do you see your listener as? Who do you expect would enjoy these episodes beyond leaders looking for entrepreneurial inspiration?
I think all of the podcast contributors and their brands have fascinating origin stories. What Maxine Clark created with Build-A-Bear in her late forties, for example, is super inspiring. So many of the people I’ve spoken with have overcome some big challenges or have taken big risks or have followed their passions that have led to unexpected places. I don’t think you have to be a business leader to be inspired by these conversations.
So far, Baked In has had a heavy local presence. Will it be St. Louis-based going forward?
There’s no question that I’m leaning heavily into St. Louis for the first episodes. It’s my hometown and one I’m passionate about promoting. And, yes, I do include a lot of food industry innovators, but I’m sharing stories with a little different focus. With Gerard Craft, for instance, we spent a lot of time discussing his role in curating two game-changing venues for St. Louis – The Foundry and CITYPARK for St. Louis SC. I was curious about measuring success in these ventures aside from simply the concepts related to Niche.
In talking with Lorenza Pasetti from Volpi, we dove into her building a national brand from an iconic 120-plus-year-old multi-generational business. On the non-food side, upcoming episodes feature Rick Wolf from Found Vintage and Found by the Pound. Rick’s core business has been built on sustainability for over 100 years and he recently vertically integrated his company to take advantage of the blossoming market for both recycled and upcycled clothing. And Mark Hyman of Hyman Ltd. in Maryland Heights is a renowned collector and seller of rare and unusual automobiles. It’s so cool to see what he’s doing tucked away in an industrial park. I’m excited to see which stories resonate with listeners because that will certainly help me chart a course for future conversations.
Finally, it’s impossible to ignore your own success with Companion. Looking back over the years, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned with business? What’s something you wish someone would have told you at the beginning of all this?
Honestly, the most important business lessons I’ve learned were taught to me by my grandfather before I started. I was just too naïve and too young to appreciate them at the time.
The first is “Shut up and listen to your customers, they’ll tell you how to grow your business.” This one took me awhile, but once I figured it out, it’s been part of our guiding light. We really view our role now as a wholesale baker in helping our customers tell their story on the plate. In order to do that, we have to really listen to their needs. It’s not about showing them the things we can make; it’s about solving their problems. Do that and we succeed.
There’s also “Cash is king.” This one also took a while to sink in. But managing cash in good times and bad is just so critical. I learned that lesson the hard way after opening our factory in 2015 and not measuring costs closely enough and not getting our arms around growth quickly enough. It’s a ball I never take my eyes off of now. Even after 30 years into business, I wake up every day and check the bank. What went out and what came in. Every damn day.
Subscribe to Josh Allen’s podcast, Baked In, at Apple Podcasts or listen at bakedinpodcast.com.