By Sarah Thompson
It’s been quite a “season” for Lillard Royal Lewis, Jr.
Also known as “Chef Jay,” Lewis is a world-renowned chef, an insightful food philosopher, a published author and a philanthropist. He applies his philosophy and global vision of food sustainability and health disparities, plant-based economics and corporate responsibility to his Connecticut-based business, which is 100% Black-owned. His many products, which include the Baby J’s Spice label, are all driven toward two central philosophical pillars of his corporate structure: sustainability and diversity in education.
While his gourmet spice line has launched him into a class all his own, his journey started as a private chef to the stars, preparing meals for R&B legends and performers including Carl Thomas, K. Michelle, Smokey Robinson, Al B. Sure!, Styles P and Gregory Osbourne. Over the years, some clients turned into significant friends and mentors—including legendary actor and comedian John Witherspoon and business icon Curtis Robinson. Both have provided Lewis with invaluable professional guidance.
“Some of the first people to try my spices before they were even labeled were Smokey Robinson, John Witherspoon and Soledad O’Brien,” he shared. “They tasted my food, sampled the original spice blends and they were like wow, you’ve got to bottle this!”
Lewis knew early on that what would set his business apart was research and development of proprietary intellectual property. He wanted to own components and raw resources used to create in his industry.
“In the culinary world, spices and spice blends are to the culinarian as gold is to the watchmaker or platinum is to the jeweler,” he explained. “Spices are immutable commodities in my profession. Unlike raw material commodities, spice blends can be created and for the creative mind—opportunities will always abound.”
Inspired by stories of spice traders throughout Africa and Asia, Lewis began to create various herb and seasoning blends—almost daily! Eventually, he created an array of reliably delicious spice blends that were hit when used for exclusive dishes for his private clients.
"I take my products around the world, around the country and around the state and use our resources to educate on social and corporate responsibility as well as feed hungry people."
What followed was the incorporation of his business, Fūd, Inc. Built completely from the ground up and self-funded, Lewis specifically chose to incorporate his business in Connecticut because he believed in how positive the future could look.
“This is our state,” he shared. “We must invest in ourselves and in our children’s future.”
And it has always been his two young boys, Jayden and Jameson, who have been by his side as his builds his company.
“Ever since I’ve started this business, they’ve been there every step of the way,” he said. “They taste-tested and helped develop the spices. I remember bringing them to the Secretary of the State’s office, meeting Denise Merrill while I was trying to set up my business, and being there when I closed the deal with Geissler’s—they were right there with their pens and papers, with their hands raised. I think it’s a phenomenal way to teach my sons what it means to be a Black-owned business.”
Lewis and his boys are delivering some phenomenal products to people all across Connecticut and beyond. Now featured at grocery stores across Connecticut and Massachusetts, Baby J’s Errr-Thang Spice—which, according to Lewis’s sons, goes great on steak and chicken—has become a household hit.
Photo courtesy of Chef Jay
Geissler’s Supermarket, a New England-based family-owned chain founded in 1923, saw value in partnering with Lewis’ brand right away.
“We took this last year as an opportunity with Geissler’s—who has been an amazing business partner with us—to understand how retail works, how having a product in grocery stores works,” explained Lewis. “It’s a field rife with challenges but enormous benefits if one is willing to put in the time, gather and listen to advisors and work toward excellence. I wanted my sons to see this process up close and appreciate what it takes to be an entrepreneur.”
Following a logistics and strategy meeting with Rob Rybrick, co-owner of Geissler’s, Lewis’s son shared that he was “going to grow up to be a genius just like Daddy.” Soon after, Baby J’s Errr-Thang Spice arrived on Geissler’s shelves in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“The response from the community has been enormous. We’ve been getting calls for product all the way from Texas to Colorado and we’ve even shipped to California,” he said. “We have a couple of cases going overseas. We’ve gotten a really good response.” While Lewis is grateful for this uptick in business, he doesn’t want to simply benefit from the moment.
“It’s a good opportunity to fundraise,” he explained. “If we are going to get this influx in new customers and revenue streams, I think that it’s a socially responsible and corporately responsible thing to do to take some of that and reinvest it in the community so that my sons have some more tools than I did.”
Lewis has already given to his son’s schools and is currently forming an initiative that focuses on diversity in education, inside and outside the classroom.
Every bottle of Baby J’s says, “of food and philosophy,” which mirrors the heart behind Lewis’s business and the transition he’s making from the catering world to retail, business consultation and social justice education.
“In my most recent trip to Ghana, I lectured at Webster University about sustainability and corporate responsibility to a group of undergraduate and grad students,” he shared. “That’s where the company is going. I take my products around the world, around the country, around the state, and use our resources to educate on social and corporate responsibility as well feed hungry people.”
Lewis, who has a degree in Philosophy and African American Studies from Central Connecticut State University, stresses the importance of “balancing the scales” when it comes to business leadership and decision-making.
“Everything has been so data driven lately, but what we’re seeing in real time is how data-driven solutions are not necessarily the best solutions for the times,” he said. “What we need in board rooms across America is more wisdom, we need more social sciences and philosophy. Students with Liberal Arts degrees are, in my opinion, where the leaders of the future are going to be coming from. Today’s corporations, large and small, need more empathy, maturity and to be more social justice-minded.”
Lewis believes that the best way to start the day is with positivity. Often, that positivity comes from his sons, who he refers to as “living life coaches.”
“My sons have been such a phenomenal source of positivity first thing in the morning,” he shared. “When you start off with your sons believing in you—believing in themselves—and having their own ideas for the business, that’s a help!”
And, Lewis says he feels like a genius when he sees his boys wanting to start their own businesses.
What’s next? You guessed it—a new Baby J’s spice blend called Genius, which will feature young boys and girls of color on the bottles. Lewis will also feature the youth on the bottles in blog posts, sharing why they are geniuses, ultimately benefiting a charity as well.
One thing is for sure, with the next generation following in his footsteps, the Baby J’s brand is going to be just one of many great businesses to come from the Lewis family.
Find bottles of Baby J’s at Geissler’s Supermarkets across Connecticut and Massachusetts. Find locations here. Click here to connect with Chef Jay on Facebook and here on Instagram. A website featuring Baby J's Spices with purchase options will be available soon.
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