After the pandemic began, Taharka Brothers ice cream offered delivery of its ice cream by the case and home-bound customers ate it up.
Even Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is “a fan,” CEO Stephen Butz said.
But the road to success has been long for the Hampden ice cream factory. Spun off from a local nonprofit, the company struggled for years to make a profit.
This week, Taharka Brothers is adding a new line to its resume. The ice cream maker became a worker-owned cooperative, joining the growing ranks of such companies in a city that’s becoming an incubator for this unique business structure. Just weeks earlier, pizza shop Joe Squared announced it would reopen as a worker-owned cooperative after having been shuttered since March. Others include Baltimore Bicycle Works and Thread Coffee Roasters.
The move also makes Taharka Brothers a majority Black-owned company. Many customers had assumed that was the case for years, said Sean Smeeton, who is white and co-founded the company in 2010 with Darius Wilmore, who is Black. The former art director for Def Jam Recordings, Wilmore designed the company’s pink, block-letter logo.
Wilmore has since left the company, but the perception of the business as Black-owned was hard to shake, said Detric McCoy, the director of sales and marketing. Taharka Brothers frequently appeared on lists of local Black-owned companies.
Now they won’t have to correct anyone: Four of the six worker-owners are Black.
As with Joe Squared, the change to a cooperative structure at Taharka Brothers was facilitated by Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy. That group made its first-ever loan to Taharka Brothers in 2016, according to Kate Khatib, its executive director. In a text message, Khatib wrote that co-ops are “taking over the foodservice sector” in the city.
Prior to COVID-19, up to 75% of Taharka Brothers’ revenue came from sales to restaurants, colleges and scoop shops. The company also operates stalls at three of the city’s food halls: Broadway and Cross Street markets as well as Remington’s R. House.
This year, much of that business was replaced by home deliveries, Butz told The Baltimore Sun this spring. He built a software system with a consulting firm to track local orders and ensure that each is filled within 48 hours. At times, demand outpaced supply. The company recently became profitable for the first time, generating more than $1 million in sales for 2019.
Years earlier, Smeeton, a former accountant, had founded the Sylvan Beach Foundation, what he calls a “self-help community” for people recovering from substance use disorder. In 2000, the foundation opened a cafe in Mt. Vernon to sell coffee, ice cream and sandwiches. It later started an ice cream factory that eventually became Taharka Brothers. Smeeton said he was inspired in part by Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream maker started by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield known in part for their commitment to social justice causes.
The name paid homage to Taharka McCoy, a man Smeeton once mentored. They first met when Smeeton was coaching his basketball team and later worked together doing landscaping.
The two remained in contact through the years; McCoy would go on to become a pillar of his East Baltimore community, someone neighbors turned to in times of trouble. Prosecutors said he was slain in 2002 after trying to stop a robbery in his Somerset Homes neighborhood.
“It was definitely pretty tough growing up” in the years after his father’s death, Detric McCoy said. On his father’s side, there were four aunts and just one uncle. He spent years looking for male guidance.
He found it seven years ago, when he first began working at Taharka Brothers, at first on the ice cream truck doing catering events. Smeeton became a mentor and helped prepare him to go to college and study accounting. Their friendship, combined with his relationships with his male coworkers “really did fill that void that I was missing for a long time.” McCoy still hears stories about his dad from Smeeton.
“Sean kinda knew my dad longer than I did,” McCoy said.
At 25, he’s now the same age his father was when he was killed. Seeing his late father honored by the company’s name means a great deal to McCoy’s family. Hundreds of Black men get murdered in Baltimore each year — so many are forgotten. Though McCoy said he’s not a religious person, “I definitely recognize that this was a blessed situation.”
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This week, he became one of the six worker-owners at the company named for his dad.