Meet Claude and Craig Malone, founders of Cornbread 26, a full service catering company and member of Hot Bread Kitchen’s Small Business Incubator since 2018. Claude and Craig are also partners—their company is named after their first couple of recipes, cornbread, and their anniversary, the 26th! While their business as caterers has slowed down due to COVID-19, Claude and Craig have remained positive. They’re currently taking time to launch their signature cornbread madeleine cookies (find them at The Goods Mart!) and donating comforting meals to frontline healthcare workers.
How have you been doing? How has the pandemic affected your business?
Claude: When the stay at home order was set in place, we were getting cancellation calls left and right from our clients. It was definitely hard, but I think through this entire process we have learned the importance of being flexible and nimble, adjusting to the times and not being so stubborn.
We also just had to adopt the mindset that for a while we’re not going to be able to do what we do: large weddings and large gatherings. We have to change the way we provide our catering to the public. We have to recognize the health and safety of ourselves and our clients. Formerly large events are going to be smaller for a while, so we have to really be creative in how we deliver food but still comply with socially distant regulations.
Craig: In the first few weeks into the stay-at-home orders, one of our larger corporate catering clients on Wall Street reached out to us and asked: how can we help you? What can we do? We just thought we were small potatoes to them, catering lunches and dinners. But when they contacted us, we were really touched that even larger corporate partners are thinking of us during this time. We’ve been part of their lives for a couple of years now, so it meant a lot to us that they reached out and made us feel special.
You have also been donating emergency meals to frontline health and hospital workers. What has that been like?
Claude: We chose to work with Queens Center Hospital in Jamaica, Queens—a local hospital in our neighborhood. Since it’s less than a mile from us, we wanted to take care of our community. We are so touched by the gratitude of all the hospital workers.
Craig: It was a little nerve-wracking, to be honest, to go into the hospital to make the donation, but we were so honored to be providing something like that to all those working on the frontlines.
I also want to say that unfortunately, our business has pivoted to not the best of circumstances. We’ve been catering for memorials, funerals, and shivas. We are honored to be able to provide food for families during such a difficult time. These are people that found us, saw that we were still operating, and wanted to provide to the family that had lost a loved one.
When we first started our business in 2016, we didn’t know what our secret sauce was, so to speak. We quickly learned that what people were buying into wasn’t so much the menu, it was us as a couple. So we learned quickly that it’s important for us to lead with our story, our love story.Craig, Cornbread26
How do the identities as an LGBTQ and Black-owned business play a part in your entrepreneurship?
Claude: When we first started our business in 2016, we didn’t know what our secret sauce was, so to speak. We didn’t know how we functioned running a catering company and being a couple. We quickly learned that what people were buying into wasn’t so much the menu, it was us as a couple. So we learned quickly that it’s important for us to lead with our story, our love story. And, that’s how we moved forward as an LGBTQ owned company.
For us it’s just about transparency, really allowing people to see who we are and how we represent the rainbow. We reach out to the LGBTQ community for events. As far as being a Black-owned business it’s the same story, as entrepreneurs we are in the driver’s seat. We try our best to prioritize customers and clients of color, Black nonprofits and organizations, in addition to LBGTQ groups. That’s really important to us. We try our best to work with Black employees and people of color for our events.
It’s amazing that you lead your team and business with authenticity, your story, and your voice.
Claude: For me, I thought initially: are we sharing too much about ourselves? Are we getting too personal? But we learned with our story there’s no such thing as too personal, we’ve learned our customers are buying into us. We thought that if we ran into potential customers that were say anti-LGBTQ, would that affect our profitability? Would people not want to work with us? Once we threw that fear all away and started to lead with transparency about how we are, we started to see our customer base grow. Even something as small as a social media, we’ve found that when we post something that is personal, about us, we get the best response.
Craig: People love our story and love. Even when we promoted ourselves as a gay couple, some customers might now might not actually know our background. Once we catered an event for a church pastor and his wife, and we were thinking had they even read our story? But at that moment it didn’t matter, they chose us and we are still the same people representing our company authentically.
The community of entrepreneurs at Hot Bread Kitchen is so strong—especially right now, it has been so important to have found a kitchen that’s so much more than a production space.
Do you have any words of encouragement for other businesses during this time?
Claude: We do want to thank everyone who has been supporting us during this time. We are grateful to Hot Bread Kitchen with all the resources you have been providing to us and all the other businesses.
Craig: We were in shock how quickly Hot Bread Kitchen came through. They got a hold of us and checked on us to see if we were okay.
Craig: This is such a period of uncharted territory for everyone and we shouldn’t feel bad, we are all rebuilding again and are here to support each other. For Claude’s birthday in May, we ordered some cupcakes from Pure Confections, another Hot Bread Kitchen Small Business Incubator member. We want our community to know that we are in this together, we are sending out encouragement to everyone and lots of love. The community of entrepreneurs at Hot Bread Kitchen is so strong—it always has been—but especially right now, it has been so important to have found a kitchen that’s so much more than a production space.
Claude: It’s a family there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.