Anyone who plays basketball knows that a well-executed pivot can change the course of a game.
Brandon Byrd knows it also can change the course of his life.
In the nearly 20 years since he graduated from UW-Eau Claire, Byrd has earned two master’s degrees, enjoyed a lucrative career in the entertainment business and now is a successful entrepreneur in the nation’s capital.
“We all start out with a vision of where we think we will go, but it’s not necessarily where we will be tomorrow, in two weeks or in 20 years,” says Byrd, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2001 with a degree in kinesiology. “I loved my time in corporate America, but I knew that path was no longer the right one for me.
“I’m open-minded, I’m willing to take calculated risks. I know how and when to pivot.”
Eight years ago, he left his marketing job to launch Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats, a food truck in Washington, D.C., that serves Wisconsin-style custard and treats from a vintage van.
Since then, Goodies has been featured on “Top 5 Restaurants” on the Food Network, as well as in a variety of East Coast media. Byrd has sold many thousands of gallons of frozen custard to thousands of people, including to American icons like the late Rep. John Lewis, and his truck is still attracting long lines of loyal customers despite COVID-19.
He soon will change directions again, this time to open a Goodies store in the historic Ice House building in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which will be his business’ flagship brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“Life has a lot of twists and turns, which is good because it gives you plenty of opportunities to pivot and take your life in a new direction,” Byrd says.
Finding his place as a Blugold
A lifelong athlete, Byrd came to UW-Eau Claire to study kinesiology, planning to pursue a career in sports medicine or physical therapy.
“I wanted to be on the medicine side of sports,” Byrd says. “I played basketball and was into sports most of my life. I still wanted to be associated with the sports industry because I loved it. The medical or rehab side of it was appealing.”
As a Blugold, he excelled in the classroom and embraced the many opportunities he found across the campus, Byrd says, noting that a mid-size state university was the right fit for him.
While being Black on a predominately white campus was sometimes challenging, Byrd says he came to UW-Eau Claire knowing he would need to have an open mind if he was going to fully immerse himself in campus life as he intended.
He also was eager to interact with people whose backgrounds and life experiences differed from his own.
“I actually found an opportunity in the lack of diversity on campus,” says Byrd, who spent his youth in California before moving to Madison and then Eau Claire. “I saw it as a teachable moment for all of us. I grew up with Latinos and Blacks. When I got to Eau Claire, I had to learn to interact with more diverse people, including people from small towns who had never been around someone of color.
“I became friends with people who I could learn from and who could learn from me.”
The friendships and experiences he found at UW-Eau Claire helped him learn to be more comfortable interacting with people of all races and backgrounds, something that has helped him be more successful in his business and in his life.
“Not all my customers are Black or Latino,” Byrd says. “The world is full of diverse people. Because I had those experiences when I was younger, I’m comfortable interacting with anyone. I’m authentic and genuine when I talk with everyone who comes to my truck, and that’s one of the reasons they come back. So, what I learned at Eau Claire is still helping me today.”
Discovering his creative side
After graduating from UW-Eau Claire, Byrd went to graduate school at the University of Kentucky, still planning a career in the world of sports, though by then he had shifted his focus from the medical side of sports to the administrative side. At that time, his goal was to be a general manager or a marketing manager for a professional sports team.
While in graduate school, Byrd started a concert and entertainment promotions company that sent him in a new direction.
“It fascinated me,” Byrd says of the entertainment industry. “It was interesting and different from what I was going to school for and I was good at it. I really enjoyed figuring out how you pack a concert hall with an up-and-coming artist, how you get people to buy tickets for a show in advance or how to get people to buy a product when there isn’t a big demand for it.
“It really challenged me to use my creative side, which I loved.”
After shifting gears and earning a master’s degree in sports administration and later an MBA from the University of Delaware, he spent a decade working in corporate America for several international companies. His resume includes stints working as an assistant brand manager for Miller Coors and as the multicultural marketing manager for Bacardi and Red Bull. Prior to starting Goodies, Byrd was the marketing director for Hip-Hop’s premier publication, XXL Magazine, in New York City.
“I found my niche,” Byrd says of his marketing career. “It was exactly what I wanted to do at that time of my life. I realized that I am a creative person and I needed an outlet for my creativity. Corporate America gave me a place where my creativity could flourish.”
However, after 10 years of working for large corporations, Byrd began sketching out a business idea that would again take his career in a new direction, this time as an entrepreneur.
It again felt like the right time to pivot, he says.
Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats
By that time, his mother had moved to Washington, D.C., for a job assignment. He decided to relocate there as well, realizing it would be an ideal location for the new business he was contemplating.
As a kid in Wisconsin, Byrd loved frozen custard, so he decided to bring a taste of Wisconsin to the East Coast.
He knew from the beginning that his business, Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats, had to be about more than just offering high-quality frozen treats, Byrd says.
“When I thought about what I wanted to accomplish with my next adventure, I knew I wanted start something pure and wholesome that would allow me to use my creative side,” Byrd says of his business model. “I wanted it to pay homage to yesteryear in America.
“I also wanted to give people an experience that feels authentic, an experience that makes them feel like I feel when I think about my favorite times I shared with my family when I was a kid.”
As he planned his business, Byrd drew on happy memories from his childhood, many involving doing simple things with family, things like sharing a root beer float on a hot summer day.
Other favorite childhood memories included listening to rock 'n' roll-era music with family and picking through junkyards with his dad in search of discarded treasures.
So, he weaved those pieces of nostalgia into his business plan as well.
Byrd refurbished an old abandoned van he found in a junkyard, giving it the look and feel of an old-time ice cream truck.
When he’s working in the truck, he wears a bow tie and a newsboy cap, adding to the feel of days gone by. The Motown and classic rock music he pipes from the truck also add to the nostalgic feel.
All those details — along with Byrd’s outgoing, friendly personality — create an experience that his customers won’t find anywhere else in the D.C. area, he says.
Not surprisingly, Byrd and his truck quickly became a local favorite.
“I love people, and this is obviously a people-oriented business,” Byrd says of his success. “People who were some of my first customers eight years ago, are my friends today. They invite me to hang out, meet their families. Frozen custard first connected us, but conversations made us friends.”
Navigating a pandemic
In recent years, Byrd was working six to seven days a week during the warmer parts of the year to meet the needs of his customers.
However, during the pandemic, he’s down to three to four days of work, he says, noting that a large part of his business had been catering for office events, birthday parties and other gatherings that currently are not happening because of COVID.
“So, I had to pivot again,” Byrd says of managing his business during these unprecedented times. “I made adjustments because of COVID. This hasn’t been easy but I’m here for the long haul.”
The time and effort he put into building relationships with his customers from the beginning is helping to keep him in business despite the enormous challenges, he says.
“I’m also blessed because my customer base is part of my family,” Byrd says. “I take my time with every customer. I have shown them love all these years and now they are here for me.”
Soon after COVID began closing businesses this spring, his customers began reaching out to him looking for ways to help, he says. They ask to buy gift cards, place large orders for entire neighborhoods or find other ways to support the business, he says.
Their support these last few months tells him that he got it right when he embraced a business model that values people and relationships, Byrd says.
“It’s never been about brand marketing or making a transaction,” Byrd says of his sales approach. “It’s all about my customers and giving them an authentic, genuine experience that they will remember.”
Taking the next step
While the pandemic is creating business challenges, it is giving Byrd more time to rehab the Ice House, a historic building in Old Town Alexandria that soon will become Goodies’ flagship storefront.
“It’s an amazing, iconic building,” Byrd says of the much-loved historic building that he plans to open by Labor Day. “I have worked hard to buy this building. I’m excited that this beautiful place is going to be my world headquarters.”
Once the store is open, his vintage truck will be used mostly for catering and other special events, marking yet another pivot for the business.
“None of this has been easy and I work hard,” Byrd says of building a successful business. “But this little truck has afforded me so many opportunities that I never expected. I’m getting as much out of this business as I’m putting into it.”
Top photo caption: Brandon Byrd, who launched his food truck eight years ago in Washington, D.C., soon will open his first storefront in a historic building in Virginia. (Photo credit: Misha Enriquez for Visit Alexandria)