Ralph Rolle is living proof that passion is all the wealth you need.
Originally from The Bronx, New York— one of the birthplaces of hip-hop—Rolle has made his mark within the music industry as a master percussionist, writer, producer, teacher, and motivational speaker.
From making music with the likes of Nile Rodgers and Chic and Aretha Franklin to capturing audiences as a resident band member for NBC’s It’s Showtime at The Apollo for over 15 seasons, Rolle has had an incredible four-decades long career.
In 1996, Soul Snacks Cookie came to life. The concept, inspired by the soulful and comforting rhythms of music, has a personal, yet long-standing history. At an early age, Rolle found a love for baking through his mother and maternal grandmother. While settling in Renaissance Harlem, Rolle’s Georgia-born grandmother brought her Southern traditions and baking talents to the kitchen. Rolle was able to learn recipes dating back to the early 1900s.
In carrying on his mother’s and grandmother’s legacy, CEO Rolle is offering a variety of soul-enticing traditional and new flavors: Georgia Oatmeal Raisin, Peanut-Peanut Butter, Down Home Double Chocolate Chip, Ebony and Ivory Almond Cookie, Grampy’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie, French Cocoa Chocolate Chip, Miami Raisin Walnut, Chunked Up Chocolate Walnut, Cranberry Oatmeal Raisin, Joyful Gingerbread, and Sweet Potato Cookies.
In a nationwide roll out campaign, the Soul Snacks Cookie Company will hit the shelves of over 700 Wal-Mart stores across the country on April 1.
BLACK ENTERPRISE spoke with Ralph Rolle about his entrepreneurial journey and his nationwide rollout.
How did you come up with the name of your company?
The Soul Snacks name came to me by way of the music and the comfort of a good and memorable snack. I am a huge Al Green fan. Al Jackson Jr., the drummer/writer/producer with Mr. Green and co-founder of Booker T. & the MGs is someone that brings the soul to every song he plays. I felt like, “If I could be the kind of drummer/writer/producer that Mr. Jackson is for Al Green then I’m headed in the right direction with all that I am doing.”
Our cookies have been known to make a person dance when tasting them, so the name just kind of hit me. A soulful snack is what I want people to taste when they taste one of our cookies and feel when I’m playing a song. It’s all about putting smiles on people’s faces when I’m playing or with one of our cookies. I’ve always loved to make people smile. That’s why most of us who are musicians and bakers do what we do. To make people happy.
How does music, cooking, and Soul Snack Cookies co-exist in your life?
My music, life, and my cookie life co-exist because of the people that I have in my life. My wife, my daughter, and my friends, especially my wife, have given of themselves and their precious time to be there for me. I don’t see how any of what I do is at all possible without them. Teamwork and their belief that Soul Snacks could and would be an international brand is how I got this far. I could never say that this journey was mine and mine alone. That’s how I manage to co-exist.
Your grandmother played a pivotal part in the recipes that brought Soul Snacks Co to life. How does her legacy continue to live on through your company?
Grampy or Gramps, is what we called her. She held us all together through faith and passed her wisdom and knowledge on to all of us. Recipes for life that we still live by.
My cousin, Vincent, and I were the youngest. Grampy would sit us at the kitchen table on phone books and give us the job of licking the batter from the mixing bowl where we would take our fingers and clean that bowl so well that it looked as if you didn’t need to wash it. That taste, the smell of what was being baked, stayed with me. I never wanted those times to go away. I learned how to bake from watching Grampy and my mother. The Chocolate Chip Cookie, Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie and Oatmeal Raisin Cookie recipes that people are tasting date back to the early 1900’s.
From that base, we’ve created 17 new flavors. Grampy’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie is named after her. I wanted to pass her legacy onto the world by continuing to bake and create new products.
What have you enjoyed most about being an entrepreneur?
I absolutely enjoy the dream at work and in real-time. When you decide to follow the thought of doing something outside of what is your career or job, that’s the birth of an entrepreneur. When the idea is conceived from your mind and your soul, there is an excitement and fear that hits you simultaneously. The excitement is when you’re about to put your passion, time, and energy into something that you truly believe in. The physical and mental delivery of your thought and idea to people you don’t know is scary and so exciting at the same time. People who decide to be in business for themselves, an entrepreneur,, and stick with it through the ups and downs will grow from the journey.
Starting the cookie company wasn’t a Plan B. It was Plan A1. I kept my passion 100% for both. What you will find is that success isn’t predicated on how much money you make but in finishing the thought. That’s how I think, and how most entrepreneurs think. It’s not money first…it’s finishing the thought.
With the nationwide expansion of Soul Snacks Co underway, what does that mean to you as an entrepreneur?
This nationwide expansion to Walmart and Kroger, as well as the other outlets that my partners and I are negotiating, puts Soul Snacks in front of a huge and new audience. This is what many entrepreneurs dream about. My goal is to teach others what it takes to get here and do away with the ideas of what someone else may think of you and tell you that thinking crazy and it can’t be done. In my opinion, the most dangerous 4-letter word in the English language is “CAN’T!” Let’s first get rid of that word CAN’T from your life and you will see how you and your life will change.
As we are continuing to grow, we are expanding in The Bronx, New York, with a bigger baking facility that will be used for wholesale, retail, and a culinary arts school. Bill Yosses, the former pastry chef for the Obamas for both terms, is my partner in the culinary program. We are also expanding internationally. We plan on growing the company while at the same time, helping communities around the world. We’ve donated $25,000 to farmers in Africa who produce a huge percentage of the cacao production in the world that don’t see the true fruits of their labor.
What challenges have you had to overcome during your journey?
The biggest challenge was the death of my mother, Rose Rolle. She was such an independent, strong, and caring person. She assumed the role of both mother and father. She had to. She cared about everyone in the neighborhood and raised me, my sister Yvonne, my brother, Howard; and my sister Yvette, by herself in Bronx River Houses.
Her dying at 55 took so much of the wind out of my sail and closed the light in my heart to where it looked like nothing mattered anymore. I felt like my life was over at 23. For 10 years, I walked around with a smile but inside, I was dead.
The day I begun to overcome her not being here was the day that I had enough of feeling like nothing or no one mattered. I started talking to myself and I swear it felt like I was having an outer-body experience. “What in the hell are you doing,” was the first words out of my mouth. “Why are you doing this to yourself? Your mother would be furious if she saw you acting like this and doing the horrible things that you’re doing!” That conversation with myself was the moment I decided to not take a single day for granted. No day is a promise that you will see that day or the next. I overcame 10 years of depression and I’ve been on a lifelong journey to teach, through my example, that all is possible if you just get out of your own way.
What advice would you give young creatives who are looking to pursue the world of entrepreneurship?
The first piece of advice is, build your idea from a place of passion and not monetary gain. Money will come and money will go but your passion will live forever. Don’t be afraid to fail. Your mistakes will be your growth. Get out of your own way. There will be haters. That’s good for your growth because they are part of the real world and they’re not going away. You must learn to keep your honor and dignity intact. Think about what your life would be like if everything was perfect. I’ll pass on perfection and take the bumps and the bruises. Those bumps and bruises and missteps help you to mature as a human being…if you find the lesson in the pain and use it in a positive way.
And lastly…never lose the connection to yourself. See that person in the mirror as being important, positive, and full of ideas and passion in every single day.