For the Toast Factory, which plans to open a brick-and-mortar location next month on Culver Road, the startup journey required the combined ingredients of love and time.
The first of those ingredients, love, began when Keith Brown II was just a child clamoring for French toast in the morning from his mother’s boyfriend.
“I love his French toast. I could eat like seven of them at a time still to this day,” laughs Brown, the owner and operator of the Toast Factory. “Eventually I got tired of having to wait because it was like a treat, a luxury, we had to have him make it. So it was third grade when I got him to show me how he did it all.”
After a few bad batches, Brown made it for breakfast after sleepovers with his cousin, Rashed Owens, and it quickly became a staple. Over the years, Brown perfected his take on the classic breakfast food.
French toast began in poor areas of post -World War I Europe, Brown says. Instead of throwing away stale bread, people found ways to use it for a meal. Upon coming to the United States, it became sweeter and was a particularly important part of Black southern brunch culture, a significant influence in Brown’s life.
In fact, he called his French toast mentor a “Geechee,” a term for people of African descent who lived in the Ogeechee river region of Georgia and what Brown describes as “flamboyant southern style.” In honor of that, one of Brown’s specialty items, the Geechee plate, is served with steak and French toast with cheese in between, exactly like he remembers it.
“It’s all a way of putting my own spin on things,” Brown says. “I’m adventurous when I try these new recipes because I love trying new flavors and finding how they work together.”
Some of the other French toast specialties include the Fried Chicken French, which is a “fried chicken breakfast edition,” the Apple and Pork (a pork chop seared in brown sugar topped with apples and cinnamon), the Banana Cream, the Vanilla Sensation, and one of Brown’s personal favorites, the Peach Cobbler.
“Most people are not as adventurous with their breakfast. They just get the regular the first time. But next time, if they come back, they’ll order something more out there, if you know what I mean,” he says.
The restaurant will also include a mix and-match option, so people can find their own favorite combination.
The next ingredient for opening a physical Toast Factory location, time, unsurprisingly took a lengthy period to develop. While dreams of cooking as a career were always at the back of his mind, Brown says the concept really struck him at age 21 after some “dead-end, hard-grind jobs.” He opened a physical location in a small room on North Clinton Avenue, which lasted only a few months but further solidified the dream in his heart.
The next major step came 13 years later with a friendly French toast duel. A family friend invited Brown to a backyard party after hearing stories about the dish.
“He had this big setup in his garage and there was a chalkboard I put the menu up on. He didn’t even end up cooking his version, I think,” Brown says. “He said, ‘Where’s the tip jar?’ and I said back, ‘No tips, I just like cooking.’ But he went in the house to get one and it ended up being like $100 in tips.
“I totally wasn’t expecting that. It showed me it was still a thing worth pursuing. It was still unique, people still loved it, there was something there,” he continues. “So I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I do it this way, a smaller but manageable way?’”
With some of the funding coming from his onetime friendly French toast rival, Brown accumulated bookings with his pop-up kitchen. During the pandemic, he catered outside private events like church gatherings and baby showers and later was featured at public locations like the UUU Art Collective, Boutique Embellish, Greenovation, and a teacher/staff appreciation brunch at McQuaid Jesuit High School.
“It was a long trip and it was not easy, but this does feel like the next level,” Brown says of the brick-and-mortar location, which will also include a space for Vault Premier, an event planning company run by Brown’s cousin Rashed. “To be able to offer breakfast on a daily basis is just huge when I remember how it all started.”
With the 47-person capacity and an option for overflow in a back room, Brown hopes to keep the atmosphere open and inviting. As Brown loves to show people the process, the restaurant will be an open-kitchen concept with an industrial steel aesthetic to go along with the “factory” name.
While Brown says things will be a bit trial and error in the beginning, he is aiming for hours to be around 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. for breakfast and brunch patrons.
“We want to build a gem in Rochester. I feel like the Toast Factory can really add to the food culture of the area,” Brown says.