Malaika and Michael Wells started Do Well Sandwich Co. in June 2018 with hopes of bringing healthy food options to the south side of Chicago where they both grew up. After deciding to raise their family and build a life there, they knew they wanted to provide something different for their community—something wholesome and delicious that was accessible and on the go. Starting with a pop-up event at a local market, Do Well Sandwich Co. was born.
A lot has changed with the business since the summer of 2018, and like many businesses, Do Well has been impacted by the pandemic as well as the social injustices and unrest in the world. Malaika and Michael shared with us how they’ve pivoted over the course of the past two years. From sandwiches to beverages, this power couple has grown a business, created a brand, and continues to inspire their community by showing what Black entrepreneurial success looks like.
What does Do Well specialize in, and how did you get started?
Do Well Sandwich Co. is a craft beverage company that focuses on creating quality, all-natural beverages—no artificial flavors, sweeteners, or colors. We put the best into our products because we expect them to enhance the lives of our customers.
We know our name may be a little confusing, being a beverage brand and all, but it wasn’t always that way. We originally started because Mike had a really great lemonade recipe. He made it for Thanksgiving one year, and we started selling it here and there. Then we decided that this should be a business.
We had the idea to also offer a product that would complement our lemonades and give us a better chance at gaining visibility as a new business. So we created wholesome, home-style sandwiches; hence the “Sandwich Co.”
We sold the lemonade alongside the sandwiches, and we quickly found out that the lemonades were very popular and could stand alone. So we streamlined our business concept to focus just on the beverages and also to give us a little breathing room—but we decided to keep the name. It is an important part of our history that we don’t want to forget.
How did you grow the business?
We started out doing pop-up events at a local market twice a week. That transformed into offering some of our products at other small businesses. First there was a retail store that focused solely on selling Black-owned products. We also have a friend that owns a restaurant, and they started carrying our lemonade. We just built a lot of relationships. And we started with the people that we knew—our network.
We prioritized having business partners who aligned with our standards in terms of good business practices, in terms of doing things the right way, in a way that’s not going to only elevate us, but going to elevate Black business in general. There is a stigma about Black people not being able to do business with each other, so it was important for us to begin there and build relationships with Black business owners and heal that trope, if you will. We’re motivated, and that helps us grow.
What else do you want to come out of this business?
We want to build a legacy for our family. We want to contribute to our community in a greater way. We chose to focus on the South Side because we know there aren’t a lot of options. We grew up here. It’s a lot of fast food. On the beverage end, everything is high-fructose corn syrup, fake this, fake that. It was important for us to be able to provide something better, a better alternative than what we already had access to. We want to show people that there are other options, and it can come from people who look just like us. That drive and determination helped us grow.
We also constantly think of scale. A business is kind of like a buffet. If you go to a fine dining restaurant where everything is handmade, it’s going to take longer to make all the dishes. It’s going to be better quality. But as you scale, as you get bigger, you can become the old country buffet where you just start laying stuff out. What we’re trying to do is find that balance and be scalable but with quality. Be scalable without losing our core essence.
How did COVID-19 affect the plan to scale?
Before the pandemic started, we just had an order form on our website. Then finally I was like, “We need an actual order-online platform.” So we created that, then the pandemic hit. That was the greatest blessing because we had a way to promote our products without people having to see us in person or without having to go to a restaurant to get it.
Now we are an e-commerce business, and we still sell wholesale in stores and restaurants. We’re growing our product line and expanding from lemonades to cocktail kits. During this pandemic we started hosting a virtual happy hour, and that turned into a margarita mix we sell. Then the margarita mix evolved into offering a mixing syrup that you can use in beverages or in fruit dishes. Our business is constantly evolving. Businesses need to constantly evolve to survive.
How does being Black owned play a role in your brand?
We’re Black. We’re Black as hell, but when we started, we didn’t want to be like, “Hello, this is a Black business.” Instead we said, “This is a dope business that’s Black as hell.” I want to be very clear about that. I don’t want that to be taken out. We’re Black, but we wanted to reach people on a more human level if that makes sense.
It’s become more important for us to emphasize that we are a Black-owned business lately though, because of the current surge to support Black businesses. Because the injustices and inequalities in the Black community are being put in the forefront. People are starting to realize: Oh, this group of people has been at a disadvantage more than we want to acknowledge or even knew to acknowledge, and now it’s important to fix this problem.
One of the ways to fix that problem is by supporting these Black-owned businesses because that creates economic empowerment for them. Everybody knows the more money you have, the better things can be. When you can help the economy in the Black community by supporting Black businesses, then you elevate the entire community. It was important for us to say, “Yes, we are a Black business. We’re a proud Black business. We do business a certain way, and we’re proud of it. We will serve all, but first and foremost, we are doing this for us and by us.”
How can people support Black-owned businesses?
If you look in my closet, a lot of my shirts, hats, shoes—honestly all of my wardrobe is either from somewhere Black-owned or it’s got a Black connotation to it. I want that to be the focus right now because I think in order for us to elevate to a Walmart or a Target or to get to those levels, we have to begin here and focus on Black banking, Black food, Black toilet paper—the necessities.
Start with your essentials. Our deodorant is Black-owned right now. We make our own toothpaste, so technically that’s Black-owned. My shea butter is Black-owned. The way we begin our day is Black-owned.
It’s little things like that because a lot of times we just don’t know that these things exist. I guess when you make it your intention, the universe brings things to you. Intentionally spending money with Black-owned businesses or on Black-created things helps continue to spread the dollar throughout the community and lift everyone up.
What does the future look like for Do Well?
We are very excited about the future to be honest. At one point we said, “In three years, if someone wants to buy our company for a million dollars—yes, we’d sell.” Now I’m in a space where I feel like if it’s worth a million dollars, I want to keep it! We definitely need more retailers and restaurants selling our product. We need to build our volume, and we were in the process of that when this whole thing went down.
I think once we get more freedom to move and shake again, that will be the case. When businesses can operate again, we can do the actual work of getting our name out there and being sold and shared with more people. We’re hustlers by nature and Do Well is 100% our baby. We’re professional, and we know what we’re doing. We’re going to continue to spread the message of our brand and our business in hopes of collaborating with and elevating other businesses in the process.