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Bridging Passions for Justice Reform and Entrepreneurship Through Barbecue

As a FUSE Executive Fellow, Dr. Carlos Thomas (2018-19) worked with the Los Angeles County Child Support Services Department (CCSD) to augment their use of predictive analytics to increase the rate of child support payment compliance and improve outcomes for families. “We were pushing forward a lot of new ideas about what social services can be and do using predictive analytics,” Carlos recalled “When I started, a clear divide existed between staff who got the need for technology and saw its value, and those who needed more time to catch up. Fast forward, I’m proud that CSSD is now a leader in data analytics in the public sector, including building the necessary internal competencies.”

After his fellowship, Carlos realized his longtime dream of opening a restaurant and catering business—Memphis Mac in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—that employs and trains formerly incarcerated staff, a project that came together with the help of his wife, a former public defender.

“I am building a mission-driven organization for multiple reasons. The need for such organizations is acute in a state like Louisiana where there is so much poverty… [Additionally] my wife is a Louisiana native and former public defender. We agreed that we needed to develop opportunities for persons who have had encounters with the legal system.” – Carlos Thomas, FUSE alum

How did the FUSE Fellowship impact you?

The positive energy of the program was so important to me, as was the diversity of the fellows. FUSE really understands what diversity means—and I say that as a son of the South. I’ve also done a lot of work on university campuses, which have so many different types of people. To be in that environment again was invigorating and uplifting.

FUSE exposed me to numerous new possible pathways for my career. As a college professor, your trajectory is pretty linear. To be in a community of people who know the hustle and are ready to pivot in different directions helped me see more opportunities for my future.

The training that we received also helped me become a better entrepreneur. For example, I learned about Opportunity Zones, which helped me when I was deciding where to locate my restaurant.

After years as a professor and teacher, and one year as a FUSE fellowship year working in public service, I am now an entrepreneur in the restaurant industry (though I’m still teaching operations management and information systems at Southeastern Louisiana University).

Tell us about what it was like to open a restaurant just as the pandemic started?

I had had a longtime dream to open up a barbecue restaurant that employed formerly incarcerated staff. In 2020, after completing my fellowship, I moved back to Louisiana for personal reasons and decided to take the plunge. With my wife’s encouragement, we launched Memphis Mac in February 2020. We were open for only six weeks before we had to shut down due to COVID.

But out of the crisis, I found new opportunities. We quickly pivoted to selling food curbside on the weekends, and now we cater events all over Baton Rouge and to some locations nationwide. I’ve even been able to leverage the relationships I developed at FUSE to think more strategically about my business. My partner fellow at CSSD was Amanda Wang Valentine, who is an expert in behavioral economics and marketing. She introduced me to people who can help me think about expanding my business through shipping, and perhaps a subscription service. On the side, I also continue to teach operations management and information systems at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Why was employing formerly incarcerated individuals so central to your restaurant plan?

The restaurant employs a number of formerly incarcerated staff – a mission that was my dream. As our business continues to expand, I hope to make my staff partners, who have an ownership stake in the company.

I am building a mission-driven organization for multiple reasons. First, the need for such organizations is acute in a state like Louisiana where there is so much poverty. Second, there is a surplus of underutilized culinary talent in Louisiana – nearly everyone can cook! Lastly, my wife is a Louisiana native and former public defender. We both agreed that we needed to develop opportunities for persons who have had encounters with the legal system.

What are you hoping to achieve in the next 6-12 months?

I want to both solidify Memphis Mac at our current location and expand to a second location closer to the center of Baton Rouge. We are pushing to build awareness of the restaurant in new areas of the city, partly through selling at events like a recent Makers Market in the central city. We are also partnering with a local delivery company, Hoopla, to launch neighborhood deliveries from the restaurant to targeted neighborhoods where we want to grow the business.

Related work and news:

225 Magazine: Former LSU and Southern Professor Serves Barbecue at Memphis Mac BBQ

Next City: How L.A. County Made Collecting Child Support Less Punitive 

Instagram: Memphis Mac Enterprises, Inc.

 

Photo Credit: Carlos Thomas

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