Arrested Development’s Speech leads family corn business at Summerfest

written by: Tannette Johnson-Elie (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) Milwaukee-ans may remember Speech for his community-conscious music as the founder and producer of the Grammy Award-winning, alternative hip-hop group Arrested Development. Speech, whose real name is Todd Thomas, never forgot his Milwaukee roots after finding musical success. That’s good news for Summerfest-goers, who have come to depend on a tradition started by Speech’s father, Robert Thomas: Robby’s Roasted Corn. When his father suffered a stroke several years ago, the Rufus King graduate stepped up to keep the family business alive. Speech, who lives in Atlanta, purchased the business in 2005 and has returned to Milwaukee every year since to oversee his family’s corn business during the 11-day lakefront music festival. He even works his travel schedule around Summerfest. He’s currently touring with Arrested Development in the United States, Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia and the Middle East. Robby's Roasted Corn has three booths on Summerfest grounds: near the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, in Briggs & Stratton's Big Backyard and near the M&I Classic Rock Stage. Over the past 30 years, Robby's has sold 3 million ears of corn at Summerfest and has employed hundreds of young people from the inner city. "I first learned how to work being at this corn house as a child," said Speech, 39. "The lesson of entrepreneurship, the lesson of striving to make opportunities for yourself and others, really ran strongly in my family. I feel proud that my family has had something to do with this tradition in Milwaukee." Although he declines to say how much money he's put into the business, Speech said, "We invest tens of thousands of dollars a year to put out something like this.". Translating success As an established entrepreneur, Robert Thomas, 72, was able to penetrate the circles of influence that help one get into a venue like Summerfest. Now, some business leaders hope Speech's fame and music industry connections can help raise the profile of Robby's Roasted Corn. "Speech is critical to keeping Robby's Corn alive and to African-Americans maintaining a presence at Summerfest," said Jim Thompson, a local festival vendor and former restaurateur who runs JT Bones Catering. "With his national and international recognition as a performer, he will be able to garner recognition for Robby's Corn above and beyond what his father was able to do." Quiet and unassuming, Speech on a recent afternoon was setting up for Summerfest not far from the stage where he performed last year. He is helped by his wife Yolanda, and their two children, Zoe, 11, and Jahi, 13. "It was very weird because I'm working the fest and I go change and I'm a superstar with the lights and the smoke and all that," said Speech, who is not performing at this year's festival. "When I'm done, I've got to go back and make sure things are OK with the corn roast. That doesn't happen at any other venue." Hustling corn in 90-degree heat is not the most glamorous job in the world and is certainly uncharacteristic for a critically acclaimed performer. "Running a corn operation, like running any food business down here, is very difficult," says Tracy Spoerl, Summerfest's director of concessions. "It takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of planning. You're waiting on thousands of customers. It speaks to his character. It speaks to him supporting a family and carrying on a family tradition." Brand recognition The elder Thomas started Robby's Roasted Corn in 1977 with one booth and built it into a profitable venture that has fed generations of families from Milwaukee and throughout the region. Thomas, who learned to roast corn in rural Tennessee from his mother, was one of the first African-American vendors to secure a location at Summerfest. Before operating at Summerfest, Thomas had the kind of brand recognition and the caliber of product that festival organizers like to see. For many years, he ran a popular north side nightclub called the Fox Trap. He also ran a fast food restaurant, Robby's Drive-In, and a catering business, Robby's Catering. Those businesses enabled him to raise the start-up capital to secure a spot at Summerfest and to cover fees, equipment and labor costs. In addition, he had the right connections. A key friend was O.C. White, a politically connected radio disc jockey who was the first African-American vendor to break into Summerfest, where he sold ribs for many years. "If it hadn't been for O.C. White, I wouldn't be here," said Thomas as he gently rested his hand on a cane. "He was well-known in the city." Now, thanks to his hard work and sacrifice, Robert Thomas is passing down a Milwaukee tradition. He takes pride that his family has given the community a quality product for so many years, while supporting the musical interests of a famous son who didn't forget the community that gave him his start. Tannette Johnson-Elie writes about how small businesses and start-ups are using networking and business associations to tap the expertise needed to grow. She can be reached at (414) 223-5172 or by e-mail at telie@journalsentinel.com..

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Much Love, Success, Peace Todd! Great to see you make it out of Milwaukee, but good to see you come back to Milwaukee to support the family corn biz. You have come a long way from opening for the Kali Tribe back in the old UWM Dayz! I was just in Milwaukee and sorry I missed you. Would have liked to see you at Summerfest!

Dennis

Wes "the Food Man" said...

"Much love and respect for everything you doing in Mil-Town. It's good to see you taking over the family business, and even better seeing the JournalSentinel recognize it on the front page. There are positive brothers out here, US.
wes the "Food Man"