Ralph Rolle Bakes The Spirit of Soul into His Cookies
The musician-baker sits down with V to talk about his love of cookies and what’s next for his brand, Soul Snacks.
The musician-baker sits down with V to talk about his love of cookies and what’s next for his brand, Soul Snacks.
Text: Kala Herh
You may know Ralph Rolle best for his exceptional musical gift or ability to tear it out on the drums. After all, the musician has made music with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sting, Bono and Nile Rodgers. But did you know he also makes cookies too? A few years ago, Rolle turned his passion for connecting with others into baking.
“What I love most about baking is probably the same thing I love about playing drums,” he shares with V. “When I bake something for someone, the love that goes into what I’m creating comes from a very passionate place inside of me. I am trying to create something that whoever is consuming it will be pleased with.”
This love of baking was ingrained in Rolle from an early age. When he was younger, he vividly remembers learning how to bake with his Grandma, whom he calls endearingly, “Grampy.” Around their kitchen table, the family would pour flour, sugar and love into cookies. He recalls these times with his grandma when they shared their most intimate moments – his grandma would impart not only family recipes but also her lifelong wisdom to him and his cousins.
“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,” he elaborates. “That taste, the smell of what was being baked, stayed with me.”
And those very recipes are the ones he takes with him with his own line of cookies at Soul Snacks. To date, the brand offers 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 the recently added Sweet Potato Cookies (now, the number one seller).
Rolle has made an indelible mark within the music industry and now he’s taking the same vitality in the kitchen. And much like he did with music, Rolle is serving up heaping portions of soul. Inspired by the comforting rhythms of soul music, these cookies are baked in with the same ethos. By taking these time-honored traditions that he had with his grandma, he brings this familial comfort from his kitchen to kitchens across America.
“My music life and my cookie life co-exist because of the people that I have in my life,” he shares. “My wife, my daughter, and my friends, especially my wife, have given of themselves and their precious time to be there for me. I could never say that this journey was mine and mine alone. That’s how I manage to co-exist.”
If you are interested in bringing a little bit of comfort into your own home, you can purchase the cookies at Walmart or online.
V MAGAZINE: I read that you used to bake with your grandmother. What are your earliest memories of baking?
RALPH ROLLE: Grampy or Gramps, is what we called her. Her love of baking was something I latched on to. 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.
V: How do you honor her and her legacy with Soul Snacks?
RR: Grampy wasn’t a woman of many words but when she said something, you made sure you listened. She regularly quoted from the Bible. She believed that her faith in God was the way to protect us all. I remember going to her room and hearing her radio faintly playing WWRL, 1600 AM on the radio dial. Gospel music is all that she listened to. 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. Her love of baking was something I latched on to. 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 1900s. 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 on to the world by continuing to bake and create new products. I tell people to get the recipes of their elders. I’m not talking about only food recipes but life’s recipes as well. Sit with your elders. Record them talking about any and everything. Write down their stories, their recipes and pass them on to your future generations...your children...your grandchildren, because once they are gone, it's gone. Please don’t take those moments for granted. Remember this...that recipe book will only get bigger and wiser with each generation. That’s one of the recipes for building generational wealth because knowledge is the best wealth you can ever have.
V: What do you love about baking?
RR: What I love most about baking is probably the same thing I love about playing drums. When I bake something for someone, the love that goes into what I’m creating comes from a very passionate place inside of me. I am trying to create something that whoever is consuming it will be pleased with. I consider myself a pleaser...a very intense giver. I get my joy from making people smile. The joy of baking, the accuracy of what you’re preparing, the effect the receiver gets when they take a bite of one of my cookies or hear me playing drums, is the best feeling on earth. There’s this connection that comes when you’ve prepared something from the heart. People can taste the truth in what I’ve given them, and you can see it by the immense smiles that they give back to me. Both of my passions have the ability to do that – if done with passion, truth, and practice.
V: Can you share the story of formulating your signature cookies and how that ultimately led to a brand?
RR: Many of my ideas happen when I’m driving. I’ve come up with some crazy cookie flavors over the years, as well as names. I’ll usually think of what would taste good together and expound on that. It has to hit like, “This is going to be crazy!” For example, Uncle Ralph’s Sweet Potato Cookie, was one of those, “If I can make this work, people are going to lose it on this one,” moments that had to be created. That is one of our biggest sellers. Another cookie that is very unique is Ebony and Ivory Almond Cookie. That’s our take on the traditional Black and White Cookie, that you’ll find in many Delis and Diners. I added almond four to give that extra kick. The Black and white come from the white chocolate and the dark chocolate chips. The name comes from the song by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, “Ebony and Ivory.” I’m a musician. I had to make a cookie dedicated to two of the greatest music legends in history.
V: Why did you decide to create a line of cookies?
RR: I started with cookies many years ago. I’ve also made cakes, scones, brownies and cupcakes. I looked at the cookie market and felt that the place to start is with cookies. We have very unique flavors and tastes. I know we will get back to other products but for now, we want to grow internationally with our cookies, and then start on other products. Soul Snacks, as a company, has plans to not only have products in the baking arena, but in other areas as well.
V: What’s the meaning behind your brand name, “Soul Snacks?” How did you come to this name?
RR: 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, 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.
V: Can you describe what it's like working and developing the brand?
RR: Developing new brands is like being a mad scientist. Even if the first creation tastes amazing, you’ll keep going back to the drawing board to see if you can outdo yourself. My wife is now a mad scientist. When I tell her about an idea for a cookie or when she tells me an idea, we get this crazy gleam in our eyes, the paper and the pencil come out and we start creating. You can just hear the mad scientist music right now, can’t you? [laughs] The ultimate taste tester is our daughter. She is the hardest critic on the planet. She actually makes us nervous, and that’s because she is so brutally honest. If she doesn’t like what we’ve created, all we will hear is one word and she says it in such a matter-of-fact kind of way, “No.” She almost sounds like the host of that show, The Weakest Link, Anne Robinson. Very straight-faced and without emotion. We immediately go back to the drawing board. If the likes it, she says nothing. She just keeps eating. Oh, the stress.
V: How do music, baking and business co-exist in your life?
RR: 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 are 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. Time management is crucial. There have been many times when my wife would pick me up from the airport with a truck full of cookies that we would deliver to the stores. I have to say that we were very happy when we finally found a distributor. We would sometimes finish after midnight and some of those times our daughter would be asleep in the back seat. About 20 years ago, a very famous DJ that I was on tour with made a comment saying that he got to where he’d gotten to on his own. I was, and still am, very confused by his statement. I honestly don’t see that as being at all possible. Whether it’s family, friends, or who or what you believe in, you will always be assisted in some way, shape or form. I am grateful for the people in my life.
V: What would you say is special about your cookies specifically?
RR: What’s special is the truth in each cookie's flavor. The start of Soul Snacks doesn’t start with me. It starts with Leola Williams...my grandmother. I have to maintain the legacy of what she started. My family doesn’t know much about our history before her. Those records are forever lost. So, it’s my job, my brother, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and great grands, to uphold what we know. Family recipes are important, and I’m not talking about what goes on in the kitchen. It’s the memories that you pass down. It’s the stories about days gone by, it’s the songs you sing, it’s the lessons that hold you together, it’s the cookouts, it’s the food and it’s the dessert. Those special times are what make these cookies special. When people taste a Soul Snacks Cookie, I want them to taste true family love and Grampy’s original recipes...Down Home Double Chocolate Chip and Georgia Oatmeal Raisin. Those recipes are the foundation of every cookie we’ve developed.
V: How does it feel to have your cookies sold at Walmart? What did it take to get here?
RR: 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 is 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 the 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 Obama’s 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 but don’t see the true fruits of their labor.
V: What challenges have you faced so far? And how have you overcome them?
RR: 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 began to overcome her not being here was the day that I had enough of feeling like nothing or no one mattered. On that day, I realized this. When you’re looking in the mirror, you’re usually checking to see if everything is in place before you hit the streets and you’re not really looking at your inner self. This day, that happened. I was combing my hair (when I had hair) and started to look at me as if I were looking at someone else. I started talking to myself and I swear it felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. “What in the Hell are you doing,” were 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!” The conversation seemed to go on for hours. At that moment is when I realized that my mother was never truly gone. I could still hear her voice and see her face and whenever I needed her, all I had to do was think about her and she was there. 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.
V: For those creatives looking to start their own business, what advice would you give them?
RR: The first piece of advice is, to 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 in tack. 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 every single day.