Marc Howland’s passion for health and fitness began as a young teenager in Cleveland, where he recalls being chided by his hometown peers for being out of shape.
“I wasn’t always health-conscious or fitness-focused,” Howland says. “I was teased about having a gut. […] It really did make an impact on my sense of self.”
Rather than letting his classmates’ harsh words get to him, though, Howland took a different approach by adopting a healthier lifestyle and getting involved in sports like football and track.
“I pushed myself to become a great athlete, which ultimately then redeveloped my confidence in my health and physical appearance,” Howland says.
Although sports helped him stay in shape throughout high school and while earning two business degrees at Brown University and Harvard Business School, Howland’s commitment to healthy living faced new challenges when he entered the world of investment banking and finance after college.
Seeking new ways to stay healthy despite long hours and a grueling work schedule, Howland adopted a low-carb lifestyle — but quickly became disillusioned by the lack of palatable on-the-go options.
“I’ve been the guy for over a decade going into every single location saying, ‘Can I have a lettuce bun or a lettuce wrap instead of bread?’ and the options that have been coming back were always just sloppy, inconsistent, falling apart, watered down — and that’s been my life for over a decade,” Howland says. “It wasn’t until 2019 where, essentially, I’d had enough.”
That year, after relocating to Detroit from Nashville, Howland’s disillusionment with low-carb takeout options steered him away from the world of corporate finance toward entrepreneurship when he and co-founders LaTresha “L.C.” Staten and Ryan Eli Salter developed the idea for Breadless, a new quick-service restaurant concept with a focus on healthy, low-carb sandwiches — minus the bread. The trio are eyeing a grand opening on the new Joseph Campau Greenway Connector in spring 2021.
“I [had lunch at] a restaurant where I would have expected something that would have been high-quality and consistent, ordered a sandwich, and asked for a lettuce wrap instead of bread. And it was a piece of meat on a bed of lettuce,” Howland says, recalling the experience that sparked the idea behind Breadless.
“ ‘This is ridiculous. Why can’t I get a high-quality, consistent option with any consistency whatsoever?’ ” he texted to Staten, his then-fiancee who was pursuing her M.B.A. at the University of Michigan at the time. She replied, “ ‘Marc, wait a minute. I don’t think this is just you — I think there’s something further here.’ ”
The couple, who were married earlier this year, decided to run with the idea. After bringing on Salter (a professional chef Howland and Staten befriended in 2015 at a barbecue in New York City) a couple of months later, the trio quickly got to work developing a business strategy and, perhaps more importantly, recipes. Howland was so committed to this idea that he even got a job making sandwiches at Jimmy John’s to get a feel for the experience of working at a sandwich shop.
Inspired by the African Diaspora
As chief product officer at Breadless, Salter — a native New Yorker and graduate of Villanova University with a background in business, marketing, technology, and culinary arts who had already cofounded New York City restaurant Angel of Harlem and his own Detroit-based catering company, Salt + Ko — was tasked with creating the company’s signature offerings.
Hoping to incorporate a unique savory flavor profile into the Breadless menu, Salter drew on memories from his travels to countries like Panama and Barbados as a teenager with his father, an investment banker.
“Half my school year was always spent in a different country, depending where [my dad] wanted to go,” Salter recalls. “But that also helped me learn different flavors, different backgrounds of foods, and different cultures as well.”
Those influences, he says, helped inspire the use of nutritious leafy greens rather than the leaves of iceberg lettuce commonly used to make lettuce-wrapped sandwiches.
“I think my whole experience has always been about the African diaspora and pulling in those different elements of it …” Salter says. “The main elements of Breadless — Swiss chard, turnip greens, collard greens — these are quintessentially historically Black greens, things that sharecroppers have grown and developed. Things that have been part of my family. I kind of want to utilize that experience because I love the taste of it.”
Salter says Breadless customers can expect to taste unique flavors they wouldn’t typically find at a sandwich shop. “Everything’s a little bit savory, a little bit different,” he says.
Breadless’ ingredients, which Salter says will be sourced locally as much as possible from urban farms he’s developed relationships with through FoodLab and Keep Growing Detroit, will include roasted chicken, smoked turkey, roast beef, pastrami, and vegetarian options like portobello mushrooms, alongside housemade sauces, rutabaga fries, and custom-blended drinks.
A new era of dining
After operating as a pop-up catering concept for clients like Bedrock, U-M’s Ross School of Business, Techtown, the YMCA, and others from September 2019 through February of this year, Howland says the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Breadless co-founders to reevaluate their business model.
“When COVID hit, we turned our focus towards setting up a legitimate brick-and-mortar infrastructure and fundraising to make that happen — first in Detroit and then at scale,” Howland says, noting the company’s plans to eventually develop other locations nationwide.
Drawing on the group’s business acumen, which Howland says he thinks gave him the “confidence and knowledge” to approach potential investors, the startup raised $1.1 million in startup capital this year.
Key investors included Kal Vepuri, owner of Brainchild Holdings, whose portfolio includes Sweetgreen, Allbirds, and Warby Parker, and more. Detroit Venture Partners, whose local investments include Detroit Labs, Grand Circus, Floyd and others, also invested in the fledgling company.
“DVP is thrilled to invest in Breadless as they bring their vision for healthy and convenient food to life, starting with restaurant number 1 in Detroit,” says Jared Stasik, partner at Detroit Venture Partners. “Rarely do you meet founders with as much passion as Marc and his team.”
Despite the challenges created by the pandemic, which include the permanent closure of over 1,000 Michigan restaurants and a disproportionate economic impact on Black-owned businesses nationwide, Howland says he’s confident in Breadless’ ability to succeed.
“People need to eat every single day regardless of a pandemic …” Howland says. “We’re highly focused on the sanitation and cleanliness of the facility and how we can operate in any environment — COVID or not.”
Part of that plan to thrive under any conditions involves working with architects and consultants from local and national firms Great Lakes Culinary Designs, Infuz, Studio H2G, SOLVNT, and Leong Leong to rehab a space at 2761 E. Jefferson Ave. on the new Joseph Campau Greenway Connector, which will be custom-designed to meet the demands of a new era of dining.
The flagship location will feature onsite parking, grab-and-go options, a walkup and bike-up window, digital pickup options, food delivery, and catering services. Slated to break ground next month, Breadless is expected to open its doors to Detroit in spring 2021.
“Breadless is basically making sure people feel seen, making sure that this audience that wants to be heard, that their needs are met …” Salter says. “Hospitality, at its core, is making people feel welcome. And that’s what [we] want to do with Breadless.”