Alumna Charisse McGill ‘lived STHM in real life’
By: Karen Naylor
First Published: January 31, 2024
Topics: STHM School
Jeffrey Montague always had the same message for students in his senior seminar class at Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management.
“I don’t make friends. I make alumni.”
The now-retired associate vice dean laughs as he recalls their reaction. “They all just looked at me like I was a madman,” he says before pausing.
He takes a moment before continuing. His voice softens as he recalls one of those students.
“I remember Charisse saying, ‘Well, I’m going to change that because you’re going to be my friend when I graduate.”
And Charisse McGill was right.
Montague is one of many people in the Temple and STHM families mourning McGill, a popular alumna and entrepreneur in the Philadelphia region who died suddenly on Jan. 15.
The 2003 graduate became a well-known figure in the city, most notably for founding Lokal Artisan Foods and becoming the face of her popular French Toast Bites. More recently, McGill took on the role of executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition where she led the nonprofit’s efforts to strengthen farmers markets across the country.
From selling her sweet treats at Penn’s Landing and the city’s Christmas Village, to partnering with other businesses to produce French Toast Bites beer, spice blends, gelato and coffee, she earned respect and built her brand.
“Every one of those steps, she would call me and run those prospects by me, get my opinion,” Montague says.
In other words, McGill phoned a friend.
Keisha Mims remembers her classmate and how the two spent time at STHM, putting in the work as they each pursued a degree in sport and recreation management. They built a friendship on Temple’s Main Campus that has lasted more than 20 years.
“I don’t think many of us knew what we were going to do when you were in college,” she says. “You have ideas, but you always knew Charisse was going to make it because of the way her mind worked.
“I don’t think many people thought like her, had ideas like she did. She had a way to make it unique and make it her own.”
Mims caught her first glimpse of her friend’s business acumen–as well as her knack for hospitality–early on during their time at Temple.
“Charisse always very much had an entrepreneurial spirit,” Mims says. “She used to be a part of this group ‘Chocolate Milk Entertainment.’ It was made up of five or six females, and they would throw these parties, really good parties.
“They were all brown skinned girls, so the name was kind of a big up to their brown skin and taking pride in it. Their parties were dope, and everyone knew it.”
It was clear that McGill lived a life full of joy and invited others along for the ride.
“Charisse would always be saying something or doing something, and it was always really, really funny,” Mims says. “She was full of life; she made you laugh so hard, right from your belly.”
McGill often said that relationships were more important than money.
“That was one of her favorite quotes,” Montague says. “One hundred percent, I know that for sure. She always built relationships. Some of them turned into business partnerships and some of them turned into lasting friendships.”
Each was important to her, and she brought energy and joy to every encounter.
Montague says there was a time when he received a call from someone with an idea for a business partnership with McGill. The caller said they were told by McGill that Montague was her manager. He wasn’t.
He asked McGill why she was telling people he was her manager.
“Because you are,” she replied. He reminded her he wasn’t being paid and she laughed and said, “I know.”
Later, when she called Montague saying she wanted to send a proposal into “Shark Tank,” he reminded her that her “manager” wasn’t being paid to give advice.
“She told me she would send me some more coffee,” he laughs.
There is no shortage of success on McGill’s resume. After graduating from Temple, she worked in a variety of roles — event planner, educator, instructor, basketball coach, farm market coordinator and consultant – before founding Lokal Artisan Foods in 2018.
McGill, along with her daughter Madison, appeared on NBC’s Today Show in May 2023, to share the story of French Toast Bites. A short time later, McGill joined the Farmers Market Coalition as its executive director.
Although McGill lived in Pittsburgh before coming to Temple, she embraced the Philadelphia region and made it her home both personally and professionally.
“Charisse was a real go-getter, very creative and knew the importance of a brand,” says Michael McCloskey, an associate professor at the Fox School of Business. “We had a festival about two years ago called Owned by Owls, and we highlighted a bunch of businesses that were owned by alums and Charisse was part of that.”
McCloskey says McGill utilized her connections in the best ways possible and was always willing to support others by participating in most of the things that came her way.
“There are a lot of businesses in the region that people don’t realize are owned by Temple alums,” he says. “Temple alumni have a sort of grit, a tenacity that is unlike other business owners here. They speak a language, they understand the challenges.
“Charisse had hustle, she knew the grind. She was building a little empire and she was really, really good at that.”
Montague couldn’t agree more.
“She’s a positive role model for young people because she always hired a lot of young people, encouraged them,” Montague says. “She made an impact wherever she went.”
McGill was a frequent presence at STHM since her graduation, returning to visit classes, sit in on panel discussions and share her experience as a mentor. She’d been a familiar face at many events, most recently at the school’s alumni holiday party in December.
“She came in and, as always, lights up the room with her energy, with her smile, with her charisma,” recalls Rick Ridall, professor and executive director of industry alumni relations at STHM. “It was great to spend some time with her there.
“Charisse was an absolute ‘pay it forward’ person, always giving back to us with her student engagement, with providing employment opportunities. There was a power to her positivity, a belief in the talent that everybody has.”
Mims says McGill’s belief in her own talent was how Lokal Artisan Foods and French Toast Bites got off the ground.
“She was always very driven, very focused,” Mims recalls. “Right before she decided to do French Toast Bites, Charisse was going for another job and she got rejected.
“I’m from Washington, D.C., and another friend and I were in Philly that same weekend and Charisse hosted a dinner for us at her house. It was great, hospitality was who she was as a person, not just a profession. She pulled out the red carpet for us—the food, the wine — she was just the best hostess.
“But she was really upset about the interview and not getting the job. I don’t even remember what the job was, but I remember she was just so upset.
“And at this dinner she said, ‘I’m going to just do my own thing.’ And that was when she decided to start. It was just that quick.”
Mims says she’s been thinking a lot about that dinner and, more specifically, that rejection.
“You should never discount rejection because sometimes it’s a redirection,” Mims says. “And I felt like that rejection cut her deep, but it also was exactly what she needed for her to go do French Toast Bites and become who she was.
“So, then I see she’s having this beautiful thing and I’m thinking, ‘This is my friend Charisse, she’s always been a superhero.’”
Montague also saw McGill’s superhero power.
“She never let a door get in her way, she would just go through it,” he says.
McGill met Bean2Bean’s Obel Hernandez Jr. right around the beginning of the pandemic.
“Charisse ran into my business partner at one of the food co-ops and had this idea that she wanted us to use her French Toast Bites spice to make a coffee,” Hernandez says. “She had heard from people that they were adding her spice into their cup of coffee and wanted to make a product with the spice already in there so all they would have to do was brew it.”
Not only did the idea make sense to Hernandez, but he also learned that he would be collaborating with a fellow STHM alumni.
“We knew we wanted to do this,” the 2015 graduate says. “So, for the next two weeks, we put together some different coffees and different blends and different ratios for her to try.
“We ended up choosing one and that’s the French Toast Coffee that we currently have on our shelves.”
The collaboration also led to conversations about the challenges of being an entrepreneur.
“We talked a lot about how to make sure we’re giving people enough of us while making sure they’re not taking advantage of us,” he says. “A lot of business is just sharing ideas about being an entrepreneur.”
Hernandez says he will miss the bond he’s built with McGill over the past few years.
“She’s great, she’s funny and her laugh is something I will miss,” he says. “She was great to work with.”
Mims last saw her friend in November when McGill was in the DC area for a conference. It was a good visit and she is grateful for the memory.
“When we were talking, I was thinking this was going to be her big year,” she says. “And it could still be, right? Even though she’s gone, her legacy is not gone. Just seeing the amount of love that she has received from the city of Philadelphia, it’s like, damn, she was really good.
“She has made a legacy for her daughter and that is what it’s all about. Yes, I would love for her to be here, but I love the fact that she realized her dreams.”
There are several things Keisha Mims wants people to remember about her good friend Charisse McGill.
She had a great memory.
She was passionate about hospitality. Both in personal life and at work.
She made people laugh until their sides hurt.
“Charisse was the person who showed up, no matter what,” Mims says. “She lived STHM in real life.”
Photos courtesy of Lokal Artisan Foods, Aversa PR & Events LLC, and Cloud Cups.