Inspiration can come from anywhere. Just ask former trucker Mark Linen.
The South Carolina native was in the barber’s chair not long ago, pondering his next career move. Originally a graphic artist by trade, he’d gravitated to over-the-road trucking in Texas and was thinking about ways to grow in the transport business.
“(It was the) early part of 2020. I was just sitting there, and my barber’s playing this message by Steve Harvey,” Linen recalled. “(Harvey) said if you wake up when the alarm clock goes off and you’re not excited about what you’re doing, then you’re not living in your passion. That just hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Linen got out of the barber’s chair and marched straight to his passion — a venture called Brotha Bakes, a mail-order bakery. Launched in 2019, while Linen was driving for Central Transport in Houston, the company would explode in 2020, with appearances on “CBS This Morning” and yes, even an audience with Harvey himself.
“I was inspired by Steve Harvey, and I also got a chance to be on his show,” Linen said. “Believe it or not, he’s actually invested into the company. I get to talk to his assistant every week. We’re doing different things here and there. It’s almost miraculous.”
Linen, now 44, grew up in coastal South Carolina in the hamlet of Georgetown between Charlestown and Myrtle Beach. After college, he moved to Atlanta and began a career in graphic design that continued for 15 years. It wasn’t the prototypical prelude to a career behind the wheel.
“The reason I got into trucking, actually, was that graphic design kind of dried up around 2014, 2015,” he said. “Here I am, in my mid-30s, with a wife and two kids who were like, ‘Hey, man. What are you going to do? We need to eat.’
“I didn’t have two, three or four years to go and get another degree. So, I looked around and saw I could get this CDL in six to eight weeks. I knew a lot of people who were already driving, and they suggested that I do it. And that’s how I got into trucking,” he explained.
Linen might have jumped into the trucking industry out of necessity, but once there, he was surprised to discover how much he enjoyed driving.
“I loved it. I was blessed to be one of these guys that never had to go over the road and be away from my family,” he said. “I was local my whole driving career. I started in South Carolina working for a grocery delivery company. I did that for a little while, and then my wife got a really good job offer in Texas. I was like, ‘I’m a truck driver. Finding a job is no problem!’ We loaded up and went to Texas.”
In late 2019, Linen started a side hustle he dubbed Brotha Bakes, drawing on a love of baking that dates back to his childhood. By early 2020, the venture had gained enough momentum, alongside his thriving trucking career, that Linen found himself at a crossroads.
“When I was driving, I really got into it. I was pretty good at it,” he said. “I was like, ‘You know what? Maybe I can do something with this. Maybe I’ll get my own truck and eventually, get some more trucks.’ I was even thinking, ‘Man, it’d be kind of cool to start a driving school.’ I’m thinking all these things because I really wanted to be my own boss.”
But that day in the barber’s chair changed Linen’s entire perspective.
“Man, it just hit me,” he said. “I was like, ‘I really do like truck driving,’ but I never woke up and said, ‘I can’t wait to get behind the wheel,’ you know? But I’ve always liked to bake. I started thinking, ‘Can I turn this baking into a full-time job?’ After some studying and some research and all that, I decided to do it. That’s how I got into it.”
Brotha Bakes, which became Linen’s full-time gig last August, employs many of the recipes he remembers from his mother’s kitchen. Because of this, he’s not only built a loyal following, but he’s also helped preserve a family art.
“I was fascinated by baking, just by watching my mom,” he said. “I would sit in the corner of the kitchen while she was baking, just mesmerized by how she put flour, eggs, sugar and all of this different stuff together and she created these delicious desserts. I’m like, ‘Man, this is amazing!’
“I went home one time and there was a cake at my parents’ house. I took a piece, bit into it and I was like, ‘What is this trash?’ I was like, ‘Mom, did you make this?’ She was like, ‘No, now that you and your sister done moved on, I don’t bake as much.’ So, this all started when she decided to hang the apron up. I was like, ‘I gotta have my mom’s cake.’”
More than two decades of tinkering had honed Linen’s baking skills and, unknowingly at the time, prepared him for Brotha Bakes. Originally the concept was to produce full size cakes, but the product didn’t ship well. So, Linen developed a cake-in-a-jar concept that solved that problem.
He also employed his graphic design talents to develop clever marketing materials and create catchy names that helped the business take off. Witness the Reddie Murphy (red velvet cake) the Banana Ross and the Le’Mon James, among others. He’s also named two cakes after his mentor, Steve Harvey.
“When I started naming the cakes, I wanted to highlight on African American culture,” Linen said. “That was something that I was passionate about, and it all just kind of came together. It would just pop in my head and I would go with it. Reddie Murphy was first, Choco Kahn next. It was fun doing it. I enjoy it so much.”
While the national exposure put Brotha Bakes into overdrive, the media coverage wasn’t the only accelerator. He also got a boost from an unlikely source last year that’s grown him into serving a national clientele.
“My original plan was actually to take my product to local festivals and markets here in Houston. We’ve got so many of them,” he said. “But after COVID happened and everything shut down, I kind of had to pivot a little bit. That’s when we decided to amp up the marketing for online.
“It was perfect timing because it’s very COVID-friendly to ship these,” he continued. “Not only that, but a family of four, instead of getting one big cake, can get four cakes that everybody wants individually. It really worked out well with the timing for our business. I mean, no one’s ever going to look at COVID fondly. I certainly won’t. But the fact that we had a COVID-friendly product, it did help the business.”