Caroline Johnston is the founder and CEO of the Washington D.C.-based GreenIsland Bakery.

Therapeutic flavors of home

Show your love – and read the label.

And not just for St. Valentine’s Day, as that special someone and all of your loved ones deserve the best.

That’s part of GreenIsland Bakery and Caroline Johnston’s philosophy.

The company’s shortbread range is baked out of a Washington DC commercial kitchen and available in outlets in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Whole Foods.  But being Irish and European in inspiration means there are fewer ingredients listed than in the equivalent products in the U.S. and they’re purer. 

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“People are used to having cookies extremely high in calories,” Johnston said. “There are additives and everything else in there. You don’t know what half the ingredients are, whereas ours are simple. You’ll recognize them.”

GreenIsland considered the issue of whether it should add more sugar to cater to the American palate, but in the interests of authenticity and flavor decided against it.

On the packaging, there are other elements of the GreenIsland story – for instance, it hopes to bring to the consumer the “nostalgic taste of Northern Ireland” via recipes handed down through the generations.

But you’ll find that the company is “more than just a shortbread.” It says, “As a social enterprise, GreenIsland Bakery partners with organizations to support women who are marginalized and recovering from traumatic experiences. Our goal is to create an impact by supporting vulnerable women through our personal and professional development program.”

Johnston founded the company in 2020 and in the previous year the coach with a specialist focus on leadership for women and positive psychology established Caroline Sarah Ventures LLC, which “provides consulting and coaching services that focus on motivating and developing customized pathways to success.”

Johnston had begun developing the GreenIsland Bakery idea on paper a decade before its official founding date: “In 2010, not long after I set foot in the U.S. to live here,” she said. 

The native of Greenisland, Co. Antrim, though, had long nurtured entrepreneurial ambitions. 

She left home in 2000 at age 18 to study at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, where in time she received an MA in international business and languages. After Scotland, she lived in France and has a BA in management from ESC Business School there. The daughter of educators knew France well, as the family had spent entire summers in that country throughout her childhood. Finally, she got her MBA in Spanish at EUDE in Spain.

In her executive career, she worked mostly with subsidiaries of European companies that were expanding into the U.S. 

Now she’s introducing the ideas and traditions that she grew up with, some of which are closely guarded family recipes. 

“My maternal grandmother had an amazing sponge cake to die for,” she remembered of regular visits. 

And after school, she would take fairy cakes from her paternal grandmother’s cupboard that had been made that day. 

“Pavlovas were a big thing among all of my family and they were all different styles,” Johnston recalled.

“There was always freshly baked goods in all of those houses. It was a daily thing.”

The biggest direct influence, however, has been her mother, a home economics teacher who specialized on “the baking side of things”; she was additionally a “fantastic cook” who had a baking business on the side and was known throughout the community for her birthday cakes and wedding cakes.

 Tastes and smells, Johnston said, could be “very therapeutic when outside it was a tense situation growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Northern Ireland.”

She added, “All my years away, especially in the U.S., I missed those flavors, I missed the quality. 

“I wondered, ‘Gosh there’s so many Irish pubs and restaurants,’” she said. While some might have made their own soda bread, she could never find a full range of bakery products.

“I wanted Ireland to be known for these recipes from Northern Ireland, for good quality baking products. I knew I was meant to do this. I always wanted to do this. I always wanted to follow in my mum’s footsteps.

“I wanted to have my own bakery and coffee shop,” Johnston recalled from her childhood years. She admitted to not having the patience to make the sorts of high-quality cakes her mother and grandmother did, but she has expressed herself in other ways baking wise, most notably in shortbread, a “Scots-Irish favorite.”

In her business, Johnston feels she’s brought something from each of the countries she has lived in. In Scotland, a Celtic country like Ireland, she said, “Everybody [who visited] would always comment on the hospitality, the warmth.”

The sheer depth of what’s available to explore in France is an important influence, but she has always admired, in particular, the French style expressed in presentation and decoration. 

“The level of quality really inspired me,” she said more generally. 

Spain’s influence is its being a revelation in terms of hidden treasures and not-so-hidden in the case of places with a Michelin star.

“Madrid is fantastic, with so many coffee shops and restaurants,” she said. “I never thought before going to Spain it would be so delightful.”

And now she enjoys being the one who introduces the new and the unfamiliar.

“It’s exciting when you’re talking at Irish festivals,” GreenIsland’s founder said by way of example. “It’s definitely exciting for me to see how people are going to react. Most of the time they’re pleasantly surprised that something new can be so appealing.”

It’s certainly one advantage to having switched from being an employee of a corporation to being a business owner.

“I always wanted to do my own thing,” she said. “It was just the right time.”

As to her approach to the world of business, Johnston quoted poet, writer and activist Maya Angelou, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said, they’ll remember how you made them feel.”

A second dimension to her approach is leadership. “It’s about having a growth mindset,” Johnston said. 

The positive psychology she’s trained in and “really communicating” have helped, too.

“I think those are the things that fuel growth,” she said. 

“For young people [interested in being an entrepreneur], I would definitely say, ‘Follow your instinct,’” the GreenIsland Bakery founder said. “What is your passion?”

If the person has adequate financing and they have a “burning desire” to introduce something that’s not already on the market – a product or service or a solution to a problem – then they should follow that path.  

Johnston added that the entrepreneur also needs resilience, determination and grit.

Even though starting out she had business development skills and experience, she can now say, “I didn’t realize it would be so hard.”

Johnston said, “There are so many challenges every single day. You just have to have that grit to keep going.”

For more on GreenIsland Bakery go to its website here.