During a sultry Tuesday afternoon, a line snakes out the door of a Black-owned ice cream shop in Huntsville.
Customers stroll out of Three Scoops Premium Ice Cream with cups filled with their favorite flavors of happiness, like watermelon sherbet or cotton candy. Travis Large, a Black business owner himself, picked up most of their tabs for the day after crowdfunding more than $1,200 on social media to pay for customers’ ice cream.
Large isn’t a Three Scoops employee. But he wanted to support a Black-owned business after the white owner of Handel’s Ice Cream, located in nearby Madison, received a wave of outrage for using multiple racial slurs while talking about the Black, Asian, Jewish and Hispanic communities in a 2015 Facebook post. Handel’s, a franchise headquartered in Ohio, is looking for a new owner since the incident.
As Large scrolled through the outrage on social media, he said he wanted to make sure people were using their anger efficiently.
“No one was saying, ‘What’s next?’” Large said. “If we’re off this business, then what are we on? Where are we directing our funds to?”
So Large and his wife, Ashley, came up with a plan. They pooled together $150 to treat customers to ice cream at Three Scoops. When Large posted about their efforts on social media he asked, Who will join me?
Soon after, one person gave him $20. Another one gave $50. Then $100.
“(Three Scoops) had to call me because they were overwhelmed with business,” Large said. “This was something small that the community grabbed ahold of and made big.”
Situated at the intersection of the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and the systemic racism that exists in financial industry, Alabama’s Black business owners are getting some relief as new customers come through their doors. Most of them white and some of them are experiencing their businesses for the first time.
Some business owners see the support as an extension of the “Black Lives Matter” protests for racial justice. Others believe they are reaping the rewards for not giving up as COVID-19 continues.
Rodney Toomer is making sure Black businesses and entrepreneurs in Mobile are getting some of the spotlight. Toomer created a Facebook group called Black Owned Business Directory of Mobile with his friends, QMonae House-Banks and Michael Banks. The group started with about 70 people on June 8. Membership has swelled to more than 7,860 people of multiple races and ethnicities as of Monday.
The Facebook group functions like an online marketplace, where embroiders, cosmetologists, contractors, authors and other entrepreneurs can showcase their work and where clientele can find Black-owned recommendations for their needs. Toomer said multiple entrepreneurs in the group have seen an uptick in sales the past two weeks.
“This is their home,” Toomer said. “We are just giving them a space where the info is going out to whoever needs it. From pouring concreate to pest control to cakes. We wanted to cover the whole diaspora of everything we do.”
Toomer thinks the group was made right on time. COVID-19 is not only infecting and killing African Americans, the disease is also disproportionately affecting Black-owned businesses. According to an analysis by the University of California at Santa Cruz, 40 percent of Black businesses owners reported they were not working in April, which is 23 percent higher than white small business owners.
“We wanted to go ahead and initiate this to make sure these Black businesses, especially the new ones, and especially with things going on with the coronavirus, that they aren’t kicked to the side and left hanging because they are on life support now,” Toomer said.
Another sign of good times ahead: As white business owners post racially insensitive things on social media, customers – Black and white – are leaving their go-to restaurants, bars and other venues and migrating to a Black-owned business to support.
Along with Handel’s Ice Cream, two Birmingham bars, Woolworth and Parkside Cafe, faced a firestorm of criticisms for making racially insensitive statements on social media or implementing dress code policies that target Black customers. Protesters gathered across the street from Lil Brian’s Produce Market in Prichard after the owner made a Facebook post saying “All Lives Splatter.”
“When you are dealing with people who are racist or have that white supremacy mindset, the one thing they don’t like, is you messing with their bottom line,” Toomer said. “If you don’t appreciate or respect me as a person, then I am not going to respect you or your business and I’m not going to give you any of my money.”
Toomer believes the Facebook group provides Black residents with another way to invest in their own communities. Despite having a Black-owned bank in Mobile, Toomer said non-black business owners who are working in the Black neighborhoods are still going to other financial institutions, which he said can be problematic.
“They are going to Wells Fargo and taking money out of the community,” Toomer said. “So many lawsuits have already determined these banks are discriminating. They are keeping us from getting money to better our businesses.”
Only one percent of Black businesses secure a bank loan within their first year compared to seven percent for white business owners, a 2016 study at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy and Research found. Black business owners also start off with far less capital, the study reported.
Large wants to offset that statistic by not allowing the community’s hospitality to stop at Three Scoops. He is now thinking about doing a fundraiser every Tuesday for Black businesses. By investing in the Black entrepreneurs, you are investing in something more, Large said.
“When you talk about improving the businesses in a particular neighborhood, then the quality of life in that neighborhood will improve,” Large said. “The majority of us don’t come from legacy money, but we have the desire and passion and all we really want is the door to be cracked open for us.”
At Game Time Sports Bar and Grill in Auburn, Corey Johnson treats his visitors more like friends of the family than customers. He won’t just ask you what you want to eat, but also how your mother is doing in the hospital.
Owning a sports bar and grill has been Johnson’s dream for about 15 years, but it took him several years to save up enough money to open its doors. Johnson’s restaurant is actually funded by money made through his car detailing business he has owned for 18 years. And even the car detailing business was paid for out-of-pocket after he was denied two bank loans in 2001 and in 2002.
“They were saying I needed a 620 credit score. I had a 618. Only two points off,” Johnson said. “I know other friends who just made a phone calls and got loans. It was just frustrating. So, I just kept saving up money to open the (the car detail shop) on my own.”
As Johnson nurtured the car detailing business and expanded it into multiple locations in Auburn and Opelika, he started helping a friend in the restaurant business and fell in love with the industry. He went back to the bank to get a loan to start the restaurant. And he was denied again. So again he saved up money from the detail shop and opened Game Time in February 2019.
Johnson was just getting over the hurdles of opening a new business when the pandemic hit. He just hired the right staff and he felt like his business was becoming recognizable as his name made it through the grapevine. But Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statewide shelter-in-place order shuttered dining rooms across the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Johnson took on the challenge by adding new items to the menu and doing curbside and pickup. But once he got a handle on that, restrictions were lifted in May and he found himself struggling to get his name out there again.
“Now, we are back to square one. I feel like I am rebuilding all over again,” Johnson said. “Everybody was eating curbside or delivery, and there were only a few places to go. So once the dining rooms opened back up, it slowed down because everybody went back to their old restaurants that weren’t open before.”
Unlike the rest of the restaurants, Bizarre: The Coffee Bar has found a way to thrive beyond COVID-19. The Black owned coffee bar, which also serves alcohol, is a hub of Black music, business and culture in downtown Birmingham. Pre-pandemic, Will Harvill welcomed entrepreneurs and poets to use his space as a venue to showcase their work. A mini-gallery of Black art for sale on the wall. He sells cakes from a Black baker in Fairfield and Bizarre’s house coffee beans are from a local, Black-owned coffee brand called Beanalli. Harvill even sells his mother’s whipped shea butter.
Harvill admits he was struggling at first after he bought the bar in November 2018. But now, he is getting a constant stream of regulars asking for cakes, chicken salad and drinks, while also selling Black-owned brands. He sold four pieces of artwork last week.
“These three months of COVID-19 have been almost prosperous months,” Harvill said. “Now we want to expand our efforts, which is helping other brands and events and letting people know what we are and who we are.”
While Harvill did have to let go of two employees, Harvill allowed the challenges produced by the pandemic to cocoon his business hoping it will evolve into something that will survive beyond COVID-19. As people started working from home and downtown went silent, he noticed customers weren’t coming downtown to get coffee anymore. So he started opening the shop closer to the afternoon and relied more on alcohol than coffee sales. He adhered to social distancing regulations by only allowing about 20 people inside at a time and placing some of the tables and chairs outside – six-feet-apart, of course. Parking food trucks outside the coffee shop was a big hit on the weekends, Harvill said.
These efforts, and the fact that the shop was one of the few bars open downtown, extended not only Bizarre’s name, but the names of other Black-owned brands Harvill supports within his shop. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Black caterers used Bizarre as a drop off location where their customers can come and pick up their food.
“We are a brick and mortar business in an amazingly centralized location,” Harvill said. “If I have that type of blessing, it’s my obligation to share that with other people who have businesses they are trying to build up.”
One struggle has remained the same despite the success of his changes: appealing to white clientele. Bizarre had more white customers before the pandemic, but even then it was hard to draw their attention.
“It would wreck my brain every day, ‘Why would you walk by me and just not stop here?’” Harvill said. “I know that our place isn’t as fancy as some of the places down here. But we make great coffee, we have alcohol, we have breakfast and great food every day.”
Multiple business mentors of all races gave him a solution to hire more white employees on his staff. It’s an idea that’s still brewing in Harvill’s mind as he begins to hire staff again.
“I am a good barista. I want a better barista than me,” Harvill said. “I’m a good bartender. I want a better bar tender than me. I need quality people behind the bar if that ends up being diversity, that will be great. If it ends up being all Black people, then hey, that’s alright, too.”
As a Black individual who is surviving so many challenges, he doesn’t want to risk losing the brand’s legacy.
“I thought I had to whitewash my place to be successful,” Harvill said. “I’ve been blessed to open this place and kept it going during some of the worse times in our history of the world. I’m torn between, ‘I just want to do great stuff to help my people’ and ‘I want my business to be successful.’ This is the challenge I spend daily trying to figure out.”
The slowdown at Johnson’s restaurant was alleviated two weeks ago after Game Time was featured in an Al.com article featuring Black-owned businesses two weeks ago. Most of the new customers are white. Hopefully, they will be regulars, Johnson said.
“They said I was a hidden secret to them. They like the establishment and they were going to tell the rest of their friends about the business,” Johnson said. “It seems like a real movement going on because people are really coming. Once they come because of this movement and they want to support us because we have great food and service on top of it.”
The jolt in business pushes Johnson into phase two of his restaurant goals, which is to turn Game Time into a franchise – just like he did in car detailing.
“The more business the better,” Johnson said.
Large doesn’t want “Black lives matter” to become commodified – a slogan that fades over time. He hopes customers will continue to support Black businesses so that the community’s well-being can continue to grow and thrive as well.
“We are supposed to be an equal opportunity county, but it’s not,” Large said. “So let’s make Black lives matter. Let’s equal the playing field. I’m not asking for any favors, I don’t think my people, my race, is asking for any favors. All we are asking for is to make it even for us moving forward. Let’s have the opportunities come to our community as well.”
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