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Making black-owned businesses feel welcome

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As a massive movement toward racial justice has swept through the nation after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Americans near and far are looking for ways to take action.

For some, that means protesting in the streets; for others, the action comes in the form of contributing to racial justice organizations or supporting black-owned small businesses in their communities. 

As most small businesses start to recover from mandatory closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, residents across southeastern Connecticut have started to pour their dollars back into the economy by shopping and dining at small businesses. Now, many are specifically seeking out black-owned businesses and are using social media as a tool to find them. 

Isaac Brody, who lives in New York but spends summers in New London, reached out to The Day on social media, looking for a list of black-owned businesses that his marketing agency, Socialike, could help with marketing tools. 

“I feel inspired to help,” said Brody, who is white. “I have had many advantages in life and I have the ability to help and this seems like a great way to give back and help the city of New London as well.” 

Sara Powers, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spends summers in Niantic, where she has been living during the COVID-19 pandemic, took to a community group on Facebook to ask for recommendations for black-owned businesses. 

She said that in Brooklyn she has no problem finding minority-owned businesses to frequent, but here in southeastern Connecticut, she felt she needed to make an extra effort to seek some out. 

“For me it’s about taking concrete action,” she said. “It’s easy to turn your Facebook or Instagram profile picture black, and I think that does help show that a majority of people support racial justice and reform, but I also feel like it's really important to take concrete action in your community.” 

She said she planned to dine at black-owned Uncle D’s Blazin BBQ in Norwich this weekend and was going to call a black-owned waste management company for services. 

“I think this is one way to put my money where my mouth is,” Powers said. “It’s worth it to support, so many restaurants and businesses are struggling right now, but it’s really about making that extra effort to support black-owned business.” 

Powers’ post garnered more than 80 comments, about 15 of them restaurant and business recommendations. 

Support all businesses

Several posters commented that people should be supporting small-business owners in their community, regardless of the owner’s race. 

In New London, some black business owners agreed with that sentiment. 

Brian Johnson, who is black, is the co-owner of Rhythm Lounge in New London, a jazz, soul and R&B spot on State Street that has live music events and a unique menu of alcoholic smoothies. Johnson said he thinks the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement is a good thing and he is proud to see so many people protesting. 

“Racism is being shown more directly and I’m glad people are now becoming aware of how bad it actually is,” he said. “I’m glad that people are actually taking a stand now, we need change.” 

Although Johnson is happy to see people speaking up against racism, he said he questions why people all of a sudden are seeking to support black-owned businesses. “I don’t like that part of it, it doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “Why now?” 

“You should be supporting all businesses at all times, you shouldn’t have to seek that at this time just because of how things are,” Johnson said. “We’re all people, we’re all human. There are always going to be businesses owned by all kinds of business owners that need support.” 

Johnson said his business has taken a hit by being closed for months due to COVID-19, but is “hanging in there.” He hopes to reopen later this month. 

Rod Cornish, who owns Hot Rods on Bank Street, said he thinks it’s great that people want to seek out businesses that are black-owned, but hopes diners will come to his restaurant because they like the food and atmosphere, not just because he’s black. 

“When I think of my business the first thing that comes to my mind is not that I have a black-owned business, it’s that I own a business,” said Cornish, who has owned Hot Rods for 15 years. 

“I think it almost pigeonholes us to look at us just as black-owned businesses,” he said. “I think people should invest in businesses because they like the product.” 

He said he thinks minority-owned businesses may not get as much attention as other businesses and does think it’s important to support minority business owners and all small-business owners. 

“We are an important part of the community and we’re trying to continue to grow the business in the community,” Cornish said. “It’s important to help businesses flourish so we can help more businesses show up and more businesses thrive.” 

Cornish’s second restaurant, 1784 Restaurant & Bar, recently closed for good. Hot Rod’s was closed for about three weeks due to COVID-19 but now is offering takeout and street seating, with barriers provided by the city that he said has “helped us keep the cash register ringing.”

'Support the movement'

Tiffany Shultz, a black woman who owns Dutch’s, a made-to-order vegan bakery, said she’s seen an increase in followers on her social media and business pages and an influx of people reaching out to her and wanting to place orders. 

“To have people reach out now and specifically want to show their support and advocate for me and my business, it makes me feel welcomed in my community,” she said. “I felt like I was fighting for a place amongst other small-business owners prior to this whereas now I feel like I’m being welcomed in and it’s a really great feeling to know that people are rooting for me to succeed.” 

As a black female business owner, “you definitely feel like you’re working a little bit harder to get people to take you seriously, to trust your product,” said Shultz, who lives in Groton. 

She takes online orders as well as wholesale and catering, and had secured a loan from the Small Business Administration and signed a lease on a space in Groton when the pandemic hit, throwing a wrench into her plans. 

She had trouble getting a brick-and-mortar location but on Thursday, after a year of searching, she finally signed the lease for her first storefront at 2 Prospect St. in Pawcatuck.

“It’s one of those things where you feel like everything is great over the phone and in email and then when I show up, at first I felt like maybe I’m being paranoid, but it got to the point where even my (business) advisers were going, ‘I’ve never heard of this.’ ‘I've never seen this.’ ‘I’ve never heard them ask for these kinds of terms,’" she said. “So when it started to be that people who’ve been in this industry for decades are questioning why I’m not getting financing, why I’m not getting a space, why won’t anybody trust me with a lease, it was a little disheartening to see people immediately distrust.” 

Shultz hopes the support she and other black-owned businesses are seeing at this time is sustained over the long term, that it’s “not just for show or social media posts.” 

“That fact that people are even opening their eyes to some of the biases that they’ve had and that they’re willing to explore specific black-owned businesses, that’s the education we’re looking for people to give themselves,” she said. “... Then moving forward, it will be something in the back of your mind that you’re actually looking at who’s the owner behind it? What are they bringing to the community? Who is the person behind the product that I’m buying.” 

Her good friend Acea Hillord of New London, who accompanied Shultz to Thursday’s lease signing, said being thoughtful about where you spend your money is one way people can “support the movement.” 

“A lot of people want to support the movement but just don’t know how and that’s a small way that they can,” Hillord said. 

Hillord said Shultz “did this all on her own,” and “did it as a single mom, too.” 

“She put in the work,” she said. 

Inspired by her son

In 2016, Shultz's son was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an incurable neurological autoimmune disease. They began fundraising for a cure and handed out vegan cupcakes in exchange for donations. From there, it "snowballed," Shultz said, and Dutch's, her son's nickname, was born. She said her approach is to ease people into veganism through sweets, and would like to include other food items once she has her Pawcatuck location up and running.

Shultz's son has always been the driving force behind the business and with two near-death experiences in the last year alone, Shultz, who works as an emergency dispatcher, said she realized she couldn't waste any more time to open the store. 

"I love my day job, but this is something I’m passionate about that I really want to see come to fruition," she said. 

Shultz hopes she can be a mentor and example for “any person of color, young kids who maybe feel like they don’t have a place in the business world.” 

“I want them to see me and hopefully think that they can do it, too,” she said. 

It's also about countering the stereotype that vegan food is only enjoyed or made by white hippies. 

“My son is a black male, a big guy, you don’t see a big, black kid with dreads serving up cupcakes at any of the bakeries,” she said. “I want to include people in my business that look like me, that look like my friends, that are going to be behind the counter to make it more of a normal thing for people to see. 

“I want other kids that look like me, that grew up where I grew up, to say, 'she grew up in Branford Manor and she’s lived in Groton her whole life and look at it, she’s owning a business,'” she said. 

t.hartz@theday.com

j.bergman@theday.com

Black-owned businesses

These are some of the black-owned businesses in southeastern Connecticut. If you'd like to add to our list, email t.hartz@theday.com

New London

Rhythm Lounge

Hot Rod's

The Green Room

RD86

Sweet & Elegant

Waterford

Blackburn Janitorial in Waterford

East Lyme

Stikingtela

Groton

Supreme Blenz barber shop

Knight's Self-Defense Academy

Pawcatuck

Dutch's

A.B. Powell Woodworks

Norwich

Woombs & Wankle

Uncle D's Blazin BBQ

Philly's A Taste of Philadelphia

Main Avent Sports & Apparel

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