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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    LaKisha Lee begins anew with Flavours of Life in New London


    LaKisha Lee poses for a portrait at Flavours of Life in New London on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. Lee recently took over ownership of the fair trade shop on Bank Street. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    LaKisha Lee poses for a portrait at Flavours of Life in New London on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. Lee recently took over ownership of the fair trade shop on Bank Street. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Buy Photo Reprints

    New London ― LaKisha Lee never had a plan to own a fair trade boutique.

    In the past, she’d always been the one behind the scenes as a waitress or a hairdresser or a social services worker. She led with her heart. And that’s what brought her to Flavours of Life on Bank Street.

    It’s a complicated story involving hard work and burnout, food and music, love and death. And finding a special place to heal.

    That place just happened to be a nearly 20-year-old fair trade shop that sells clothing, cards, crafts and artwork from 50 countries right across from Hygienic Art and not far from the former Daddy Jack’s restaurant where she once worked with and adored the late, great chef Jack Chaplin, a man who became her partner in life.

    “We had a lot of fun, and we were a really good team together,” the 46-year-old Lee said, tearing up.

    They formed a bond starting in 2019 at the restaurant and in filming and producing the popular YouTube series “Daddy Jack’s Cooking with the Blues.” The show was just starting to gain a large and loyal following when Chaplin died of heart failure in May 2021.

    Chaplin’s sudden death at age 62 left Lee devastated, but she had promised the beloved restaurateur she would complete her studies for a master’s degree in business administration, which she had intended to use to help him ease away from the kitchen and make a living from his videos.

    She eventually went back to her studies, but first she needed to nourish her soul. So she volunteered at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme, where she worked with special needs kids. Then, she set her sights on Flavours of Life, praying she would own it one day though she hadn’t set foot in the fair trade shop for a decade.

    One thing she found intriguing as a woman of color: Marcie Boyer, the original owner of Flavours of Life with husband David Lewis, had claimed to be the first African-American woman in the United States to own a fair trade store.

    By this time, though, a new owner, Ellen Cummings, was in charge. Cummings had bought the store when Boyer and Lewis decided to move to England for personal reasons, and she had tended to the business lovingly even as, one after another, many nearby shops such as the Book-A-Zine adult bookstore, Campo’s Furniture and Modern Electric, not to mention downtown banks, restaurants and music clubs, closed their doors.

    But Cummings needed help. So Lee wound up working at the store, one day a week.

    “You’re overqualified to work here,” Lee recalls Cummings telling her.

    And then, there it was. Cummings, looking to retire, asked if she was interested in buying her business. To Lee, it was a dream come true.

    “She was looking in her heart for the right person to take over the business,” Lee said. “She felt I was the right one to take over her baby.”

    She believes strongly in the fair trade concept, which ensures that workers from developing countries are not children, nor abused in the workplace nor given unfairly low wages. To qualify as a fair trade store, she added, at least 75% of items must be certified by the Fair Trade Federation, while as much as 25% can be locally made products.

    At Flavours of Life, more than 90% of items are certified as fair trade.

    But before Lee could buy the store, she wanted to know more. And Cummings became her mentor as Lee developed a business plan while finishing up her MBA and working at the shop. It was only in April that Cummings officially sold the boutique to Lee, though she still regularly drops in to say hello.

    “Women bring such a creative vibe and we bring an interconnectedness,” Lee said in an email. “I have other women-owned business friends who are such a strong network for me and we support each other. I have dear friends and family who step up and volunteer their time to help me run the shop.”

    Lee likes being at the crossroads between Boston and New York, and loves the nautical history and waterfront ambiance.

    “It’s a small town with a cosmopolitan feel,” she said of New London. “I appreciate the architecture, the diversity, and the arts. To own a business in New London and be a part of such a historic district is my way of carrying on my love for the city. All of the business owners and members of the community that I speak with are, just as I am, excited to see the growth.”

    She’s also excited about owning her own business despite an initial hesitation to be front and center after so many years playing a support role.

    “I advise other women to do your research and make sure it’s a culture and cause that you are passionate about, integrate healthy habits of daily living, have a woman mentor, and rock out when you are ready,” she said. “I longed for a new, meaningful career and felt divinely led to this space. Flavours of Life came at the right time for me to begin anew.”

    Lee feels passionate about her little store and how it fits into the broad retail scene in southeastern Connecticut and around the country.

    “With fair trade organizations, measures are in place to ensure people are treated with dignity and that ethical practices are followed,” Lee said. “We have the means to grow our food, shop local, and support a plethora of small businesses. ... We can be conscious consumers.”

    Forced labor, child labor, hazardous working conditions and exploitation are among the conditions fair trade hopes to combat. And at Flavours of Life, each item comes with handcrafted beauty and individual style.

    “I have a personal connection with our partners, and we stand for people before profits,” Lee said. “When people enter the store, they are blown away by the handcrafted artistry.”

    All the brands use materials certified as organic, she said. Flavours of Life is not a member of the Fair Trade Federation, but it tries to abide by the same standards in fair trade practices.

    While most of her sales come through in-person transactions, Lee has been working to add a more vibrant e-commerce side to the business. She calls it a great supplement, contributing about a quarter of all sales.

    “I hold thanks to our loyal customers who have been there along the way, fair trade partners, local artists, and vendors,” she said.



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