Gary Nath checked an order for hot buffalo chicken wings, a side of crinkle-cut fries, and a buttery dinner bun. Satisfied with what he saw, Nath closed the take-away box and handed it to a hungry customer at Two Cooking Cousins.
Based on his belief in God, hard work, and a handful of favorite recipes, Nath opened the small take away soul food restaurant at 1807 W. 45th St.
The popular eatery in the northwest Jacksonville neighborhood has weathered a few storms since opening – including the COVID-19 pandemic.
“No. There wasn’t anyone who showed me the ropes. And I would have liked someone to show me the ropes, especially when it came to money,” he said.
Nath and other Jacksonville black restaurateurs built their businesses pretty much on their own. Financial aid as well as sound business advice could be difficult to find.
Black restaurant owners in Jacksonville and 11 other cities around the country could be eligible for financial aid, mentoring, and other resources through a new program launched by the National Urban League and PepsiCo.
The Black Restaurant Accelerator program, announced on October 20, is expected to boost approximately 500 black-owned restaurants over the next five years.
The PepsiCo Foundation is providing a $ 10 million grant to fund the program, which provides current and emerging black restaurateurs with access to the capital, training, mentoring, and other support services essential to business success.
The program is designed to help offset the losses resulting from the pandemic and provide expert advice to not only survive black-owned restaurants – but also to thrive in the future.
The National Urban League will start accepting applications for the program from the first quarter of 2021.
It is unknown how many Jacksonville restaurants are eligible as the application process has not yet started.
The organization will oversee the program through its Entrepreneurship Centers in 12 cities: Jacksonville, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.
“A piece of the neighborhood is gone”
While encouraging, Nath and other restaurateurs said they need to know the details of the program before making a decision.
“It would be all well and good,” said Nath. “But instead of just talking, let’s see how it gets distributed. Let’s see some people get the money, not just say they’ll have it.”
Northwest Jacksonville is mostly black neighborhoods, and restaurants are usually mom and pop shops.
Many restaurants also serve as informal meeting places where residents can have a meal and find out about community events. They also provide much-needed jobs for local residents.
“If the restaurant closes, we will all lose. … A piece of the neighborhood is gone and probably won’t come back, ”said EJ Milton, who had lunch at Two Cooking Cousins before returning to his construction job on Tuesday.
Mentoring is just as important as finance, said Nath.
“When we know we have someone to ask for help who can hold our hand and guide us through things … I think that would be good,” he said.
Jacksonville has at least 106 black-owned restaurants, according to a list compiled by Visit Jacksonville and the Beaches.
The restaurants offer cuisines that range from traditional soul food to Caribbean cuisine, barbecue, innovative southern cuisine and decadent desserts.
Barriers for black-owned companies exacerbated by COVID-19
Black entrepreneurs across the country have long faced systemic barriers to growth, including access to credit and capital, biased community perceptions, and challenges related to gentrification, program officials said in a press release.
Those barriers have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic – as evidenced by the 41 percent of black-owned businesses nationwide that have closed since February. By comparison, only 17 percent of white-owned companies closed over the same period, according to current data from the University of California at Santa Cruz.
“Change has to happen in the heart,” said Tierra “Chef FeFe” Jackson, who was on the road with her Ambitious Eats food truck in northeast Florida two years ago.
“You look without a mask or glasses and say, ‘Okay, that’s what we have in front of our eyes. These people are not treated equally and that has been happening for years, ‘she said dealing with it and saying, let’s change our hearts and our minds about minorities. Let’s be better for them so we can all be a better community. “
The 28-year-old Jacksonville entrepreneur is also the caterer and personal chef for several NFL clients, including former Jaguars player Leonard Fournette.
“It’s definitely hard for black-owned businesses to start – especially in the restaurant world because restaurants are also at higher risk,” said Jackson.
Jackson said she faced some hurdles in introducing her food truck because she was a black woman and food trucks were a new business at the time – technically as a restaurant, but different by Florida business rules.
“It was hard to find funding for it,” said Jackson. Since a food truck is not a stationary restaurant, different rules and requirements apply to it in order to qualify for financing.
“It is particularly difficult to be a minority as well. We often don’t like to talk about it, but you go to a pub or store and because of the color of our skin we are not taken seriously or looked at differently, “said Jackson.
Jackson said her youth, dark skin, and cropped blonde hair also contributed to the stereotype that she had no way of knowing how to run a successful business.
“We get stereotyped a lot, and I think that happened a lot when I was looking for a loan to start my business,” said Jackson, noting that she was “definitely getting rejected a lot,” so she drew on her own personal resources one to start their food truck business.
“Grants and grant schemes are definitely good for people like me because I didn’t get the loan that most of the people I know started out on. I didn’t have any of those resources,” Jackson said.
“A Breakthrough Program”
Officials from the National Urban League and PepsiCo say the Black Restaurant Accelerator Program is an initiative that can make a difference.
“This is a breakthrough program that provides black restaurateurs with access to business-building resources tailored to their specific needs,” said Marc H. Morial, president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League.
Morial said her understanding of the local business environment and community, coupled with the expertise of PepsiCo team members, “will give business owners a head start if they want to grow”.
“Our goal is to assess the needs and qualifications of companies as quickly as possible so that we can provide support as quickly as possible,” Derek Lewis, president of the South Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America, told the Times- Union.
Black restaurateurs selected for the program will be matched with National Urban League business consultants and volunteers from PepsiCo staff to help them create an actionable growth plan.
Lewis said the grants will be awarded to restaurant owners in Jacksonville and other cities “based on the local dining needs that the Entrepreneurship Centers are currently evaluating”.
It’s one of the first steps in a $ 400 million pledge from PepsiCo to help black entrepreneurs, businesses, and communities.
“This is an important part of the wider investments we’re making to empower black-owned restaurants and small businesses, which has never been more critical,” said Jon Banner, executive vice president of PepsiCo Global Communications and president of the PepsiCo Foundation . in the press release.
“There are too many tires to jump through”
However, a few restaurant owners in Jacksonville Black expressed concern. Depending on admission requirements and other qualifications, the program may not reach some restaurants that need the most help, they said.
C’s Island Cuisine, which serves Caribbean and American food, opened at 6050 Moncrief Road about two weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic forced nationwide restaurant closings.
Owner Corwin Chan said they opened the place with their own money. Leleka Lewis, restaurant manager, said they applied for a small business loan due to the pandemic but declined because the restaurant had been in operation for less than a year.
Chan said that new companies like his restaurant could fall through the grid or lose support opportunities due to overly complex or strict licensing requirements.
“It could be a good program,” he said of the Black Restaurant Accelerator initiative. But the qualifications shouldn’t be too strict, Chan said.
“The problem is all of the qualifications they have for some of these loans or programs. Half of the companies probably don’t have the qualifications,” he said.
Restaurant owners are already paying taxes, royalties, rent, and other business expenses so they deserve a break, Chan noted.
“It’s hard to just open. You shouldn’t have to prove otherwise … there are too many hoops to jump through, ”Chan said, suggesting that proof of ownership and a license should be enough to qualify for a loan or grant. The length of time the restaurant was open shouldn’t matter, he said.
Nath, Jackson, and other black restaurateurs say they weathered the pandemic better than some other companies, largely due to community support.
Local residents and other loyal customers ordered take-away, and although the size of their take-away meals varied, they still came by and ordered food, the restaurateurs said.
“We have God’s favor and the people need to eat,” said Nath of the congregation that helped maintain his restaurant.