Black-owned businesses swap successes, samples at Expo
Inside Sandlot, an event space along Howard Road in Southeast D.C., cars pulled up and business owners poured out to set up tables with brightly colored banners, space for samples and business cards.
They were setting up to take part in the Black Business Expo, an event organized by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office on African American Affairs.
While a DJ played a mix of music from the Gap Band to Grandmaster Flash, entrepreneurs shared their struggles and successes — and samples — with each other.
Greg Etienne, founder of BOTL’D — a Black and LGBTQ+ owned business billed as offering “artisanal ready-to-drink cocktails” — was standing in front of the table set up by Thia J. Jackson, owner of Cakes and Cobblers. Etienne sampled the peach cobbler first, then the rum cake.
Asked to give a rating of 1 to 5 stars, Etienne didn’t hesitate: “I would probably give the rum cake a four and the peach cobbler a five. I liked the peach cobbler the most,” he added, scooping the last of the crumbs from the sample cup.
Jackson, a D.C. native, said she reached back into her grandmother’s kitchen for inspiration. “She was an exceptional cook,” Jackson said.
Asked about when she started her business, Jackson raised her eyebrows slightly before she said she began in 2021, “Right in the — IN the pandemic, OK?.
Asked if her friends thought she was crazy, she laughed again, adding, “Everyone said, are you kidding me?” when she announced she was launching her business. But she got some lucky breaks, including one that led to pop up shops at a major retailer after a client shared one of her made-to-order cakes at a party.
Unique food options
At another table at the D.C. event, CEO of Wellfound Foods Sarah Frimpong explained that she got her start while still working at a coffee shop on Capitol Hill.
“I made sandwiches for the owners as an employee, and he let me make a few of my own alongside his to sell upstairs in the store,” said Frimpong. And, Frimpong said, that was it.
What makes Frimpong’s offerings unique? You can get them in vending machines.
The menu includes a macro soba bowl, a Greek chickpea salad, grab-and-go grilled steak, chicken and hardboiled eggs. Frimpong said it’s clear from sales: people are looking for healthy choices that can be hard to find in places like college campuses.
“One of the things I laugh at is we’ll sell a salad at three in the morning. When I was in college, we were not buying salads at three in the morning,” she said with a smile.
Two young men who might one day be business owners — William Vaughn and Marquize Whitener — are participants in the Mayor’s summer jobs program and potential future business owners.
Vaughn said he might one day want to get into the food business, and Whitener said his interest was in clothing.
Thomas Bowen, Director of the Office of African American Strategic Engagement, which is part of Mayor Bowser’s office, said his office works to help break barriers for small business owners.
“I think it’s difficult — but not impossible for most folks,” Bowen said of getting a foothold in business in the post-pandemic climate.
Access to capital can be a challenge, he said, “particularly for Black folk and people of color who don’t oftentimes have that generational wealth that they can rely on, or sometimes don’t meet some of the standards that a lending institution has” to finance their businesses.
Friday’s event comes ahead of Black Restaurant Week of Greater Washington, starting on July 16.
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