D.C. spice shop owner creates affordable spaces for Black businesses

After seeing there was limited affordable property for business owners in D.C., Angel Gregorio wanted to build a space to support other Black entrepreneurs like herself.

“I have friends who do hair and nails,” said Gregorio, founder of Black + Forth. “I noticed they had been paying exorbitant amounts of money to have spaces in D.C., so I decided to start a conversation about affordable commercial space in a city where we always talk about affordable housing.”

In December 2021, Gregorio bought a 7,500-square-foot lot in Northeast Washington’s Langdon Park neighborhood. The $1.1 million property, along with about $2.3 million in renovations, was financed through revenue from Gregorio’s business, the Spice Suite, and a government grant.

Black + Forth officially launched earlier this year — a strip mall of shipping containers transformed into commercial spaces that house Gregorio’s spice shop, as well as a natural hair care salon, a nail salon, a braiding studio and a wax studio, all owned and operated by Black entrepreneurs. It also offers a farmers market and classes for entrepreneurs.

“I want the space and I want my business to be known for supporting Black people relentlessly [and] for creating spaces intentionally for Black people in a city that is always changing and intensely gentrifying,” Gregorio said.

In Congress Heights, a retail village of homegrown entrepreneurs brings hope

Each suite owner received a personal invitation from Gregorio to join. Previously, they’d worked out of other commercial spaces or out of their home.

“I feel a sense of pride. I feel a sense of community and sisterhood,” said Senna Minor, owner of the Braid Bar. “You know, we can tease each other and we joke and recommend each other’s businesses. It’s wonderful.

“We’re doing what people say Black girls don’t do — genuinely, healthily and effectively support each other,” Minor said.

Tinea Porter, a 40-year-old entrepreneur and owner of TGR Beauty, is another tenant. Her journey into the hair-care industry began after being laid off from her job as a high school teacher. Before getting a suite at Black + Forth, Porter worked at Sola Salons at Woodmore Towne Centre in Lanham. A longtime hair colorist for Gregorio, she was excited to be one of the spaces available in the strip mall.

“Black women are making a difference. We’re in this thing that we built, that we created,” Porter said. “With a lot of gentrification and most of us starting to be priced out of residential and commercial real estate, we were able to come in during the time that people are leaving out and make such a mark. That’s a big deal. Most people don’t have the confidence to even see visions like that through.”

Nicole Lovelace, 41, owner of PRMP, a brow and beauty studio, said she “couldn’t say no” when she was asked by Gregorio to join the studio. PRMP also has a location in Northwest Washington.

“Angel is really just making something that allows our growth to be more affordable because there’s no place in the city where we will be able to get this kind of space or this kind of community,” Lovelace said. “These offerings that she has are low to no cost. We are able to provide elevated services to the community.”

Gregorio launched the Spice Suite in 2015 after leaving her job as a school principal. Over time, it evolved into more than just a retail store; it became a space for female entrepreneurs, who were known as the “Spice Girls.” These women regularly have recurring pop-up spaces in the store to sell their products while also helping to run the shop.

One such entrepreneur is Andy Reyes, a 36-year-old accountant from New Haven, who traveled to D.C. to represent her and her husband’s company, Tierra Soap Co., in the Spice Suite’s storefront. The company specializes in soaps, bath bombs and salts.

Reyes said she sees D.C. as an ideal location for minority entrepreneurs to expand their businesses, build networks and establish connections with new people.

Reyes will return in September to participate in one of Black + Forth’s farmers markets, which take place on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. These farmers markets provide a direct platform for growers and farmers to engage with the community, supporting local produce sales, according to Gregorio.

Gregorio provides space in the pop-up shops and farmers markets free of charge. Black + Forth also offers free business school classes. Originally held on a monthly basis, the demand for these classes has surged, Gregorio said. Two or more classes are now available monthly. In a recent session, representatives from Mastercard gave lessons to more than a dozen people on the importance of data in business practices.

“Community Business School is built on the premise that I believe we have enough genius in our communities to grow our community,” Gregorio said. “So I invite my friends who are Black experts in things like marketing, branding and imagery. We try and offer everything you could think of.”

Gregorio said more expansions at Black + Forth are in the works, including plans to add a rooftop bar and offer pop-up events for Black bartenders.

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