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Focus on racial justice brings attention to Black-owned businesses

Focus on racial justice brings attention to Black-owned businesses

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When Kevin Berry saw people asking on social media for Roanoke-area Black-owned businesses they could support, he compiled a list and posted it to Instagram and Facebook in early June.

The marketing and communications professional thought the list would just be shared among his friends. But it spread far more widely, with people commenting to suggest other businesses be added to the list. Berry has since posted three updates.

Berry, who is white, said he figured creating the list was the least he could do to encourage Roanokers to visit Black-owned businesses.

“There is a racial wealth gap in this country. That should not be. We need to do everything we can to erase that,” Berry said. “We have an obligation to ensure that minority-owned businesses thrive in our community because they bring diversity, and diversity is a good thing.”

Amid a national reckoning on racial injustice, there’s been a call to shop or dine at Black-owned businesses to demonstrate support. While the effect is hard to quantify, some Black business owners in Roanoke said they’ve seen increased support or interest.

The Associated Press reported that Google searches for “Black owned businesses near me” reached an all-time high last month in the United States.

The Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center now includes a list of Black-owned businesses on its website.

Director Amanda Forrester said it was easy to get started given the number of Black-owned businesses the center already has relationships with. Community members are welcome to submit others to be added to the list as well, meaning it’s constantly growing.

Forrester said users are glad to have a page where they can easily find Black-owned businesses, along with links to their websites and social media pages. Some businesses the center works with have reported an increase in website traffic or engagement on social media.

Forrester said she’s happy to see people making a concerted effort to support these businesses.

“I think for many people it’s been that way for a long time, they’re very conscious spenders,” she said. “But having it highlighted and having resources available to know where to go to do that has been incredible for our community as a whole and to understand that and bring light to it.”

The number of Black-owned businesses in the Roanoke Valley is vast. Here, we highlight six: a coffee shop, a gym, a clothing brand, a vegan catering company and consultant, a gourmet ice vendor and a barbecue restaurant.

Roasters Next Door

When Steffon Randolph first moved to Roanoke, he quickly identified Wasena as in need of a coffee shop. He believes it’s something every neighborhood, particularly a walkable one, should have.

His parents had owned a coffee shop in Richmond for a time, which sparked Randolph’s interest in eventually opening one himself. He convinced his brother Quincy Randolph, who at the time was working as a chef in Chicago, to move to Roanoke and join him in the endeavor.

The duo opened Roasters Next Door, or RND Coffee, on Main Street just over a year ago.

Quincy Randolph said the shop’s feel — a warm, friendly neighborhood hangout — is inspired in part by his parents. They didn’t educate themselves as aggressively about craft coffee as the brothers do, but they knew how to create a good atmosphere.

“The level of hospitality that they welcomed their guests with is something we try to emulate and you might see at RND,” he said. “We’re very much a people-first establishment both with our employees and the people who visit us.”

The brothers are taking that relationship with guests a step further, posting a video to RND’s Facebook page last month voicing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and inviting customers to have conversations with them about race and social justice.

They felt particularly compelled to do so having ties to a number of the cities that have been hot spots for protests. Both spent part of their childhood in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, and Richmond, the epicenter of the debate about Confederate monuments. Quincy Randolph attended culinary school in Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor was killed.

“[We] want to lend our voice and use what little platform we have to just clearly express our stance and to also show support and say that we’re willing to talk and also contribute more to the effort to make change,” Quincy Randolph said.

Steffon Randolph said he might be the only Black person in a customer’s circle who can personally speak to these issues.

“If they don’t hear it from us, then in some cases they’re not going to hear any opinions at all or any experiences,” he said. “It’s important to hear our side of things.”

Some guests are starting those conversations, or otherwise signaling their support. When customers order coffee online, they can attach a note, Steffon Randolph said, and some have said “Black Lives Matter” or shared words of encouragement like “Here for you.”

RND Coffee partnered with Red Rooster Coffee to release this month a blend called All Rise. Proceeds from the coffee sales will go toward Dream Corps, which works to reform criminal justice, build a green economy and promote equity in the technology industry.

While Quincy Randolph said the brothers are grateful for the community support they’ve received now and in the past, he’s more thankful for the efforts people are taking to educate themselves.

Steffon Randolph said he feels there’s often a misconception that a Black-owned business is a business for Black people, ultimately leading people to “self-segregate” by choosing not to shop or dine there.

“So I think getting out and going to a business that you otherwise might not have before, I think would be good for a lot of people and sort of really show everybody that we have so much more in common than we do apart,” he said.

Simply Fitness by Diane

Standing on a platform in the center of the blacktop at Kennedy Park on a sweltering Saturday morning, Diane Simmons guides a crowd of about 50 in a high-energy dance routine, encouraging them to wiggle their backsides.

Simmons got serious about exercise when she was studying to become a respiratory therapist, after learning about how a person’s weight and diet affect their breathing.

She ended up shedding 80 pounds.

“From that I decided, hey, I can help other people the way that I’ve helped myself to maximize and realize their potential and get that weight off of them and start to live a better and healthier life,” Simmons said.

When determining what niche she’d like her fitness business to fill, Simmons decided to focus on Black women. When she attended Virginia Tech for her undergraduate degree, Simmons minored in Black studies and women’s studies, so it was a natural fit.

“Historically, there hasn’t really been that much of an emphasis on Black women going to the gym, working out, being physical,” she said. “It’s unfortunate because so many of us suffer from diseases and afflictions that can be counteracted with a healthier diet and exercise. So my mission was to try to bring health, fitness and awareness to this community and build something for us.”

Simply Fitness by Diane will mark its five-year anniversary in October. The gym typically has between 75 and 100 members, most of whom are women. Simmons offers things like hip-hop dance and hip-hop weightlifting classes, along with nutrition coaching.

Simmons said she prides herself on offering a safe space for Black women to get quality fitness services. She strove to make her gym a nonjudgmental space where all are welcome.

It’s been exciting to see more people invested in growing and supporting Black-owned businesses, she said. Simmons has worked to highlight them herself, organizing a Black women’s entrepreneur expo that featured more than 20 businesses.

“We’ve worked really hard all the time, but a lot of times we’ve been overlooked for obvious reasons and not-so-obvious reasons,” she said. “But now it seems to be at the front of people’s minds and eyes, so that’s great.”

Hmble Hstle Clothing

Xavier Duckett’s Hmble Hstle Clothing has always been about more than fashion.

It was designed to support his other endeavor, a nonprofit that provides financial literacy and entrepreneurship training to young girls, exposes inner-city youth to the outdoors, and provides coats and back-to-school supplies to kids in need, among other things.

“It was a way to connect with people, it was an easy way to draw people into your mission, it was an easy way to make people smile,” Duckett said of the clothing line.

When someone purchases a T-shirt, or hat, or socks, it’s an opportunity for Duckett to tell them about the nonprofit. And the clothing line can provide a steady stream of support for that work, which the Roanoke native is truly passionate about.

“Our mission is really just to empower Black youth and connect them to diverse communities by creating innovative and inclusive spaces that inspire hope and provide and promote giving at the same time,” Duckett said of the nonprofit.

Sales have been strong for the last few months. During the pandemic, Duckett said, he’s been able to tap into a new creative space and has recently focused on incorporating social justice issues into his designs.

One of his latest is a T-shirt that reads: “See us. Hear us. Feel us. Protect us. Love us. Stand by us.” On the back, it lists the names of Black men and women whose lives were cut short, like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

It feels good to see more people supporting Black-owned businesses, Duckett said, and he hopes it will continue.

“I hate that it takes all of this stuff that’s going on in the country for people to understand how hard it is to be a Black-owned business owner and to sustain, especially in a predominately white city. In Roanoke, we’re the minority. And we’re only in the majority of one sector [northwest Roanoke] that is not very frequented by white people,” he said. “So to see white people come into that area that’s unfamiliar to them and to show the love and show support, it does feel good.”

Queen’s Vegan Cafe

Shaqueena “Chef Queen” Snyder launched her business with a clear vision: show Roanokers that eating vegan doesn’t require sacrificing flavor.

Snyder launched Queen’s Vegan Cafe, which she soon plans to re-brand as Royal House of Vegan, in 2018. She does catering, pop-ups, dinner parties, events, vegan consulting and cooking demonstrations.

After becoming vegan, which was prompted by a desire to be in top condition to care for her son, Snyder became passionate about educating others about the benefits of a vegan, plant-based diet. She said too many people have health problems related to their eating habits, such as high cholesterol and diabetes.

But she quickly noticed a problem when going out to eat with friends: There weren’t many options for her on the menu. It pretty much came down to a salad or french fries.

So she set about disproving the misconception that eating vegan means limiting yourself to “salads and twigs.” The secret is simple, Snyder said: “You literally season your food the way you would season the meat.”

Snyder said she focuses on Afro-Caribbean cuisine. She grew up cooking with her mother, who is from Eritrea, where turmeric, garlic, onion and ginger are in heavy rotation. Snyder’s food has a kick to it; popular items include curry chickpea tacos and jerk jackfruit.

Currently, Snyder does not have a brick-and-mortar location, but she’s a member of the LEAP Kitchen, a food business incubator in the West End neighborhood. Snyder said she eventually hopes to open not a restaurant, but a healing center.

“It will have healing foods, healthy, plant-based foods, but in addition to that have holistic services, so we’ll have some herbs, we’ll have tea, we’ll have yoga, all of the things that encompass the mind, body and soul in one place,” she said.

Queen’s Vegan Cafe appeared on some lists of Black-owned businesses in Roanoke that were circulating recently, and Snyder said it brought her some new supporters. She hopes the desire people have to patronize Black-owned businesses will be lasting.

“I would like to see people come out on a regular basis, reach out and support the Black-owned businesses, because we’re typically mom-and-pop shops and we’re here investing in the economy and our communities,” she said.

Delicia’s Gourmet Ice

You can’t understand Delicia’s Gourmet Ice until you try it.

People think it’s like ice cream, or a snow cone, or Italian ice. But none of those is quite right.

So when Delicia Tucker meets with corporate executives considering offering a sweet treat to their employees, perhaps to show their appreciation or as a reward for completing safety training, she begins her pitch with a sample. Once people taste her gourmet ice, they listen.

“We’re going into the boardrooms to introduce ourselves and let them know that you don’t have to have ice cream sandwiches. You don’t have to treat grown men with Popsicles,” she said. “This is a gourmet treat.”

But for those who can’t immediately try it, here’s how Tucker describes her product: “We like to say it’s creamy like ice cream without the milk or the guilt. It’s dairy-free, gluten-free, egg-free, nut-free. It’s a delicious frozen treat for everyone.”

She and business partner Teano Tucker — “The Iceman” — bought the rights to the recipe. And they’re the only ones selling it on this side of Interstate 95.

Delicia’s Gourmet Ice is a mobile operation. It often does corporate events, but it has also popped up at public libraries and parks, along with businesses like Sweet Donkey Coffee House. During the pandemic, its home base has been on Carroll Avenue in northwest Roanoke.

Tucker said Delicia’s Gourmet Ice has seen an uptick in traffic from people wanting to support a Black-owned business.

Recently, Tucker was stationed at a birthday party in a city park off Williamson Road. A regular customer posted on Facebook, asking where she could find some ice that day, and Tucker replied. Not long after, other first-time customers showed up.

“These people randomly pulled up and got out of their car and they walked over and they apologized for crashing the birthday party, but they wanted to support a Black business,” she said. “They had seen it on social media and they specifically rode around looking for us.”

Tucker said the support has been great to see, especially as she has a number of teens working for her this summer in an entrepreneurship program she is getting off the ground.

TJ’s Backyard BBQ

Though TJ’s Backyard BBQ doesn’t open until noon, owner Troy Conley arrives at the restaurant at 5 a.m. every day to light his wood-fired smoker.

Ribs and pulled pork take hours, while brisket takes him two days. An enormous amount of labor goes into Conley’s food. But he’s dedicated to doing it the “old-fashioned” way to ensure that smoky flavor. That requires time and close monitoring.

“People gravitate to barbecue when it’s not commercial. That’s a big thing. I don’t like commercial barbecue, because it’s not authentic,” he said. “There’s no passion put into the food when you go to a commercial restaurant.”

Though Conley’s nose has grown largely immune to the smells wafting from his smoker, for most they would be hard to miss.

Everything TJ’s Backyard BBQ serves — from the meats to the macaroni and cheese — is homemade from scratch every day.

“They say when you open a business, you work harder for yourself than you would for anybody else,” he said. “And that is the truth.”

Conley opened the restaurant, located on Melrose Avenue, in September. He was previously a truck driver for US Foods, where he made frequent deliveries to restaurants, some of which he didn’t think very highly of. He figured if they could make it, surely he could, too.

For as long as he can remember, Conley has been barbecuing, using his grill year-round. So starting a barbecue restaurant was a no-brainer.

Although the learning curve has been steep, Conley said he likes that being a small-business owner means there’s no limit to how much he can grow. Conley leases his current space and said he’s working toward eventually buying his own building, designing it exactly to fit his needs.

If he could, he’d like to stay in the neighborhood, which Conley’s partner, Jessica Stacy, noted is a food desert with just a handful of restaurant options.

Some customers worry when they hear Conley wants to grow TJ’s Backyard BBQ. But he says they have no reason to.

“What happens when people grow, they change, the food changes, the quality changes,” he said. “I will never change or compromise my food for anything.”

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County. She can be reached at (540) 981-3234 or casey.fabris@roanoke.com.

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