When the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a worldwide pandemic, few could predict the impact on society. In the United States at the height of the crisis, as death tolls climbed, minority communities bore the brunt of the blow. The coronavirus pandemic put a spotlight on the racial injustice and inequities of America from health and wellness to financial opportunities.
For businesses, this translates into smaller companies with less access to excess capital being forced to shut their doors beyond quarantine. As many small and large companies faced shifting policies and mandated closures Black-owned businesses had bigger obstacles. A study released in February by H&R Block found more than half of Black-owned small businesses experienced at least a 50% decrease in revenue during the pandemic compared to only 37% among white business owners. The same data revealed from February to April 2020, 41% of Black-owned businesses closed for good.
The National Urban League and PepsiCo Foundation have teamed up to change the outlook for Black-owned businesses, specifically restaurants, surviving in a world with COVID-19. Together, the organizations launched the Black Restaurant Accelerator and have committed to supplying $10 million over five years, reaching 500 businesses across 12 cities.
“Last year, again, given the fact that we were in the global pandemic and what was happening in terms of economic challenges and disparities that were exacerbating a number of communities coupled with the George Floyd murder, and our response to that, PepsiCo created and launched what we call a racial equality journey,” shared C.D. Glin, the new Vice President & Global Head of Philanthropy for PepsiCo Foundation to VIBE during a video interview. “And this is a more than $500 million commitment over the next five years to support black and Hispanic people, businesses, and communities in the US, to address issues of inequality and to create opportunity.”
A long-standing professional relationship between the two organizations resulted in the accelerator program.
“We’ve worked with PepsiCo, with that relationship with them, going all the way back to the 1960s. PepsiCo is one of the first major corporations to support Black organizations and institutions,” added Marc Morial, CEO and President of the National Urban League via video conference. “What this was really about, is answering the question, ‘What can we do, very specifically, to help Black businesses, post-COVID?’ I think because PepsiCo is in the food service business, this was kind of a natural fit.”
Many corporations were moved to upload black squares to their social media accounts and relay messages in support of Black Lives Matter after the spring 2020 protests for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Few were moved to make change beyond donating money to Black-centered organizations. How is this different? Glin informed VIBE that PepsiCo is determined to make lasting change, and his hiring is an example.
“Our commitment as PepsiCo to this racial equality journey, it’s inclusive. It includes helping people, helping businesses, and helping the community. The Black restaurant seller program is but one aspect of a broader $500 million commitment [over five years]. That commitment is about increasing diverse leadership within the company, so we have real metrics around increasing the number of Black associates, Black executives, [and] looking at a real opportunity to increase diversity, within our company,” said Glin.
Some of the initial restaurateurs and businesses chosen for the program’s launch include Pinky Cole of Slutty Vegan, Dr. Biruk Alemayehu of Addis Nola, and Jasmine Brown of De’Lish Food Truck—all founded and operated by Black women. Each entrepreneur was involved with the NUL before being selected, an important factor in being chosen for the accelerator.
“The choices have been made by Urban League affiliate entrepreneurship centers, directors, and local leaders. The decision-making has been left to them,” said Morial. “Before they [make] the choice they inventory all the Black restaurants in each of these communities, and then they chose through a process of interviewing [and] evaluating.”
All three restaurants have different cuisines, various locations, and faced different circumstances leading into the pandemic and hereafter. Slutty Vegan, an Atlanta-based restaurant, focuses on vegan sandwiches and sides with provocative names. Menu items include the “One-Night Stand” and the “Super Slut.” Throughout the pandemic, Cole has been able to sustain the business, noting customers’ intent to support Black-owned restaurants—She used her two-week shutdown during the beginning stages of the pandemic to regroup and plan.
“I launched Slutty Vegan in 2018 as a fix for my own late-night cravings,” she said describing her business’s origin. “[I] had no idea Slutty Vegan would become a fast-growing, pandemic-proof cultural phenomenon. There was a line around the block in 2018 and there is still a line down the block in 2021 and for that I am grateful.”
For Cole, the accelerator program will assist with the financial support necessary for growth, as the company has added two new locations and closed on a $1.4 million deal for a new headquarters. The resources in mentorship and programming also factor into the success of Slutty Vegan. Cole has a continuing relationship with NUL, collaborating with the local chapter on events and even speaking during their conferences.
“We thrived in a global pandemic because of the community and support from organizations like the National Urban League,” she explained. “We really appreciate the generous support and educational tools from the Black Restaurant Accelerator program. These resources will help Slutty Vegan continue to break the barriers of growth faced by Black businesses.”
Addis Nola is also newer on the restaurant scene. In fact, the Ethiopian eatery was weeks away from celebrating its’ first anniversary before COVID-19 caused businesses to shut down.
“As with everyone in hospitality, we were deeply impacted by COVID-19. COVID-19 restrictions affected us to operate in a limited capacity. Addis NOLA was two weeks before the first anniversary when we were forced to close our doors to dine-in to make matters worse,” Dr. Alemayehu shared. “We worked hard and adapted technology to stay open and continued operating using Uber, Waitr & online ordering (Menufy). As the business started to open, we were able to scale up, continuing to use the adopted technology and the dining area. We are still planning to expand our outside seating area to better prepare for the future.”
Addis Nola was able to use grant money to repair a malfunctioned kitchen hood and replace necessary kitchen equipment. The partnership with NUL and PepsiCo has helped the business not have the fate of other Ethiopian restaurants in New Orleans that have closed their doors permanently.
Dr. Alemayehu continues to express the importance of programs like this. “Addis NOLA needs the support of organizations like [NUL and PepsiCo and] the Black accelerator program to survive and thrive, deliver the best of our service, and bring diversity awareness to New Orleans.”
As for Jasmine Brown’s De’Lish Food Truck of Dayton, Ohio, her return to the culinary world was met with COVID-19. Her operation previously existed as a restaurant, which was founded in 2010. Her husband, and business partner, passed away in 2016 and in 2018, she decided to close its doors. It wasn’t until August 2020 that Brown decided to transform her business into a food truck and has shifted operations since the pandemic and adjusted plans to fit a changing landscape. She sells what she describes as “Cajun, Creole, comfort food,” with popular items being soul rolls, shrimp and grits, and lemon pepper wings.
Before opening the food truck last summer, however, Brown re-entered the business through a downtown marketplace, selling only one item. “Last year, in January, a girlfriend of mine opened up a marketplace down here in Dayton,” Brown shared over Zoom. “She’s like, ‘Hey you should come in and sell egg rolls.’ But at the same time, I had just applied for a job.”
Brown was able to use the money from that venture to purchase ingredients and tools to sustain her food truck which supports her work to expand her efforts into a food hall, expected to open this fall. It will be a collection of food vendors, live performances, and outdoor seating at one location. With the funding and mentorship from NUL, she is able to enter her new venture equipped with a new skillset.
“This is all new to me,” she says. “Because when we started the restaurant, I didn’t have to do the business plan or set up anything. It was more so me coming in. Everything I learned, I learned from hands-on [experience] in the restaurant at the moment. Now that I’m going into this food hall, it’s like starting everything from scratch. To know that I had that help right there is just a really amazing feeling because these people, this organization, is here to actually help you and see you succeed, and they have the tools and the resources.”
For all the chosen Black-owned restaurants, as well as PepsiCo and NUL, the end goal is longevity.
“These are businesses and restaurants that have a commitment to long-term sustainability and profitability. So success for us…our goals are really threefold. What we really want to do…we want to preserve. We want to protect. And we want to provide support to those Black businesses. Preserving, protecting, and providing support is [so] that they will go forward more sustainably and also more profitably,” responded Glin—which solidifies good business all around.