During normal times small business owners face a variety of challenges. But these are anything but normal times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and small businesses regardless of size, location, funding and industry have been heavily impacted.
Access to capital—always a critical issue for small business owners—has become increasingly burdensome to entrepreneurs and the burden is compounded by the challenges to comply with necessary orders from government and health authorities that can threaten a business’ ability to remain operational
However, in Detroit, during a time when small business owners would not be faulted for putting their personal needs first, there are examples of African American entrepreneurs who are stepping forward to actually help others. One sterling example is chef Maxcel Hardy, the owner of Coop Caribbean Fusion Restaurant (474 Peterboro), who used his celebrated gourmet talents to prepare thousands of hot meals to people in need of nourishment, as well as to other unsung heroes that have provided care and service to others during the pandemic.
“I’ve never seen anyone push that many meals out while being so organized, and Max wanted to do this—he did it all from his heart,” said Horatio Williams, who had an up-close look at it all as the meals were being prepared in the kitchen of the Horatio Williams Foundation building (1010 Antietam). “Max did all of the cooking along with his students in an adult cooking class he was teaching at our center, but we also are very thankful for partners like MGM Grand Detroit that donated good food and to other agencies and restaurants that provided food and funds as well.”
And as quickly as the food and came in Williams said Chef Hardy “cooked it on up” and meals went out—roughly 40,000 by his estimate during a period of 40-plus days through May.
“We provided meals to places like Operation Get Down, COTS (Coalition On Temporary Shelter), hospitals, our police officers, firefighters, the Osborn High School athletic department. We tried to reach out to everyone,” said Williams, who like Chef Hardy, was passionate about giving back even at a time when he was losing funding for programs at his own foundation.
Williams added, “We did as many meals as we could until we ran out of funds. It’s just always great to help somebody when help is needed most—that’s an honor.”
In some instances, helping others and promoting community pride can provide an opportunity to reimage a business on the fly and remain in operation during the pandemic. Nadonya Muslim and Dennae Holmes, operators of Tauntus Cosmetics Beauty Bar (18979 Livernois) on the Avenue of Fashion, have done just that.
“Nadonya was the visionary,” said Holmes, who like her business partner, is also an assistant principal for the Detroit Public Schools Community District. “We went to an online model. We had to build a website for customers to shop—we went into high gear with it—making websites, shipping, learning how to provide customer service online.”
Holmes describes herself at this moment in time as “hopeful and enthusiastic,” and a significant reason for her enthusiasm is the outpouring of support the company has received for a product created out of necessity that also combines the partners’ love for Detroit youth, the city’s history and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“We started making masks with school names on them,” Muslim said. “It went from us literally thinking we were about to close because no one was buying lipstick or makeup, to a blessing, receiving orders from as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and Guam. We started making the masks so people could show pride in our schools, including our high schools that were closed and then we said let’s represent the HBCUs to expose our kids and community to something else. Schools are wanting to use the masks for fundraisers and we also have heard from alumni associations of our closed high schools.”
Dr. Ken Harris, a strong advocate for Detroit’s African American businesses as president and CEO of the National Business League, is not surprised by stories about giving back and reinvention by local entrepreneurs during this challenging period.
“Throughout our history Black entrepreneurs have always been resilient,” said Harris, whose organization is the country’s largest professional association for Black-owned businesses.
In recent weeks, Harris’ Detroit-based organization has been working to provide funds to help spark rebuilding and innovation among local small business owners including partnerships with Comerica Bank and American Express that will provide access to capital for local entrepreneurs.
As Harris and the National Business League attempt to bring additional resources to local small businesses, he also says the local community has an important role to play.
“The mindset should be first and foremost to support Black businesses,” Harris said. “Patronage is going to be extremely important to our recovery.”
Harris’ message is already understood by local members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, which are encouraging the community to join them for a day of safe shopping on Saturday, Aug. 1 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. along the Avenue of Fashion.
“The Avenue has been hurt twice, including the Livernois construction, so we are doing what we think all people in our community need to be doing,” said Leon Wilkerson, a member of Phi Beta Sigma and director of social action for his chapter. “It’s an historic place for us and home to quality Black businesses that are trying very hard to survive right now. If we don’t support these businesses who will?”
The project supporting businesses on the Avenue of Fashion will coincide with Neighborhoods Day, presented by ARISE Detroit! for the 14th consecutive year, and the organization’s founder, Luther Keith, also will be rooting for Avenue of Fashion businesses and entrepreneurs across Detroit on Aug. 1 and beyond.
“To give our neighborhoResilient: ods life, there has to be an economic driver, and our small businesses really are the lifeblood of our community,” said ARISE Detroit! Executive Director Luther Keith. “Whether those businesses are on Livernois, or Grand River, or Warren, or wherever, they all have a story to tell and represent someone’s dream. In this time, when we are addressing social injustice and economic opportunity for everyone, it’s critical that we support our local small businesses because they represent our future.”