How Collaboration Fueled Portland’s Black-Owned Business Boom

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Step into the Drink Mamey juice bar in northeast Killingsworth and you’ll see a bright orange neon sign screaming ‘Drink ya juice’ sitting on a faux grass lined wall above an abundance of potted plants. Noetic Plants — a Portland-based black-owned business — sells its monsteras and dracaenas outside the store, in front of a wall of other beautifully packaged products from other black-owned businesses: Hussle Way Sea Moss, moonlight candles from Onya’ e Naturals and bottles of Ella Dean hair oils, neatly lined up on shelves under another neon sign reading ‘Mamey’s Faves’.

The wide range of black-owned businesses and artists exhibited at Drink Mamey is intentional: co-owner Cydnie Smith-McCarthy only allows products from black women-owned businesses to be sold in the shop. She’s declined several offers, even if it means the shelves aren’t always fully stocked. “We’re a black-owned business, and our space is for black people and our shelves are for black women,” Mamey says. “Our shelves are light right now because it’s really hard to be a small black business in Portland. You wouldn’t believe the number of emails I get from white people and white women regularly asking to be on the shelves. »

Since 2020, there has been a greater collective focus to support Black-owned businesses in Portland – partly in response to the city’s overall reckoning with its own racist history, and partly due to the growing number small businesses, restaurants and black-owned restaurants. pop-ups are opening across town. Local projects such as Support Black-Owned Restaurant Week and BIPOC marketplaces such as Come Thru PDX and My People’s Market have helped boost the visibility of brands and business owners over the past few years.

But for black business owners in Portland right now, what has really helped elevate their businesses is collaboration — working specifically, and sometimes exclusively, with other black-owned businesses. Working with other black-owned businesses makes it easier for newcomers to build a foundation, not just for their business, but also socially. “It’s important to bring back black wealth and generational wealth,” says Smith-McCarthy, “Everyone deserves a chance to do this.”

Portland doesn’t have as many crowded black-owned third spaces compared to other major US cities; it’s a direct result of Portland’s racist history, which dates back to exclusion laws enacted at the time of the founding of the state of Oregon. Racist lending practices and development projects — like the I-5 expansion and the Legacy Emmanuel expansion that displaced thousands of Black families and businesses — have made it difficult to sustain long-term owned businesses. to black people in Portland. Now, decades later, these Black-owned businesses are recreating these spaces for their community in ways that allow them to multiply; in the face of systematic persecution and restrictions, the promotion of these companies could be considered a revolutionary act.

Brea Gladney is the owner of Treats By B, a custom plant-based cake company she started about eight years ago in Oakland. When she moved herself and her business to Portland, she immediately began connecting with other black-owned businesses, which was a natural transition for her.

“I speak to everyone, [but] when I watch it, everyone I work with is black,” Gladney says. “It made things a lot easier from a cultural perspective because they just get it. Products blend more naturally — taste, appearance. … It’s not from the shadow point of view; in a sense, we have to. There is a different way of taking care of each other. It’s easier to win with your people.

In early 2021, she began selling her Treats By B pastries at Plant Based Papi’s first restaurant on SE Morrison Street, selling slices of cake and cupcakes to pair with owner Jewan Manuel’s vegan comfort food. Manuel himself only started appearing in 2019, but has regularly collaborated with other companies to gain a foothold; in particular, he described Fatou Ouattara and George Faux of Akadi as mentors. When he first opened the Plant Based Papi storefront, which he has since left, he said he wanted to open up a space for other small businesses trying to get started. “That’s what got me here: people giving me opportunities,” he told Eater in 2020. “I’m excited to give this to someone else.”

“What [Manuel] inspires me to create things for people that they can have the same way but, dessert side,” Gladney says. “It builds relationships with people who are like you, especially when you’re an entrepreneur.”

Working with other black people became even more important to Gladney after moving from the diverse city of Oakland to Portland, one of the whitest cities in the country. However, she says, the small community can also give black businesses a unique opportunity to stand out, she says. “In the Bay Area, you can find anyone who does anything and excels at it, especially people of color,” she says. “[In Portland]it is much easier for us to stand out.

During the ongoing trials of the COVID pandemic and systemic violence against Black Americans across the country, making connections with other Black-owned businesses has allowed some Black people in Portland the small solace of solidarity. Like Gladney, Two Wrongs owner David Hall moved from another diverse city – Los Angeles – to Portland, which was a difficult transition. When he opened the Southeast Sandy Jackie’s sports bar in the summer of 2021, Hall knew he wanted to work with other Black-owned businesses, especially when sourcing ingredients for food and beverage menus. drinks. At Jackie’s, Drink Mamey juices serve as the base for mimosas, and diners can order Deadstock coffee and Lebronald Palmers with their Eggs Benedict or shrimp and oatmeal.

Hall feels lucky that his business has been able to stay open and even grow, despite the challenges of the pandemic. For him, integrating Drink Mamey and Deadstock is more than just a business decision; he also provided a sense of emotional support to other black people during a historic period of civil unrest.

“Being black and brown business owners and actively building a business through tough times, and then you add the layer of protesting — we check on each other on the sanity side of things,” Hall says. “You are always listening to each other. Continuing to grow in this sector is the goal, and growing together. I think it’s great that there’s a great sense of community and how we can help each other.

Many companies, like Jackie’s, began their journey either during the pandemic or months before, so they’ve been constantly adjusting their business models — using it as a way to grow and experiment together. While COVID has shut down many businesses in the food industry, many black business owners have found a chance to thrive through trial and error. “COVID has given us an opportunity,” says Hall.

Ian Williams, owner of Deadstock Coffee and the new Concourse Coffee in northeast Portland, agrees with Hall: Williams feels the past two-plus years have put him in a position to experiment, to try things like a pandemic pivot. Williams has partnered with other cafes and businesses, he’s supplied coffee for pop-ups and outdoor events, and he’s taking on wholesale customers. “COVID has made you more intentional with what you do,” Williams says. “But also with COVID, you can throw things against the wall and see what happens.”

Terelle Bolton and Noori Cherry make coffee behind the counter at Deadstock.
Suzi Pratt/EPDX

This goes beyond simply stocking shelves with products from black-owned businesses: some have focused on hiring black people to work in their spaces, as servers, baristas and cashiers. By hiring more black people for indoor positions, these business owners are consequently creating safe spaces for their black employees and clientele. “The interactions are different when you walk up to a place and you see someone who looks like you and you kind of disarm yourself a bit,” says Hall. “Employing a diverse staff that we were able to attract with the culture here results in a space that feels like home.”

As the pandemic begins to wane and businesses continue to open up and grow, Hall says he can’t wait to see what Portland’s black business community will look like if businesses continue to grow at this pace and uplift other black entrepreneurs.

“The black business owner community is really coming together,” says Hall. “Hearing uplifting words from your peers, people you look up to and respect given their contribution to the community – these are all people I look up to. I’m thrilled for everyone’s future and to be able to meet in 10 years and see where we are.

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