After decades in the restaurant business, working every job from dishwasher to chef, accountant to owner, chef Rashad Armstead began to question why Black businesses were not thriving at the level they could be. A question he also had to put to himself.
Last year, things were looking up for Armstead, who was a champion on the Food Network competition show “Chopped.” But not long after winning, he was forced to close his two restaurants, Grammie’s Down-Home Chicken & Seafood in Oakland, and Crave BBQ in Richmond.
The restaurant business is already notoriously difficult, but many Black entrepreneurs begin with fewer available resources than their white counterparts — most notably, wealth — and have to make up for more ground just to reach the starting line.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” said Armstead, “But I didn’t think that I would have to come up against different battles just because I was a Black man. I always thought, ‘I’m a hardworking person, why wouldn’t it be easy for this to happen?’”
Resources, support for fellow Black entrepreneurs
Armstead decided he could make the biggest impact in combatting racial discrimination by helping Black entrepreneurs in the food industry. He brought his attention back to a project he dreamt up in 2017 — the Black Food Collective (BFC) — which offers Black food entrepreneurs professional kitchen space, networking opportunities, business management skills and capital. Armstead’s hope is that the BFC can act as a kind of training wheels, helping members find their balance until they can ride on their own.
To join, members must operate a food-related venture, such as a restaurant, grocery store, food truck, catering or beverage company, and must have already launched in some capacity before applying for membership. (“You can have a pop-up or even sell out of your house,” said Armstead.) The company must be at least 50% Black-owned. At present, there are 20 members. There are no membership dues and no hard geographic requirements. “I’m actually talking with a guy right now in Florida,” said Armstead.
Members receive shared access to Epic Ventures Test Kitchen, a 2,500 square foot professional-grade kitchen at 1430 23rd Ave. in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. The kitchen has enough space and equipment for two separate member businesses to operate pop-ups simultaneously, according to Armstead.
BFC members hold pop-ups from noon to 4 p.m., and 5-9 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays. Armstead aims to add a late-night shift at the kitchen, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Armstead currently covers all rental and maintenance costs for the facilities, but he requires members to give him 10% of revenue made during a pop-up event. Menus for upcoming pop-ups are announced via Instagram and Facebook and interested customers can order via Cheqout.
The BFC is hosting a crowdfunding campaign to raise $1 million dollars to invest in four member businesses to start. The money isn’t a grant, the BFC will take a percentage as equity, which members have the option to buy out after five years.
“Me, as a chef myself, I’m a little bit more merciful,” said Armstead. “But I’m also not going to give someone a check and say ‘do what you want to do.’ Let’s come up with a growth strategy on how we get from here to there.”
Part of the “there” Armstead wants to get to includes Town Hall Oakland, an outdoor food court at 30th and Adeline streets in West Oakland. The venue will be home to 12 Black-owned businesses and will act as a food incubator for others starting out. Armstead describes it as an open-air, shipping container food hall. It’s pie-in-the-sky for now, but a goal that Armstead is steering towards.
But some of the more important benefits the BFC can offer are also the least tangible. As a former restaurateur himself, Armstead understands that many capable entrepreneurs fail to thrive because they don’t understand how to operate a business and manage licensing, permitting and tax codes.
“They’re not struggling with work ethic,” said Armstead. “They’re struggling with capital and with strategic planning on how to take their businesses to the next level.”
Members are encouraged to help other members
Armstead encourages members to view each other as a mutually beneficial resource. Members like Jennifer Calder, owner of Oakland’s Vacos, a vegan taqueria that pops up noon-7 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, at 550 Second St. in Jack London Square.
Calder previously owned and operated Burnt Ends BBQ food truck for five years before selling the business to open Vacos. After handling so much meat for so many years, Calder was after a new and creative challenge.
“I do a bunch of different fusion tacos. I have a curry taco, I have a jerk taco. I have fried avocado, fried cauliflower, jackfruit tacos,” she said. “I don’t use soy and tofu products, none of the fake meats. Just fruits, vegetables, grains and beans.”
When Calder was just starting, she was denied a much-needed loan. “These bigger banks don’t take risks with new businesses, and especially not restaurants,” she said. “They really want to see that you have the experience, the revenue and the credit score.”
But the scenario also sets up a chicken-and-egg situation. A company cannot receive a loan because it does not have income. It cannot get income because it didn’t receive a loan. Calder figured out a work around, albeit a risky one, by going into credit card debt. She paid off her debt in three years, and although it allowed her to get her business off the ground, said the steps she took “can be discouraging.”
As part of the BFC, Calder hopes to mentor others, boost her own business and receive investment to eventually open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“I think having a stand-alone location is more beneficial than having people have to figure out how to find you,” she said.
Black immigrant businesses face even more challenges
Another BFC member, Rosine Boussini, owner of Rosine’s Ginger Juice, recognizes that every new business struggles, but says being an immigrant means facing further barriers.
“That makes a big difference when you come to a country where you don’t have anybody,” she said.
Boussini immigrated to the Bay Area from Burkina Faso in 2001. When she arrived in the U.S., she could not speak English, and had no extended family or community. Her now ex-husband was her only means of support. Today, Boussini is divorced with two children, ages six and 15, “who I have to support 100%,” she said.
She began selling ginger juice at the Ashby flea market in 2003, and now also sells bottles at a few East Bay grocery stores. She sells five different juices — ginger-lime, pineapple-ginger-hibiscus, ginger-tamarind, mango-ginger, and hibiscus tea — in 16-ounce bottles for $4 and 64-oz bottles for $10.
Boussini started Rosine’s out of her home, but eventually moved to a commercial kitchen in Emeryville. There, she was only able to use the facility between 5 and 8 a.m. At the time, her daughter was a newborn, so Boussini carried her on her back while she worked, while her son played with toys on the floor.
Today, Boussini uses a commercial kitchen in Alameda, one that is available during more reasonable hours. Still, she would like to find a place of her own. That might require more money up front, but would save money in the long run. “It would be less stressful,” she said.
Boussini had tried to apply for a $50,000 loan to secure a kitchen of her own but was told that to qualify for that amount she would have to be making at least $100,000 a year already. “Which I’m not,” she said.
“I don’t generate enough money to save to build my business due to the fact that I’m mostly working for myself and do not have enough storage to keep my stuff,” she said. “I have loyal customers. People believe in the product, but I don’t have the means to expand.”
Now is the time for collective good
Boussini is exactly the kind of entrepreneur Armstead wants to support. But the question has to be asked, as the proprietor of two failed brick-and-mortar restaurants, is Armstead the right person to give it? Or is he also one of those entrepreneurs he identified who struggles with strategic planning?
Armstead had to close both his restaurants for reasons related to finances and permitting. Crave BBQ was supposed to relocate to the California Hotel in Oakland, but didn’t because of Armstead’s inability to secure his half of necessary funds, leaving him with around $70,000 worth of debt.
Grammie’s Down-Home Chicken & Seafood lasted only a bit more than three months. Armstead had been assured by the previous tenant, Las Palmas, that the location was turnkey. After moving in, Armstead discovered he had purchased $30,000 worth of unreliable kitchen equipment. There was also an uncooperative landlord and $11,000 worth of citations from the health department, even before he opened. “It was hell,” said Armstead.
So, how would it be different for the Black Food Collective?
“I believe that it’s a different time right now,” Armstead said. For one, the pandemic has forced a lot of existing businesses to rethink how they operate, and forced a lot of people to rethink how they want to live, Armstead among them.
And during a year of social unrest, when the country is both more aware of injustices towards Black Americans and receptive to their concerns, now is the time to make use of that platform and keep the energy going, Armstead said.
A $1 million investment sounds like a solid place to begin, but with one week to go, the BFC has only secured about $4,000, less than 1% of the goal. Armstead said his Plan B is to discuss partnerships with financial institutions, seek venture capital and offer BFC members business relationships in lieu of startup funds.
“It may be that I’m not able to give them all I want to give them now, but maybe facilitate a partnership to get them into a grocery store, get them into a brick-and-mortar, get them a food truck,” said Armstead. “We will use what we’ve got to make this a reality.”
It’s part of a “whatever means necessary” business ethic. Aside from crowdfunding, Armstead has been covering operating costs for the Fruitvale kitchen by doing private chef-for-hire events. “Which is literally just enough to keep the lights on and the doors open,” he said.
“I’ve got a lot of tenacity,” he said. “I don’t give up so easily.”
And when it comes to the BFC, the collective is more important to Armstead than whatever individual success he hopes to achieve, when and if Crave and Grammie’s ever relaunch as brick-and-mortar restaurants. (According to the chef, he still operates both as pop-ups, with upcoming events scheduled for November.)
“Benefits to Black communities benefit the American people,” he said. “We come out in thousands when it comes to protests, it’s time for us to come out in the tens of thousands when it comes to things like this.”
“The Black economy is not the force that it could be. And we need to figure out how we can get to the point that it is a force in our world.”