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‘A space for us by us’: New Black-owned venues offer opportunities for vendors and customers

Amanda Mack was tired of hearing that her friends could not find venues for their social gatherings or business events that welcomed and celebrated their “Blackness.” So she decided to create her own.

Mack, a chef who is known for her scrumptious breakfast biscuits and pastries stuffed with creamy crab dip, is opening Layers The Loft, a 3,000-square-foot concept where she intends to showcase “Black excellence” in a safe, welcoming space.

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Layers The Loft is a new private event space in Whitehall Mill owned by baker Amanda Mack. The 3000-square-foot mixed-use venue will open June 1. Mack says it will "essentially be a space for creatives of color" and will offer flexible pricing and a 90% Black vendor list.
Layers The Loft is a new private event space in Whitehall Mill owned by baker Amanda Mack. The 3000-square-foot mixed-use venue will open June 1. Mack says it will "essentially be a space for creatives of color" and will offer flexible pricing and a 90% Black vendor list. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

“They didn’t even serve the food that I want to have. And when they did, I would have to use their caterer who is not seasoned or experienced in the food of my people. They would have unseasoned greens that my guests would not eat,” she recalled, adding that “racist” dress codes also kept her and her friends away from marquee venues throughout the region.

“I’m just so tired of that narrative that we need this approval for us to do anything,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I had a space for us by us.”

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During the pandemic at least a half dozen Black-owned event spaces have opened in the Baltimore region. The owners of the venues say they are filling a need that Baltimore — a city that is 65% Black — has had for decades.

In addition to claims of discrimination, they say years of white-owned venues using preferred vendor lists that do not include any Black vendors have essentially prevented those vendors from thriving. Black customers have been prevented from supporting Black businesses in the process, they point out. By prioritizing Black vendors and customers, they hope their spaces will be met with open arms.

“There definitely is a market for this,” said Mack, who plans on hosting a monthly $100-a-ticket all-inclusive brunch series and other “elevated” events. “I don’t know how we are going to keep people out. Get your ticket. It’s going to be a good time.”

“There definitely is a market for this,” said Mack, who plans on hosting a monthly $100-a-ticket all-inclusive brunch series and other “elevated” events.
“There definitely is a market for this,” said Mack, who plans on hosting a monthly $100-a-ticket all-inclusive brunch series and other “elevated” events. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

There are multiple advantages to being included on a preferred vendor list, according to Tara Melvin, president, and founder of The National Society of Black Wedding & Event Professionals.

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“There are private vendor showings and events. If you are not on that list, you are not invited,” said Melvin, who is based in Alexandria, Virginia. She said such concerns are heard across the country. “We have been overshadowed for so many years,” Melvin said.

The lists color the way customers view the quality of vendors. Not being on a list implies that those vendors are not the top level, according to Melvin, whose organization was founded last June and has 138 members in 23 states.

“We know that there are so many excellent [Black] professionals out there who are drastically overlooked,” she said.

Tiffanie McCoy, owner of Baltimore-based Bird of Paradise Events, said she participated on several panels in 2020 addressing racial disparity in the industry.

“Some venues said they didn’t notice that there weren’t any Black vendors on their lists,” said McCoy, who is Black. “They didn’t take the time to research and to communicate with Black event and wedding professionals to find out if they were capable of offering services in their spaces.”

As a result of these talks, venues started diversifying their cadre of contacts.

“That was absolutely wonderful,” said McCoy, who estimates that 60% of the 18 venues she worked with in 2019 — all within the Maryland region — had preferred or recommended lists with no Black vendors. She declined to name the venues, saying she feared doing so might affect future business.

Mack has curated her own list of Black vendors — from DJs and set designers to florists and media production specialists — for clients.

“You don’t have to use them. But we have sought out the best,” said Mack, who also worked with Black interior designers Reidy Creative and Design My Investment to create the look of her space. “Black-owned does not mean less than.”

David and Tonya Thomas, the wife and husband team responsible for melding Black History and cuisine through their former restaurant Ida B’s Table, have joined forces with Black investors Floyd and Linda Taliaferro to open The Sinclair. The hulking 54,000-square-foot building in the Belair-Edison neighborhood has 17,000 square feet dedicated to event space and catering. And there are plans for expansion into the building’s unused space, according to the couple.

The Thomases will run their catering business, H3irloom Food Group, from the massive venue and be its exclusive caterer. The space boasts a mix of ballrooms and meeting spaces — all with distinct interiors that range from ceilings dripping with assorted flowers to sleek white walls.

“We need to reclaim that narrative,” David Thomas said of highlighting positive things in Baltimore’s Black communities. “We have always worked in places like The Sinclair. We have never owned them or dined there.”

Bianca Jackson opened BrickRose Exchange, an art gallery and event venue, just before the pandemic began. Since then she has hosted four pop-up events featuring Black women vendors.
Bianca Jackson opened BrickRose Exchange, an art gallery and event venue, just before the pandemic began. Since then she has hosted four pop-up events featuring Black women vendors. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Bianca Jackson predicts success for the new wave of Black-owned venues.

Jackson, who owns BrickRose Exchange, an 800-square-foot events space in Canton that doubles as an art gallery, said were it not for the support of Black people — particularly women — her business might not have survived the pandemic.

“It’s amazing,” said the former Baltimore City Schools’ STEM teacher who opened her business in July 2019. “I cater to them because without them I would not be able to survive.”

Jackson has made it a priority to seek out Black vendors to give them opportunities they have not been offered elsewhere.

“I’m happy that this space has grown organically,” she said, adding that during the pandemic, she increased her staff and offered a series of pop-ups where close to 100 vendors had the opportunity to sharpen their pitches for future clients. “We’ve done quite a bit [of business] before COVID, during COVID and right now.”

Social media influencer Ty Alexander said she can’t wait to throw a party at The Sinclair, which she toured this month.

“I’ll be 45 this year. I’m going to turn up a little bit,” said Alexander, a Black Baltimore resident with an Instagram following of 106,000.

Jackson stands in the Valdarrama Room near the entrance to BrickRose Exchange.
Jackson stands in the Valdarrama Room near the entrance to BrickRose Exchange. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

With its luxury finishes and curated details — Alexander is partial to the velvet furniture — she said the space is unlike anything she has seen in Baltimore.

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“It feels like a party. It’s perfectly curated for any event,” she said. “It’s important because the narrative that is told about Maryland or Baltimore is led with poverty, crime and violence. It is important to us as Black business owners to change that narrative.”

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Alexander’s hope is that the space will attract all types of brands, celebrities, and a cross-section of people, a diversity she says is not found in many of the legacy venues in Baltimore.

“I’m really excited to see what comes from this,” she said.

David Thomas, who heads up the food services at The Sinclair, wants the opportunity to show guests that he’s more than capable of providing highly curated food in a Black-owned space that will rival that of any top venue in the region.

“We can do the same thing. We just haven’t been reaping the rewards of it,” he said.

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