The couple envisioned exactly what it would be like: an airy space with floor-to-ceiling windows, plush chairs and a wraparound bar where they would offer biscuits, scones and 40 different tea blends. When Lynnette and Eric Dodson won a small business competition in February — and free rent for a year — their dream of an intimate space for Cuples Tea House seemed closer to becoming a reality.
But with everything upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the Dodsons had to take another look at their shop, on Howard Street in Baltimore’s Market Center-Bromo Arts District. They knew they’d have to change how they engage with their customers.
“What will this look like going forward?” Lynnette Dodson asked.
At a time when many businesses are struggling because of the pandemic, Black business owners in particular are wrestling with how to keep going.
There’s a long history of discrimination in this country in access to capital and loans, and today, the rules and structure of the federal Paycheck Protection Program made it difficult for many Black businesses to get the assistance, analysts have found.
Some minority businesses are hanging by a thread and have been forced to close down, at least for now.
But others have found a way to carry on, sometimes getting the federal help and also seeing a surge of support from the Black Lives Matter movement. The success or failure of these businesses is a matter of importance not just to their owners and investors, but to the economic health of Baltimore and the state.
“These businesses play such an important part to the community — circulating money that strengthens families, property taxes and health,” says Harry Alford III of Humble Ventures, a development firm that works with minority entrepreneurs.
The Dodsons, who live in the city’s Original Northwood neighborhood, have been on a roller coaster since March. They worked five years to establish their tea business, hosting tea parties, selling products at farmers markets and getting a contract to provide tea for the Maryland Institute College of Art.
When the pandemic hit and some businesses closed their doors under state orders, the Dodsons’ income dried up. By late April, they decided to apply for one of the federal loans, hoping the money could provide a cushion.
But by late May, when their contest win was announced, Baltimore’s COVID-19 cases were spiking. And within a few days, protesters outraged by the death of George Floyd took to the streets.
“Our news just kept getting buried,” Lynnette Dodson said.
Then, on June 3, their Instagram account got a tag that would make all the difference. A trendy online food magazine called Delish listed Cuples Tea House as one of the 16 Black-Owned Kitchen Brands to support across the nation.
In a matter of two days, the tea house gained more than 500 new followers on social media, with customers from as far away as Puerto Rico ordering tea products online.
“It catapulted us to a different level,” Lynnette Dodson said, noting that once they’d been tagged by the magazine, people added the store to other online lists that promoted the brand to consumers.
The couple decided to stop the loan application process. “At that point, we said, ‘Forget it. We don’t need it,‘ ” she said.
The burst of support “got us out of the crunch we were in, and it allowed us to look forward.”
Fabric of the city
About 47% of Baltimore’s small businesses, or roughly 23,600, have Black owners, according to figures from the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. With the pandemic ongoing, it’s far from clear how many and which ones will survive.
Experts say retail and restaurant businesses have been hurt the most. For instance, Jasmine Norton, who founded Baltimore’s Urban Oyster, the first Black-owned oyster bar in Maryland, recently closed her business.
Since April, more than 40% of Black-owned businesses across the country were forced to shut down, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit that disseminates its findings to policymakers, business professionals and others.
John Lewis, president and chief operating officer of the Black-owned Harbor Bank of Maryland, said his bank has partnered with other financial institutions to help minority businesses access capital and loans.
At the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce, spokesman John Green III said the group has hosted free weekly webinars to connect business owners with loan opportunities.
“People want to feel, see, taste, smell Baltimore, and Black-owned businesses are a critical part in offering that experience.”— Al Hutchinson, president of Visit Baltimore, a nonprofit that works to attract visitors and meetings to the city.
The success of these businesses is key to a state like Maryland, which has the nation’s highest number of minority-owned businesses per capita, and to cities like Baltimore with majority Black populations.
“Black-owned businesses are part of the fabric of life in this city,” said Al Hutchinson, president of Visit Baltimore, a nonprofit that works to attract visitors and meetings to the city’s hotels, convention center and neighborhoods.
“People want to feel, see, taste, smell Baltimore, and Black-owned businesses are a critical part in offering that experience when people are visiting from all over the country.”
New customers give boost
Brothers Khari and Shawn Parker are owners of Connie’s Chicken and Waffles restaurant. Together, they have 12 employees and four locations.
During the shutdown, Connie’s Chicken and Waffles was able to get a paycheck protection loan as well as an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, a federal program to help small businesses with rent, utilities and health benefits.
The money meant one of their four locations was able to stay open with restricted hours.
Since June, when the business was featured on a USA Today list of highly rated Black-owned restaurants, new customers have arrived. They proudly declared that they’d driven miles to support the restaurant and sample the distinct waffle varieties, from red velvet to crunch berry, the brothers said.
“I’ve had people come from as far south as South Carolina and as far north as New York,” said Khari Parker, who noted that loyal customers encouraged family and friends to get a meal there.
Another Baltimore company, Harris Kupfer Architects Inc., got a PPP loan of roughly $30,000 — and support from new customers.
The firm, founded in 2004, is owned by married couple Leslie Harris, who is Black, and Ken Kupfer, who is white. At the beginning of the shutdown, they were concerned that their team of six would not get any new proposals.
Wayne R. Frazier Sr., president of the Maryland/Washington Minority Companies Association, recommended Harris and Kupfer to groups looking for minority architects. The firm is working on a few new projects through that connection.
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Gregory Banks, who runs a CPR certification business, OperaxionCPR & Safety Services, says he has also seen a bump, a 15% increase in revenue within the past two months. He believes that is because people are seeking out a Black CPR trainer.
Business owners hope the momentum continues.
“Hopefully people are paying attention and not seeing the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd’s death as just a moment,” Lynnette Dodson said. “We need to not only support Black businesses, but also help them sustain.”
Legacy of discrimination
Black-owned businesses have long faced discrimination. A recent analysis by the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit research and policy organization, found that Black businesses did not get a fair share of the federal payroll program money. The report points out that businesses owned by people of color are likely to have fewer employees and less revenue, making them less attractive to lenders.
Noting the significant and persistent wealth gap between the white and Black communities, Alford, of the venture development firm, said it is crucial for Black people to spend their money on Black businesses.
“The ability to circulate the Black dollar has never been more important than now,” he said. “COVID-19 teaches us that no one is going to save us, and we have to be more reliant than ever on our community and believe in our own ability to succeed.”
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member of Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture.