Milan Brewster, Contributing Writer
Black-owned businesses have learned to adapt to unexpected changes while operating in a global pandemic and a time of protests over police brutality and racial inequality.
Soul Taco, a Latin American and Southern American fusion restaurant, shifted its East Main Street location into a market during the stay-at-home order to provide toiletries and fresh produce to nearby customers.
“I made it my mission from the minute I opened Soul Taco, being from Richmond born and raised, that I would give back to the community here in any way possible,” owner Trey Owens said.
When the restaurant opened in 2018, Owens said he prioritized using Black-owned services, such as family-owned Ambush Pest Control in Richmond. He uses Tidal, a music streaming service owned by rapper Jay-Z, to play music in his restaurant.
“There has been millions of dollars funneled out of my community,” Owens said. “This money is out there somewhere and should be put right back into the community.”
The restaurant closes each year to observe Juneteenth, which recognizes the day enslaved African Americans in Texas received news of emancipation in 1865. This year, Soul Taco spent June 19 registering people to vote.
Owens partnered with Nolef Turns to help people in the process of regaining their voting rights. The organization helps those who were formerly incarcerated gain access to housing and supplies for succeeding post-conviction.
“We got six people registered to vote and one felon’s rights restored,” Owens said. “Getting only one person’s voice restored is more than enough for me.”
Soul Taco located at the Kabana Rooftop is open to the public. The locations in Jackson Ward and Shockoe Slip are open for curbside pickup and carry out only. Owens says this allows them to keep business going and to help their employees.
“Me and my business partners have worked more doing COVID-19 than we have on our busiest week,” Owens said. “For me, all I have is Soul Taco.”
The stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Ralph Northam in response to COVID-19 has impacted the small businesses in the Richmond area. Phase three of Northam’s plan to reopen Virginia allowed nonessential retail establishments and restaurants to fully open on July 1.
Several Richmond businesses, some of which were Black-owned, were vandalized in the first weeks of the protests following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis. The protests are ongoing with subsided reports of looting, but many storefronts on Broad Street and surrounding areas remain boarded up.
“This is America, and it doesn’t get more American than what is going on right now.” — Anthony Bryant
Little Nomad, a clothing store founded in 2017, was started by co-owners Anthony and Nora Bryant after they had a vision to bring modern children’s apparel to Broad Street.
Nine months after opening Little Nomad, a car ran into the front of the store and left them out of business for four months. Bryant said this situation prepared them for COVID-19 and civil unrest in the city.
“We had to fully shift online during the pandemic, but in a weird way we were already set up for it,” Bryant said.
Bryant visited the store on the morning of May 30 and saw damaged historic Black-owned businesses after a night of protests. To keep his open, he boarded up the store and moved inventory into his basement. Bryant said he can fulfill orders from home with local drop-offs and pickups.
“We now face our latest challenge with uprisings on Broad Street here in Richmond,” Bryant said in an Instagram post on May 30. “Make no mistake, I am in support of protests, but I’m also concerned about the business I’ve worked very hard for.”
Bryant said he doesn’t want the public to only help his store. He also wants people to support the historic Jackson Ward community. Many freed slaves moved to Jackson Ward during the Reconstruction era, and by the 1920s, it became a well-known center of African American life in the U.S.
View this post on Instagram
Hi. I’m Anthony, owner of Little Nomad. As a black man, I could not go forward with business as usual without talking about the past week. I didn’t want to at first. Not because I’m afraid of my business losing followers, but because I’m exhausted. I’ve been a subpar dad this week leaving my wife to bear the brunt of our two wild girls during quarantine. I’ve been in my head reliving my own personal run-in’s with “amy cooper” and witnessing the murder of yet another black man at the hands of the police has crushed me. . I set out for Little Nomad to be a place where all feel welcome because I know very well what it feels like to not be. There aren’t many kid’s shops like ours and there definitely aren’t many black men running them. We’ve endured being out of business for 4 months from a car crash. We are continuing to navigate business through a pandemic. We now face our latest challenge with uprisings on Broad Street here in Richmond Va. make no mistake, I am in support of protests, but I’m also concerned about the business I’ve worked very hard for. . I wrote something on my personal page on May 9th after we’d all seen the Ahmaud Arbery video, and I feel it is my responsibility to reiterate the message here. The heinous actions that you see against black people should not be left solely to be talked about by black people. I implore white and non-black parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents to have the conversation about these acts with the tiny humans in your lives. If I have to, why can’t you? Kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for. . We need your long term commitment. We need your action. . Little Nomad will continue to contribute to our community. We intend to keep selling books on how to talk to your kids about racism. We’ll keep having Drag Queen Story Times, and we’ll continue to stock our store with quality women and minority owned businesses. . As always, thanks for your support. – Ant
Little Nomad is operating online during phase three and has yet to announce the reopening of its brick-and-mortar store.
Chilalay, a clothing store founded by two VCU alumni, opened a Broad Street location in September. Co-owner Earl Mack said that having a first-year business during this time is showing him and co-owner Nikko Sauvé how to be resilient and trust each other more as business partners.
“We are trying to find ways to take the positive out of all this,” Mack said.
During protests on May 30, Chilalay’s front door was damaged. Mack said a store was caught on fire and looted two doors down from their 212 W. Broad St. location.
“The night that it happened, a friend of ours sent us a picture of our front door kicking in,” Mack said. “When we got to the store, a few of our next-door neighbors were outside trying to encourage people not to hurt our store more than it was already damaged.”
While its doors were closed, Chilalay continued to print new shirt designs and take online orders. According to the store’s Instagram page, Chilalay reopened July 25 with requirements to wear a mask and social distance.
“This is America, and it doesn’t get more American than what is going on right now,” Bryant said. “We feel like we are in a fortunate position that it happened where our stores are located and we can participate in this conversation.”