Perspectives: What It’s Like to be a Michigan Black Business Owner

This past year was not easy for business owners. Restaurant owners navigated constant changes in policy and safety updates, farmers rallied for the safety of their employees, markets pivoted to online sales and precautionary measures, and employees everywhere combatted furloughs, mask requirements, and the loss of income from in-person shopping and dining. 

Black business owners experienced losses disproportionate from the average. In fact, while active business owners in general fell by a huge 3.3 million during this past year, the number of Black business owners fell by a staggering 41%. In our local food world, less than 2% of farmers are Black business owners, due to historical and ongoing systemic racism. 

So what’s it like to be a Black business owner today? We asked our partners across the state to provide a perspective, and to share their favorite Black-owned business to support. 

Who’s who, and what their business is, in their own words: 

Alex Ball (he/him), Old City Acres, Belleville

Old City Acres is a four season, no-till farm serving families in Ypsilanti, Belleville, and Romulus since 2013. 

Alita Kelly (she/her), South East Market, Grand Rapids 

A grocery store and food hub operating through a sustainable and equitable lens. We source from local, diverse farms and businesses and empower generous economy through our programming. 

D’ette Walton (she/her), R&D Foods, LLC, Ypsilanti

R&D Foods is home to a variety of flavorful sauces, jellies and spices. Our products include Poppa’s Gourmet Hot Sauce, Poppa’s Trinidad Scorpion Pepper Sauce, Poppa’s Secret Rub, Momma’s Hot Pepper Jelly & Momma’s Habanero Jelly. 

Minya Irby (she/her), Cooper Irby Brewster Professional Services LLC, Detroit

Commercial insurance agency

Khadija (Ka-De-Jah) B. Wallace, Joyful Treats Catering, LLC & Joyful Treats CDC, Ypsilanti

Joyful Treats Catering & Joyful Treats Community Development provides corporate food services via our LLC and our national 501c3 charity serves a diverse segment of the population who are victims of various hardships. Our mission is to educate 15-25 year olds with a Global DEI service learning foundation for entrepreneurs to birth a sustainable business in the Food Industry. One of our wraparound services is to decrease hunger disparities via our food pantry, which saw a 300% increase during Covid-19 as we served the most vulnerable community members affected.

What inspired you to start your business?

Khadija – The desire to create a family legacy.

Alita – Learning about nutrition and food access and realizing the intimate role it played in my own health and that of my family and community. 

Minya – I noticed an opportunity as new businesses are starting in Detroit, and there were no independent Main St. market insurance agencies in my community, especially not owned by a black woman.

Alex– When I was 18, I saw the only grocery store in my hometown of Romulus close, and for the first time I started thinking about food and where it came from. I decided that I needed to be a food provider and work towards a more sustainable food system.

D’ette – The business started as a way to make ends meet during the recession several years ago. The recipes for the sauce and jelly are family recipes from my mother and father-in-law who live in Georgia. We decided to try and sell the products after receiving lots of positive feedback from family and friends. As time progressed we learned more and the business grew, we decided to expand our product line with an additional flavor of hot sauce and jelly. We also added a dry rub and are in the testing phase of another seasoning.

What is your favorite product or menu item that your business sells or grows?

Alex– I absolutely love all the different veggies we grow, but my favorite product is probably our weekly four season CSA boxes. It feels good to supply consistent seasonal food to my friends and community.

Khadija – Our soul foods

Alita – That’s hard! When we get local peaches in, that will be my favorite but right now it’s got to be the Natural Northern line of dips. Whitefish, salmon, asiago, jalapeno…there are so many to choose from and all so delicious. We carry the best bacon in town also.

Minya – Life Insurance and Property Insurance

D’ette – I personally love the dry rub. It is very versatile. I also love the original sauce – Poppa’s Gourmet Hot Sauce. Sometimes the first thing that you launched becomes your baby!

Poppa’s Gourmet Hot Sauce Products

What’s your favorite thing about the community that supports your business?

Minya – I love talking to business owners. I like sharing ideas–inspiring and being inspired. I love being able to solve insurance problems and give people confidence in knowing and a peace of mind.

D’ette – Our spicy community is amazing. The fact that they are supportive is the best part. We have customers that have been rocking with us since the beginning; consistently supporting us for at least 7 or 8 years. 

Khadija – The relationship of how we feed off each other and how they trust us.

Alita – I love how excited people are to learn about where some of our items come from and the story behind the products. That curiosity feeds my soul. 

Alex– My community, mainly in Ypsi, is the heart of my operation. Not only are they the best customers, but they are my friends and I rely on them to know what they want to eat.

What challenges have you faced as a Black business owner?

Alita – All Black business owners start their businesses in the face of many obstacles that started way back from the day we are born Black. It’s really a testament to the strength, resiliency and beauty of Black people when anyone operates a business as a person of color.

Khadija – Limited cashflow and capital.

Alex – The biggest challenges have been directly linked to land access and finding safe and secure places to run your business. People don’t often think of it, but the price of land pushes black farmers to look for cheaper/more affordable land farther and farther from markets. These communities are not always excited about outsiders, especially black ones.

D’ette – The hot sauce industry is traditionally a white male dominated market. As a Black business owner, you have to work harder to erase doubt about having a good product that is safely and properly made. Often customers will assume that we work for someone else or are selling someone else’s products. Funding is also a hurdle that we’ve had to deal with. 

Minya – As a small independent insurance agency, I am always challenged as I compete against giants like State Farm and AllState.  They have the brand recognition and longevity that I haven’t fully developed, so I lead with my strengths–personal service, knowledgeability and responsiveness. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners?

D’ette – Stay the course. It’s not always easy and you will make mistakes, but stick with it. 

Khadija – Be open to developing all kind of relationships

Minya – Be persistent and consistent.

Alita – I’d say find a business partner that compliments you well. My business partner Khara and I have so much fun together and have a different skill set and it rounds out the business so well. 

Alex – I tell all young farmers to go and be a part of the community that they are trying to feed first before starting a farm feeding those people. Too many times, farms and food businesses try and push their items onto communities they are both not part of and don’t truly understand. If you truly understand the needs of your customers, you can build a strong community focused business.

In your own words, why is it so important to support Black-owned food businesses in Michigan?

Minya – I just believe it is important to support black owned businesses of all kinds. Supporting black business minimizes the wealth gap in this country for African Americans.  It helps to improve social issues that plague the community, and it promotes self-sufficiency. Black business owners tend to hire black employees which lowers unemployment in the black community and by supporting black businesses you help those employers pay living wages and offer benefits.

Alex– All of this comes down to equity. I want to pass down things to my children, and I want to continue supporting and taking care of my community. Owning land/building wealth is the only way to do that, and that is only possible through folks who continue to support me.

D’ette – Supporting us provides diversity in Michigan. 

Alita – Supporting Black-owned food businesses means a more rich and thriving food scene. The more cultures represented in the food scene the more robust and colorful it will be. It’s no secret that the cuisine that comes from Black culture is some of the best food there is. I mean come on… we got to coin the term “Soul Food”! 

Khadija – It’s important because we are the largest group of consumers and it is refreshing to  have a seat at the table and have an input of the services offered as well as needed for our community members and those looking one day to have a black owned business as well.

What are some steps that local food eaters can take to support a diverse food system?

Khadija – Taste out of the box. Try different cultural foods.

Minya – Eat locally. This is the most effective way to support a diverse food system.  Businesses appear where demand is present, so when we eat locally, we drive demand to more unique businesses in the community and away from major chain restaurants. Local restaurateurs source ingredients from local suppliers, which recycles a dollar within a community longer.

Alex– Supporting your local food system takes work, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Starting out with a $20 a week farmer’s market budget (for fresh foods) is a great first step in supporting farms and local food producers.

D’ette – One way is simply by purchasing our products. Also understanding that the cost may be a little higher than purchasing the same type of product at a big box retailer.

Alita – Get out of your comfort zone. Support stores, restaurants and establishments that challenge you to try new things.

Old City Acres at the Farmers Market

What’s your favorite Black-owned business in your community, and why?

D’ette – I love Cuppy’s Soul Food in Ypsilanti. Their food is always delicious and the staff is always nice and polite. I also love to support 211 Beadwork, Egg Roll Diva, Curt Got Crabs & Peach Babe Cobblers. Each have amazing customer service, quality products and excellent branding.

AlitaChez Olga no doubt. Her food is absolutely the best. She has been around for so long consistently providing the dynamic flavors of Caribbean Cuisine. She makes me feel like family every time I go in and I can’t go more than a few weeks without her cooking. 

Minya – I like a lot of Black owned businesses in my community, from my bank at First Independence to my favorite pizza place at Flamz.  Most of my shopping with other black owned businesses. 

Khadija – Of course Joyful Treats, because we care for our community. 

How are you supporting Black-owned small businesses in June and beyond? 

Claire Butler is a Communications Coordinator with Taste the Local Difference. You can find her at [email protected]