The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for U.S. small businesses, with many experiencing dramatic declines in revenues and cash liquidity following the government-mandated closures that began in March. The effects of the economic downturn have been especially severe for Black-owned businesses— many of which entered this crisis undercapitalized.
As a step toward helping black-owned businesses recover and move forward, a coalition of four business advocacy groups — the National Minority Supplier Development Council, US Black Chambers, National Urban League and Black Enterprise — have partnered with JPMorgan Chase to launch Advancing Black Entrepreneurs by Chase for Business. Together with Chase Business Banking, these organizations have developed an educational curriculum designed specifically for eligible black entrepreneurs on key topics that are vital to business growth and sustainability.
Kamal Grant, owner of the Atlanta-based Sublime Doughnuts and a Chase for Business client, shared his insights about why it is critical for Black entrepreneurs to have relationships with banks and the importance of new programs like Advancing Black Entrepreneurs.
“I am excited to be a part of this program. It is a tough environment for Black entrepreneurs, and it is great to see Chase have this curriculum to develop the in’s and out’s of a well-oiled business,” Grant says. “Seeing a program like this can help us address the important issues and bring people together to have positive discussions. It’s important to learn how to grow your wealth and build on that.”
Black-owned businesses experienced a 26% decline in cash balances in March compared to the prior year, according to the JPMorgan Chase Institute, and could require more recovery assistance than others due to severe revenue shocks in recent months.
Participating entrepreneurs also receive instruction on how to reimagine their businesses if necessary— with insights into how to build more flexibility into supply chains, develop an online presence, revisit staffing models, and a primer on accounting best practices for new grants or loans they may have recently received. In addition, the course will provide insights into how to manage banking relationships in this environment.
“Black entrepreneurs play a vital role in the economic health of black communities, and it is critical that we equip them with the necessary tools and insights at this time,” says Adrienne Trimble, president and chief executive officer of the National Minority Supplier Development Council. “We’re looking forward to working with the coalition and Chase Business Banking to position black-owned businesses for success and prepare them for life after the crisis.”
Changing business models
As many retail bakeries are learning, a new business model is needed to capture and sustain business growth. Slowly but surely, sales are picking back up this year, and sales of donuts – which Grant calls a “natural takeout food” – are building, thanks to a budding delivery business for the bakery.
“People started coming out and taking donuts home for their families, and a lot of people in Atlanta started supporting Black businesses,” Grant explains. “Atlanta showed up, and that’s been really good for us. Sublime is needed in this new world order.”
Sublime Doughnuts is nearing 12 years in business as one of the most innovative donut shops in the country. The retailer operates two locations in Atlanta, in addition to two locations inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League.
As the creative mind behind Sublime Brands’ distinctive doughnut and bakeshop concept, Grant demonstrates a love for baking and bringing smiles to customers’ faces that can only be described as awe-inspiring. “I realized at a very young age that sweets make people happy, and that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.
When an executive from Dunkin Donuts visited Grant’s high school foodservice class and discussed his trips to the doughnut research and development lab to taste the experimental treats, it sounded pretty sweet. After graduating, Grant joined the Navy and used his enlistment as an opportunity to pursue his dream of becoming a world-class baker. Serving as a baker among the E4 – 3rd Class Petty Officers on the USS John Young, Grant’s cinnamon rolls quickly gained the praise of his shipmates.
In addition to an opportunity to bake, his travels with the Navy also exposed him to international culinary treats and exotic flavor and texture combinations. Singapore’s ice cream sandwiches made with multi-colored bread and sweet red bean soup, Australia’s malt chocolate beverages and Dubai’s shawarma and rosewater forever changed Grant’s approach to baking.
“While traveling around the world in the Navy, I learned that pastries weren’t just about baking; they also represented culinary art,” says Grant.
This newfound artistic appreciation led him to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America, where he focused on high-end desserts, plate presentation, classical techniques and the flavors and textures of award-winning chefs. During his time at the Institute, Grant interned with renowned pastry chef Keegan Gerhard at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans. Upon graduating, he refined his skills at the American Institute of Baking, where he focused on the science behind baking. Grant put these skills to use at his first job as a supervisor at the Flowers Baking Company, learning the value of “high volume, high quality” production.
Before long, Grant’s desire to create led him to notice a rental sign for an empty shop in Atlanta that would soon become his culinary vision, known since 2008 as Sublime Doughnuts.
“At Sublime, we present flavors and textures from around the world on a doughnut canvas,” he says with a smile.
In the Advancing Black Entrepreneurs program, experts from the four business advocacy groups administer a series of 90-minute virtual sessions to participating entrepreneurs at no cost. The first session focuses on how business owners can address immediate financial needs and build resiliency in the age of coronavirus. Participating entrepreneurs will receive free instruction on a variety of topics – including how to protect cash flow, reduce expenses, maintain vendor relationships, collect outstanding revenues, and manage inventory and other assets.
“How businesses adapt, innovate and plan for the future will determine their future survival — and we’re committed to helping as many black entrepreneurs as we can navigate this path,” says Christopher Hollins, managing director of Chase Business Banking. “The businesses that will be best positioned to thrive after this crisis are those that have managed cash flows effectively, pivoted business models where necessary, and strengthened ties to their communities while keeping employees and customers safe.”
Rising in Chicago
Across the nation, Black-owned bakeries are responding to changing times with strong spirit and a drive to succeed.
In Chicago, Stephanie Hart opened Brown Sugar Bakery in 2004 and developed a client base that appreciates the love of cakes. This Greater Grand Crossing bakery's tagline is "dangerously delicious," and it delivers on the promise with cheesecakes, cupcakes, cobblers, cookies, pies and more.
Specialty sweets include sweet potato pie, peach cobbler and bread pudding. Nearly 20 whole cake flavors are available, including German chocolate, red velvet, carrot, and turtle.
“We call 75th Street the Black Magnificent Mile, and we are committed to creating things that are real – a traditional African-American bakery,” Hart says. “We are going to survive. Our work doesn’t stop. I’m looking for the silver lining all the time.”
She is building around traditions and spreading the message to build equity through food. Earlier this year during Juneteenth festivities, Hart crafted black, red and green cakes, drawing a huge crowd that spanned more than a block long.
“That for me is what I can do,” Hart says succinctly. “Connect a memory for our customers. Sharing is really, really important right now.”