At Breukelen Coffee House in Brooklyn, business is booming, at least by pandemic standards. Regulars have started to return — with masks, of course — but owner Frank Warren has noted an uptick in unfamiliar faces, too. After taking a 90% hit during shelter-in-place orders, sales jumped 30% last week.
He suspects the surge isn’t just because the city is coming back to life, but the result of renewed calls to support Black Lives Matter along with black-owned shops like his.
“This couldn’t happen at a better time for us,” Warren said from behind the counter of his cafe. Over the last few months, he had relied on takeout to keep him afloat. “But then you add this? My gut tells me 50% more tips, at least.”
Following weeks of protests, the fight for racial justice after a police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes has taken on many forms. Among them are calls for consumers to “Buy Black” as a corrective to economic inequalities black business owners face. Lists of coffee shops, eateries and retailers to patronize have gone viral on Twitter and Instagram. One post that touted Breukelen has more than 45,000 likes. Official Black Wall Street, an app that curates black-owned retailers, got 8,000 downloads and more than 30,000 Instagram followers just last week.
The movement has been a lifeline for some of the hardest-hit entrepreneurs navigating a devastating health and economic crisis. Between February and April, 41% of black businesses shut their doors for good, compared to 17% of white businesses, a paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research found. Black and Latino entrepreneurs receive only 1% of startup funding, and many black business owners didn’t initially qualify or receive government assistance during the pandemic. Black proprietors say they have to fight against the perception from customers and investors that they’re second-rate.
“There remains an economic divide between black and white America,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said at an oversight hearing Wednesday on the Paycheck Protection Program. Cardin, the top Democrat on the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee, said he’s pushing the Trump administration to provide more data to ensure black-owned small businesses are getting left behind.
“A lot of black founders knew that (COVID-19) could potentially seal their fate,” said Amira Rasool, who runs a retailer that sells luxury apparel from African designers. “They could potentially be put out of business, and not because they didn’t have a great product or because something was wrong with the way they ran their business. Everybody knows that when it rains in certain areas, it pours in others.”
Rasool, who launched her company in 2018, was in the process of raising capital before the pandemic hit. Sales slowed and the 24-year-old entrepreneur considered taking on a second job to help pay the bills. Then, at the beginning of the month, a week into the protests, her fate started to change.
“My phone kept going off,” she said. It was her Shopify account alerting her to incoming orders. In the last week, she’s seen seven times her usual sales. Her social media accounts were blowing up, too. The company’s Instagram followers doubled to 10,000 in just a week. She’s spent the last few days responding to comments and packing up boxes of merchandise to ship.
“This has the potential to save a lot of companies that would have not made it through the effects of the pandemic,” Rasool said.
It’s not the first time there have been calls to Buy Black, but previous attempts haven’t had as much reach outside of the black community, business owners say. This time, people like Justin Ohadi, who is white, are “consciously deciding to go to black businesses more,” he said, after eating at Brooklyn Suya, a Nigerian restaurant.
“Support isn’t just coming from our community,” said Mandy Bowman, the founder of Official Black Wall Street. “With everything that’s happened before — Philando (Castile), Trayvon (Martin), Mike Brown — it has always been within our community. I have never seen this before. It’s a shame things have to get this horrible for there to be a turning point like this.”
Black retailers hope buying habits stick this time. “I don’t want this to be a moment in time when people just do certain things and then in a couple months time, or six months time or a year’s time, people have forgotten about us again,” Carly Cushnie, who runs an eponymous luxury apparel brand, said.
In a bid to push for bigger and more lasting changes, another initiative, the 15% Pledge, has called on major retailers, such as Target Corp. and Sephora, to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to black-owned product. On Wednesday, Sephora said that it would sign the pledge.
“It’s about becoming a regular,” Warren of Breukelen said. “Don’t just support me because I’m black; support me because I’m black and my stuff is dope. I don’t just want money. Just putting money in our hands isn’t the thing-it’s about putting us in a position to develop wealth.”