Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969, less than a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The following year, the first-ever Black History Month was celebrated at Kent State from January 2nd to February 28th, 1970. Six years later, when President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial, millions celebrated all across the country, in educational institutions and centers of Black culture, both big and small. President Ford urged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history". And though progress has been made since then, 45 years later, Black businesses still only make up 7% of all American businesses, despite Black Americans making up nearly 13% of the population. This is just one aspect of the racial inequity which continues to persist in American society. Last year, in honor of Black History Month, we visited 4 local black-owned businesses and highlighted their incredible journeys through creative photoshoots & interviews. This year we’re re-visiting their stories - stories that signify an ability to thrive & succeed despite many social & cultural obstacles.
WHIPPED URBAN DESSERT LAB
Whipped Urban Dessert Lab is an ice créme shop located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and founded by Courtney Blagrove and Zan B.R. What sets this shop apart from the many others in the city, however, is that all of their products are entirely vegan -- oat milk serves as the unique base for their ice créme. Originally started in a food hall in Williamsburg in the summer of 2019, Whipped has successfully expanded to their own store-front on Orchard Street in LES as the world’s first oat milk soft-serve shop. Co-founder Courtney Blagrove credits their marketing approach toward people who are not plant-based as the key to the shop’s success: “We actually don’t even lead with the ‘vegan’ part. Nothing in here says ‘Oh, we’re vegan,’ because it's a turn-off for a lot of people.“ “It’s just about getting people to try it. Once they try it, they’re hooked. They tell us, ‘I didn’t even know this was plant-based.’” Whipped Urban Dessert Lab began by focusing specifically on their soft-serve, which is most loved for its signature “whipped” texture. Once their product was so well-received in Brooklyn, the pair knew they had a hit on their hands. Since moving to Manhattan in February of last year, Whipped has expanded their menu to include hard-scoop as well. In addition to being entirely plant-based, the shop is celebrated for its unique choice of flavors and toppings. Once the pandemic began, Whipped was forced to rethink their menu for the increased demand for delivery. This led to the inception of their highly-successful Ice Créme Truffles. As two Black women, Courtney and Zan know as well as anyone the unique struggles faced by Black business-owners. Courtney perfectly explains why this endeavor is so important: “When you talk about the movement to support Black businesses, I think people confuse that with us wanting a handout. We just want to make sure we have the same opportunities as everybody else.”
Located on 35 Orchard Street in Chinatown, Cheeky Sandwiches gives New Yorkers a taste of owner Din Yates’ native New Orleans. Founded in December of 2009, Cheeky Sandwiches offers po’boys, beignets, and all kinds of authentic NOLA flavors. Since the beginning, Yates has made community a priority. He describes the sandwich shop as being “neighborhood-oriented,” and notes how the shop's popularity has grown along with the neighborhood’s. Yates has aimed to help out his community as best he can in the midst of such a difficult time for the city: “We do a lot of programs with the school across the street and neighboring schools. Discounts to the city's uniformed employees. Deliveries to hospitals. Offering great sandwiches. Whatever is needed we try and accommodate.” Yates was born in New Orleans and ended up in New York by way of “a bunch of other cities” over 15 years ago. The self-described “best damn sandwich maker” has had to adjust his business approach during the pandemic chiefly by “being a bit more open to making our presence known to others.” Like all of us, Yates says he is still “trying to figure it out as it all moves along.” On the topics of Black History Month and Black-owned businesses, Yates encourages the community to continue “supporting all the businesses around us and keeping us aware of what is needed and what’s out there.” He thinks we should all “Try to not look at the obvious negative components of the pandemic, but to dwell in the positive attributes that may arise.”
ORCHARD & LUDLOWOrchard & Ludlow is a luxury salon and art gallery located in the Lower East Side that prides itself on its provided experience and artisanal flair. Founded by expert barber Charlie McCoy, the shop is just one part of McCoy’s larger company, Artisan Luxury Brands. McCoy is an Oklahoma City-native whose first experience cutting hair began when he was just 13 or 14 years old. He credits his uncle with teaching him “how to give a crispy fade,” a skill which he eventually “parlayed into a lifelong career.” After establishing himself as a master of his craft, McCoy moved to New York to pursue greater opportunities in the beauty industry. He became a barber and brand ambassador for L’Oreal’s Khiel’s Since 1851 in 2010, where he remained for 5 years. In 2017, he opened his first barber shop, Artisan Barber, and has since expanded his portfolio to include the aforementioned Orchard & Ludlow, as well as two e-commerce sites. Describing how his upbringing has influenced his path in life, McCoy says, “What people do for fun now, I used to HAVE to do -- going to thrift stores, finding deals, finding a pair of old Jordans, making ‘em beautiful. I think that ability to regenerate and repurpose things is something that I’ve kept with me.” As a Black business-owner in one of the world’s busiest cities, McCoy has a unique perspective on the pandemic: “The pause in society has given me, as a business owner, the space to reorganize my whole worldview of business, from the top down -- how I work with my teams, how we view the future. There's a great opportunity to show people how it’s done.” However, the difficulties, especially for Black business owners, are not lost on McCoy: “It’s bittersweet to realize that the government has things in place if your business is mature enough to get contracts and so forth, but you have to qualify for that. So just getting to the point where you can qualify is a journey in itself. Without the infrastructure in place generationally, that information is hard to come by.” Even in the face of the pandemic, McCoy is proud to call New York City his home, where he says he has “access to some of the most interesting minds on earth.” He most admires the resilience of the city’s community members: “Now that the pandemic has taken force, whoever is left in New York are people who have the same mentality. They're willing to fight to bring it back, or they don't want to just abandon it. They're willing to see what opportunities may exist in the future -- I’m kinda in that place.” When asked about the struggles faced by many small New York businesses in the midst of the pandemic, McCoy emphasized his commitment to staying in the city no matter what: “I don't plan on quitting. I'll be here till 2030. In New York.”
BAKED CRAVINGS Founded by Craig Watson in 2017, Baked Cravings is an award-winning bakery with locations in East Harlem and the East Village. The bakery is unique for its completely nut-free approach: Baked Cravings maintains a nut-free facility and sources all of their ingredients from nut-free vendors, creating desserts that can be safely enjoyed by children in school. That attention to detail is a tenet of Watson’s business model. After spending years in the financial sector advising successful businesses, Watson decided to follow his passion for baking and start his own business. When asked what sets Baked Cravings apart from other bakeries, Watson puts it simply: “Our products -- they look great, and they taste great.” But Watson’s business savvy is another of the bakery’s advantages, a skill that has kept them thriving in the midst of a pandemic: “We’ve been growing every year, and we’re still seeing growth. We’ve adjusted our business model. We don’t rely on foot traffic because there's not that much, but we do more shipping and more online sales. With a lot of people working from home, we get a lot of corporate orders -- corporations sending gift packages to their employees, cheering them up and building synergy.” Watson says community has played a significant role in Baked Cravings’ success, and he credits “listening to our customers” as the inspiration behind many of the bakery’s most popular products. Among Baked Craving’s largest group of patrons are members of the 13 schools in the bakery’s proximity, including one just across the street. Though the bakery is now a nationally recognized brand, it is still local community members that make up the backbone of Watson’s business. Watson is immensely grateful for the community’s continued support, and has returned the favor by donating his baked goods to local teachers and frontline workers at the nearby Mount Sinai Hospital. On the topic of Black History Month, Watson described the satisfaction of owning his own business, and hopes other Black Americans can achieve a similar level of success: “I just want us to continue to grow and continue to have our own businesses, because it's a great thing. This is the best job I’ve ever had.” Many businesses are giving their all to stay afloat during these trying times; including those in our very own community. With the upcoming campaign, it's our mission to shine a light on the individuals that work day in and day out to continue to enjoy doing what they love.