Being a Black business owner sometimes feels like being a Who on the flower in “Horton Hears a Who!”
That’s how Arycia Johnson, owner of Dills with a Twist comfort food and flavored pickle shop, described it.
“We as a whole African American race, we’re on that little speck, and we’re screaming: ‘We’re here, we’re here’ because we want the same fairness,” she said.
While many Black Jefferson City business owners said they do not believe their race has impacted their businesses as a whole, others acknowledge there are hurdles minority-owned businesses face that need to be addressed.
Since opening Dills with a Twist at 1528 E. McCarty St. in August 2018, Johnson said she has experienced overall amazing support, particularly from her regular customers.
“I think I have been treated actually pretty fair with all races, all creeds and colors,” Johnson said.
There have been times when new customers have complained on social media about the shop, but other customers have rushed to Johnson’s defense. In one instance, a customer complained about her food on a public Facebook group, and before Johnson could even respond, regular customers jumped in to defend the family-owned, family-operated business.
“The community rallied together off that one negative comment,” Johnson recalled. “Just the positive feedback I’ve gotten from my pickle shop has been amazing.”
Not all of her interactions have been pleasant, though, Johnson said.
Originally from St. Louis, she said the first time she experienced racism was when she moved to Jefferson City.
“I’ve had people walk through the door and realize I’m Black and was like, ‘Oh, we must have the wrong place. We’re looking for the pickle place, but we thought it was owned by someone else.’ I’ve had people say that to me,” Johnson said. “And I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ Nevermind, nevermind, I already know what you meant because you already said it. You didn’t come right out and say, ‘I didn’t know it was a Black person running this place.'”
Unfortunately, Johnson said, she’s used to those types of hurtful interactions. She described times when white women gripped their purses because they thought Johnson was going to steal them or when people crossed to the other side of the street because they didn’t want to walk next to her.
“I’m used to it, but I smile and grin and I get over it,” she said. “That’s why if you look at those comments they say, ‘The owner is very nice, very pleasant, never rude.’ I don’t have the time and energy to give to someone to be that way. I just don’t.”
The mother of five is busy running her business, creating more than 30 flavored pickles, homemade relishes and sauces, as well as comfort food like burgers, chicken and ribs.
Despite her hard work, Johnson said, sometimes it feels like the community is overlooking her cafe.
Across the street from Nick’s Family Restaurant, she regularly sees customers coming and going from the business. She said it’s a “gut puncher” at times because customers aren’t giving her business a chance.
“Just because Nick’s is known by everyone that is here doesn’t mean that you guys shouldn’t come support me because I’m Black,” Johnson said. “It absolutely does hurt, and it hurts all of us because we work just as hard.”
She noted she has nothing against Nick’s Family Restaurant.
Despite feeling overlooked, Johnson said she isn’t giving up and plans to continue pushing forward.
At 908 Missouri Blvd., Just For You Custom Accessories owner Ricardo Finney said he doesn’t know if “being a Black man has any bearings on my business” because the number of positive interactions far outweigh the negative ones with customers.
Open since 1997, Just For You Custom Accessories offers ignition interlock devices, remote auto-starts, vehicle security systems, mobile video and more. Finney relocated the business from Jefferson Street to its current location late last year.
“It’s just like any other business — you have to struggle and fight and keep going and don’t quit,” Finney said. “As far as dealing with the public and dealing with customers, you just have to provide good quality products and good quality services, and customers will repeat to patronize our business. That’s whether you’re Black or white or purple.”
However, he said, Black people “have been held back” for hundreds of years, so it can be difficult to get ahead or even be on a level playing field.
For example, Finney said, he has moved his business seven times because finding a location for it hasn’t been easy.
In another example, he added, some Black people sometimes struggle to get help from banks since they don’t always have inheritances, land or other assets financial institutions look for before providing assistance.
“Most of us as Black people don’t get any inheritance because our families don’t have anything, and all that stems from the past,” Finney said. “After all these years, I still don’t have a good relationship with the bank, which is OK. I’m just going to keep on fighting and working and taking care of what I’ve got to do and just not quit.”
Lauren Carter, director of the Small Business Development Center hosted by Lincoln University, said one of the biggest challenges Black and women business owners have is finding capital.
Many Black and women business owners are hesitant to go to banks because they believe they will not qualify for loans, Carter said, so they try to fund everything out of pocket, which can be difficult and sometimes limit business growth.
“Going to the bank is usually the last thing they try to do because they don’t think they’re going to get approved for a loan,” Carter said. “And it’s not because they think their credit isn’t good enough or that they just don’t have enough; it’s just that mindset — they don’t think they’re going to get approved.”
When opening Dills with a Twist, Johnson said, she never approached a bank for a loan because she was afraid of being denied.
“I was always like, there’s a Black button and a white button — meaning if you go buy a car, your percentage rate is going to be higher than a white person(‘s) even if you’ve got the same white car,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that way. If it’s not that way, we shouldn’t have to think that way as a certain race.”
To combat those thoughts, Carter walks clients through the loan process and sometimes role plays so clients gain more confidence when addressing banks or lenders.
She also directs them to other resources the SBDC offers, including business plans, market research, webinars and more.
Carter said she hopes to create programs that foster relationships between financial institutions and Black and women business owners.
Not having a relationship with a bank can also make it difficult when obtaining disaster relief, which many Cole County businesses sought because of the May 2019 tornado and this year’s coronavirus pandemic. In Cole County, Carter said, a wide variety of small businesses didn’t qualify for disaster aid.
Minority groups often feel left out, especially when it comes to the government, banking, traditional lending and other institutional organizations, she said.
“The one time they were pushed to apply and it failed anyway and fell right back on them, that just kind of reinforces that mindset that they want their businesses to succeed — it’s all on them. They have to do it, and they don’t get any help,” Carter said. “It shouldn’t be that way because there’s so many agencies, organizations, so many resources out there to help small business owners. Black and brown and women should not feel like they don’t qualify for those.”
As a Black business owner, Finney said, he has to “work harder and longer than the other individuals to maintain business due to the lack of capital and business knowledge dealing with taxation.” He added this family business knowledge is typically handed down in traditional Caucasian families.
“My goal is to do my job well, whether I’m Black or white or whatever,” he said, adding Just For You Custom Accessories received the 2020 Best of Jefferson City Award in the Electronics & Appliances category by the Jefferson City Awards Program.
Originally from Jamaica, Rexroy Scott and Colin Russell started their food truck business, Jerk Hut, in 2002 near Lincoln University. The area is also known as “The Foot,” Jefferson City’s once Black business and residential district.
While Scott acknowledged there are challenges minority-owned businesses face, he said the hurdles Jerk Hut has jumped are ones businesses with unfamiliar ideas run into, not necessarily because it is a Black-owned business.
Customers were hesitant to try unfamiliar food at first, Scott said. As its name suggests, Jerk Hut specializes in jerk products — Jamaican-style barbecue where meats are seasoned and marinated for 24-48 hours before being grilled.
When interacting with vendors initially, many would request Scott and Russell pay in cash. However, Scott said, he thinks the vendors’ hesitancy was because Jerk Hut was an unfamiliar, new business — not necessarily because of the duo’s race.
There were also hurdles related to simply being a food truck.
When they started Jerk Hut, Scott said, there was a stigma attached to food trucks. In the early 2000s, there were few food trucks in Mid-Missouri.
“Asking people to come to a mobile food unit and buy food and have the confidence to do that, we had to work very hard to overcome any stigma related to that as well,” Scott said.
They overcame those hurdles through time and consistency, he added. Jerk Hut continued to serve quality food in the Midwest, and over time, the area began embracing the Jamaican food business.
“We’ve never considered ourselves a disadvantaged group because we’ve never had time to think about that,” Scott said. “What we’re consumed with is bringing a good quality product consistently to all of our customers in Jefferson City and that’s something we take very seriously.”
Stationed in the Best Buy parking lot for years, Jerk Hut moved to 112 E. Dunklin St. earlier this year as a traditional brick-and-mortar location.
Scott and Russell still have their food truck, though, and attend festivals throughout the Midwest.
“Although it’s pretty obvious we’re, a lot of the times, one of the few or, in many instances, the only business of color present we’ve never thought about it in those terms,” Scott said. “We’ve always thought about it as we’re the most different business at this event or in this area just because we’re serving Jamaican food in Mid-Missouri, which is quite a novelty. That in itself makes us stand out.”
Over the last month, there has been a push to support Black-owned businesses after recent situations where Black people — including George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor — died while interacting with police or, in Ahmaud Arbery’s case, with neighborhood residents.
“The push that they’ve got going on now to support Black-owned business, the reason why that is is because at one point in time, we had been held back in this country,” Finney said. “In the past, Black people at one point in time couldn’t own a business. If you did own a business, you had to be really, really resilient, even more so than today. It’s much easier today than it was in the past because the people in the past laid the groundwork for us today here in the present.”
It’s too early to tell if this movement will impact their businesses, Scott and Johnson said.
The pandemic has also impaired businesses, they added, making it difficult to know if the movement is affecting their restaurants.
Johnson, Scott and Finney said customers should support businesses that offer services and goods customers like, regardless of the owners’ race.
While Johnson said she thinks Black-owned businesses receive less support than white-owned businesses, customers should still support everyone.
“I don’t want pity support,” Johnson said. “I want support because I’m a good person and I produce good food and good products.”
Scott echoed those comments.
“I don’t necessarily believe, personally, that somebody should support a business solely because they’re minority-owned or solely because they’re owned by a certain demographic because that is ultimately not sustainable in the long run,” Scott said. “We believe you should support a business because they provide a service or a good that you believe is of value to you for the price that you pay.”
With that said, he added, it’s important to “support minority-owned businesses and in essence support minority ideas” because that helps create diversity in communities.
For example, Scott said, if Jerk Hut had approached a bank in 2001 with their idea, the business partners most likely would not have been successful. He added that’s not necessarily because of their race but because their idea was unfamiliar.
If the bank had more representation, Scott said, then an unfamiliar idea may not be as likely to be shot down.
“Supporting minority ideas, and by extension minority business, is extremely important, and I believe that all spheres of life should reflect who we are as a person,” he said. “Everybody deserves an equal opportunity to fail.”
Instead of patronizing businesses because of their owners’ demographics, Scott said, people can support minority-owned businesses by addressing “institutional barriers that generally make it more difficult for traditionally disadvantaged groups to get their business ideas off the ground.”
Carter agreed one way to help Black-owned businesses is to urge businesses and governments to “really look into providing some type of funding for Black business owners that were hurt due to the riots and because of the pandemic.”
“It’s not because businesses of all colors weren’t hurt by this — of course they were,” she said. “But they weren’t already struggling like many of the Black business owners were.”
Carter suggested people who want to support Black-owned businesses visit websites like NILE and Official Black Wall Street to patronize local businesses.
“Make a conscious effort — because right now, everyone needs help, but more than ever, we can’t leave them behind,” she said.