09-20-2017  6:02 am      •     
The Wake of Vanport
Keacean Phillips in front of Jamaican Homestyle Cuisine
By Christen McCurdy | The Skanner News
Published: 24 August 2017

Support Black-Owned Restaurants Week kicked off Monday with “blackout” eclipse specials and will end Saturday with a patio party at Dub's in St. Johns.

The event started in 2015 as was promoted on Facebook and some local media as Black Restaurant Days, a weekend-long event to support Black restaurants in Portland. Portlander Bertha Pearl created the event after hearing about a similar promotion in the Bay Area, which itself was part of Black Business Month, a nationwide event.

This year it’s expanded to a full week, and organizers have created a website, I Love Black Food,  to promote the event and Black-owned restaurants in general. It includes a calendar listing of special events, as well as a list of restaurants owned by people who identify as Black or African American.

William “Dub” Travis III, the owner of Dub’s St. Johns, said the 2015 promotion didn’t appear to cause much increase in business, but in 2016 listed businesses did see an increase in sales during the event.

“The second year was incredible,” Travis told The Skanner. Travis, who has helped coordinate and acted as a spokesperson for the event this year and last year, said organizers also hope the event will increase lasting awareness of Black-owned restaurants and Black cuisines in the city.

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The event’s website currently lists 69 restaurants. Website administrator Devra Beth told The Skanner that since the list was created in 2015, 19 Black-owned restaurants have closed – but 12 new restaurants have opened.

Travis has served fried chicken, brisket and ribs – along with classic soul-food sides like collards, candied yams and baked beans – at his current location, inside the Ranger Tavern in St. Johns since 2013. Previously, he owned Mack & Dub’s Excellent Chicken & Waffles and Mack & Dub’s Breakfast Club. Both were located on Northeast MLK, Jr. Blvd.; Mack & Dub’s Chicken & Waffles burned down in 2012 in an incident Portland Fire & Rescue described as an arson. The investigation report does not identify a suspect or motive, but Willamette Week reported at the time that Travis discovered racist graffiti in the space. 

Travis grew up in Portland, in a large family that gardened and cooked. A musician and music promoter – he was one-half of the marijuana-themed hip-hop duo Mack and Dub and the Smoking Section – Travis started cooking for events, starting his own catering company in 2009 and eventually expanding to restaurants.

‘It takes money to start a business’

Travis told The Skanner he’s never taken out a bank loan, and that thinking outside the box is the primary thing that’s kept him in business.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I could make my business work without capital,” he said. “To this date, I haven’t had to seek help from a financial institution.”

He added, though, that for many minority business owners, access to capital is a major barrier to getting into business and staying in business.

“It takes money to start a business, money to make that initial investment. Plus, in most situations, it takes time – often months to years – to ramp up sales until profits can be obtained. And so, often times, upfront money is needed to bridge that time gap until if/when the business becomes profitable,” said Robin Wang, executive director of Ascent Funding.

In addition, Wang said, most new businesses are financed with household wealth, and statistics show staggering racial disparities in household wealth in the U.S.: according to 2013 figures released by the Economic Policy Institute, a White family with at least one college-educated parent averaged $180,500 in household wealth, versus $23,400 for Black families with the same amount of education.

Business lending in traditional financial institutions is also tied to credit ratings and credit history, which can place low-income people in general at a disadvantage. Wang added lenders can perceive restaurants as a “higher risk” investment, partly because restaurants are particularly subject to “fickle factors” like weather and foot traffic. Restaurants are also most likely to need financial help retrofitting a space to meet the needs of the owner. Because that money goes to contractors, there’s not much collateral that can be used to secure a loan – unlike, Wang said, a loan for a truck, where the truck can be offered as collateral.

Ascent is one of a handful of organizations that offers microloans and technical assistance to entrepreneurs, particularly entrepreneurs from marginalized backgrounds. Nita Shah, executive director of Microenterprise Services of Oregon – which offers loans as small as $100 and as large as $120,000, with the majority of loans on the smaller side – said microlenders backed by the Small Business Administration have much more flexibility than large banks in the kind of help they can offer and who they can assist.

SBA lenders also have to provide technical support to their clients, Shah said, and that helps ensure success. Most MESO clients have been turned down for loans by traditional banking institutions, but the organization has a very low default rate – and most customers who’ve technically “defaulted” continue to pay, she said.

“I used to get upset with banks,” Shah said, but now she understands they have to comply with more rules and regulations than microlenders. “They can’t do character loans and that’s what we do.”

That technical support includes assistance making a business plan, a three-to-one matching program to help build savings, credit-building loans and market research. MESO staff also talk to clients about child care, housing and other basic considerations before they get going, since some very low-income clients need help stabilizing their lives before they can start building a business, deputy executive director Tastonga Davis said.

‘This is my children’s future’

Keacean Phillips, the owner of Jamaican Homestyle Cuisine on North Killingsworth, came to Portland in 2014 after a year living in Maryland, where she emigrated from Jamaica. She came to visit a friend and “just never left. She went into business two months later, starting with a food cart and moving into a brick-and-mortar location in May of 2016.

Phillips said she found out her current space was available from a friend who ran a catering business in the neighborhood, and approached MESO for help developing a business plan. MESO also helped her get into her current space. Phillips has two children – a 12-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter – and went through a divorce as her business was getting off the ground.

In addition to the challenges of building a business as a single parent, while most neighbors have been friendly and offered positive feedback, she said she has received complaints about music – she hosts live DJs every weekend – and the smoke from the jerk chicken barbecued daily on the sidewalk. The business is “lively,” she said, and she’s built up a devoted customer base.

“This is my children’s future. I’m doing this so that I don’t have to be on welfare. I’m doing this for them,” Phillips said.

In the U.S., Phillips worked part-time as a babysitter. In Jamaica, she’d taught English at the high school and university levels, and had been a loan proprietor for teachers and bus drivers, and has always been on the lookout for business opportunities. She grew up cooking and entertaining, and saw an opportunity to serve Jamaican food in Portland when she realized that while there was a sizeable Jamaican population, there was little Caribbean food available.

Often, Travis said, Portland residents don’t realize what a wide variety of cuisines are available here and how many Black-owned restaurants there are to choose from. He hopes the event will have a positive effect not only on sales, but on permanent awareness of Black restaurants in Portland.

“The plan for this year is to increase awareness and just to give people more time to get out and experience the flavors that we have to offer,” Travis said.

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