Meet the 2.5 Percent: Philly’s Black-Owned Enterprises and Early-Stage Start-Ups
In Philly, where only 2.5 percent of businesses are Black-owned, these entrepreneurs have overcome more obstacles than most. Then came the pandemic, which has presented new challenges for businesses large and small.
A new report from the Center City District (CCD) and Central Philadelphia Development Corporation (CPDC) demonstrates why this series and the continued support of Black- and minority-owned businesses remain important.
Using the most recent data available from the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Business Survey, the CCD analyzed the total number of businesses in Philadelphia. When compared to the number of Black, Hispanic, Asian and white-owned businesses in Atlanta, Boston, New York and Washington D.C., the CCD found Philadelphia has both the lowest number of Black-owned businesses in relation to Black residents and the lowest number of businesses in relation to the overall population.
According to the report — which examines business density (i.e. the number of businesses in relation to population) — in Philadelphia there are 1.8 Black-owned businesses for every 1,000 Black residents, or just 14.6 percent of the total business density. That ratio is 16 percent nationwide, 15.4 percent in New York, 19.1 percent in Atlanta, and 29.4 percent in Washington, D.C. The report findings show that the number of Black businesses per Black residents in Philadelphia is by far the lowest of the five cities.
“While education and work-readiness are essential components of any strategy to reduce poverty, it is paramount that we focus more on creating greater business density – more businesses in relationship to residents, and in particular, more Black-owned businesses in relationship to the city’s Black population,” CCD president and chief executive officer Paul Levy said in a statement.
He added, “The pandemic has caused a huge spike in unemployment across the nation. To reduce unemployment and poverty as the health crisis ends and recovery begins, Philadelphia will require far more than a return to the status quo before COVID-19. We need a sustained effort to increase the number of Black-owned and minority-owned businesses as well as much greater attention to business growth overall.”
For this final installment in our series, we spoke with the owners of some of the newest, oldest and largest Black-owned businesses in the city about how they’ve managed to continue operating despite restrictions put in place amid the pandemic. They represent the mere 2.5 percent of businesses in Philadelphia that are Black-owned. Over the past few months, since the riots added yet another layer of uncertainty and disruption, we’ve introduced you to 16 Black-owned business in fashion, food, beauty, health and wellness, and the arts whose stores were damaged or looted, or whose businesses have been deeply impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. We introduce you to a few more, below and here in our Black-owned business directory so you can get to know and support them today, tomorrow, and well into the future.
Rohan Brown’s business was inspired by his own experience visiting bars and restaurants in Philly’s nightlife scene. He noticed how difficult it was to order drinks in a crowded space or to even find new venues to visit.
In 2017, Brown, 26, developed and began beta testing the Barley Sober app to allow patrons to preorder drinks at Philly restaurants and bars. To get started, he used his own savings until he later secured investments from the West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution and Beech Interplex.
“It was challenging to secure the funds necessary to develop the Barley prototype. I tried several different options until Jim Burnett and Ken Scott took a chance on me and my idea,” said Brown, a La Salle University graduate.
He’d had a solid year of business operations including partnerships with The Ave Live, Rémy Martin and others before he had to shutter operations due to the pandemic.
“After building the business to a certain level of viability, having to close due to COVID-19 felt like a punch in the face,” he said.
Since the pandemic hit, Brown says his company has lost almost all its customers, likely due to so many bars and restaurants being closed and later restricted to take-out or outdoor dining only. (You can contact Brown directly here to learn how to support Barley Sober).
Now, Brown says, his company is seeking new uses for the app and fighting to a remain vibrant member of Philly’s Black business community. With indoor dining at restaurants set to resume on September 8th, the Barley app could play a crucial role in helping restaurant owners monitor their occupancy autonomously while giving guests the ability to see occupancy rates before they arrive so they can congregate at venues without putting themselves at high risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“This business is important to me personally because as a Black business owner we need more representation in the business world as well as the tech space. We are ill-represented and ill-served in both domains,” Brown said. “Growing this business will give me the opportunity to be in a position to give back and put other minorities in positions to succeed. My life goal is to be a serial entrepreneur because I truly believe we cannot have equality without equity.”
100 South Broad Street
When brothers and West Philadelphia natives Ernest and Robert Strother first opened their business in 1987, they simply wanted to help create memorable culinary experiences. The company has since grown into a food service management enterprise with a staff of 44 and a portfolio that includes two Subway store locations that the company owns and operates at the Philadelphia International Airport, a food service contract at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the management of meal preparation and service at the Snyder House (a Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center facility) and management of concessions at stadiums and arenas throughout the city. The brothers’ inspiration came from their rich family history.
“We grew up in a home where our father, Ernest Strother Sr., an executive chef and caterer, along with our uncle, Robert H. Strother Sr., a U.S. Navy Culinary Specialist and food service manager, emphasized distinction and discipline in life, and most certainly, within the realm of culinary service,” Robert Strother, 75, said. “Growing up, we learned invaluable lessons about business and service which made the idea of catering and being entrepreneurs very real to us,” Ernest Strother, 75, added.
Like many other Black-owned businesses, the Strothers struggled to find the initial funding to launch their company, demonstrating how not much has changed since the late 80s.
“Three decades ago minority business owners faced many of the same challenges that exist today. When you talk about financing, you have to put that into the context of what that means for minorities: the difficulties with obtaining credit, the lack of interest in service-oriented businesses, the discriminatory lending practices. You must have the courage to take risks as a minority business owner and bet on your own talents. That was our mentality and it’s a reality for many minority owners today,” Robert Strother said.
Many of the Strothers’ establishments have been closed due to statewide mandates amid the pandemic. While their concession stands at Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park, and the Wells Fargo Center remain closed, the brothers have spent the past few months exploring ways to implement new measures when they reopen. They’ve looked into contactless payments and ordering, cleaning and sanitizing technologies, and employee safety procedures, as well as adopted new, more stringent, CDC-recommended sanitation practices to help combat the spread of infections in the public places — airports, stadiums, and government facilities — where they operate.
“We’ve had to scale back our operations and pivot how we do business,” Ernest Strother said. “COVID-19 has no doubt turned our industry upside-down, but it has also created an opportunity for us to adopt new technologies faster and to think outside of the box about how to best serve our customers.”
Strother Enterprises was fortunate to benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program to temporarily assist with payroll and they’re actively thinking about the long-term investments they can make to evolve their business during the pandemic and beyond.
Smart Fitness Studio
2499 N. 50th Street
When Debra Williams first set out on her weight loss journey, she struggled to find a Black woman trainer or a gym that people who looked like her frequented and worked out together. So, she set out to create what she couldn’t find and didn’t see.
In 2016, Williams took out a second mortgage on her home, used credit cards and personal savings to launch Smart Fitness Studio, a full-service gym and personal training service. Before the pandemic, Williams split her time between her full-time job at the University of Pennsylvania and working part-time hours as a personal trainer at her gym.
Since the pandemic, an anticipated two-week closure of Smart Fitness Studio has turned into a five-month hiatus.
“I have re-opened but folks aren’t coming back,” Williams said. “They are afraid, I guess. And do you know how hard it is to wear a mask and do Zumba or MixxedFit or strength classes? Some clients come for personal training, but most have stayed away.”
Williams has had to severely limit the number of people allowed in her gym at one time. Instead of 16 people in a morning spin class, she’s had to reduce the number of attendees to eight. She’s moved popular classes like yoga, MixxedFit, boot camp and walking class outdoors to allow for more participants, but she fears that won’t be able to continue in colder weather. (You can schedule a class or personal training session here or donate here to support Smart Fitness Studio).
“My business is important to me because I know exercise works. It helped me and it can help others who are overweight and have health issues,” she said. “I want to be the facility that people in the neighborhood come to. I have been in business for a little over three years. It takes five years for a business to make a profit. I was on my way when COVID-19 hit. It would be a shame for it all to end but I don’t know how much longer I can go on the way things are now.”
929 N. 2nd Street
Dorothea Gamble and Dagmar Mitchell wanted to give artisans from diverse backgrounds a platform to sell their products. But as they set out on their journey to find a commercial space to house their shop, they encountered several barriers to securing funding.
“As people of color and as women, it’s nearly impossible to get funding. They want you to have large sums of money in the bank and a business plan that proves you will be successful,” Gamble explained. “We have also applied for grants but have not been approved for any of them; it is very frustrating.”
The duo relied on lending websites like Kiva and donations from family and friends to raise what they needed to launch their business, Trunc, in October 2018. The shop offers a range of handmade accessories, clothing, jewelry, art items and more from local makers and is one of only four Black-owned businesses in Northern Liberties on North 2nd street.
Trunc was fortunately spared any damage from the summer riots but has been dealt quite a difficult blow by the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has been devastating for us,” Gamble said. “Before we were shut down, we were trending 30 percent above last year’s sales. When COVID-19 hit, it went from a 30 percent trend to zero.”
Trunc initially relied on in-store sales so it didn’t have a website. Gamble and Mitchell had to quickly create one. (You can support Trunc by purchasing products or gift certificates here).
They now have a fully operating website with all of their products for sale and are slowly adjusting to the changes the pandemic requires by meeting as many CDC requirements as possible for safety, including putting hand sanitizer on every shelf and table, creating aisles that allow for six feet of distance and providing masks for anyone that doesn’t have one as they prepare to reopen with limited hours and curbside service.
“We love handcrafted products. What a better way to retire than to be around all that beauty and creativity?” Gamble said. “This business is our retirement and our livelihood.”
1835 Market Street
PRWT Services is one of the largest minority-owned businesses in the Greater Philadelphia Region with over 1,000 employees nationwide. The company provides business support services, including clerical support, data entry, and call center, payments and mailroom operations for state and local governments and commercial business.
Through its subsidiary facilities management business, U.S. Facilities operates and maintains more than 60 million square feet of commercial and industrial space across the U.S., including janitorial, security and mechanical services. Through its transportation and infrastructure support business, the company operates and maintains roads, bridges, tunnels, locks and dams for national and local clients like the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, SEPTA, Merck and the Atlantic City International Airport.
But when the company’s founders, Willie Johnson, Raymond Saulino, Paul Dandridge and William Turner first launched PRWT in 1988, they did so with only one client, one location, and a 16-person team.
Since the pandemic hit the region, PRWT’s physical headquarters at 18th and Market and 41st and Powelton have been closed. The biggest challenge the company has faced, due to having locations in multiple states, has been keeping up with the balancing act of following different pandemic guidelines in various cities and states.
“We have had to work that much harder to keep constant lines of communication open between our employees and clients,” said PRWT president and chief executive officer, Malik Majeed.
While many things remain uncertain for the company’s future, including when its Philadelphia locations will be able to reopen, the company continues to support its employees as they adjust to changes related to COVID-19.
“This is not just a company where people show up for work, put in their hours, and go home. One of the goals since our company’s founding has been to provide opportunities to disenfranchised people from all walks of life with the steadfast belief that a rising tide lifts all boats,” Majeed said.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about our people. We’ve created a powerful network of family, who support each other, personally and professionally no matter where they are.”
Two Locals Brewing
Richard Koilor, 29, and Mengistu Koilor, 40, were inspired to start Philly’s first Black-owned brewing company when they noticed the lack of diversity in the craft beer industry.
“We would read about the same few Black-owned breweries when we first thought about opening,” Richard Koilor said. “We were also amazed that Philadelphia had no record of a Black brewer or brewery.”
In 2016, the brothers began brewing their own beer. In 2018, they formalized the business by creating an LLC for Two Locals Brewing. But the pandemic has presented challenges in the brothers taking their business to the next level.
The duo had launched a crowdfunding campaign in March to raise money for a brick and mortar space, but two weeks into the campaign, COVID-19 shut everything down.
“The way we raised most of our money at that time was by sampling our beer and talking to people about our plans,” Richard Koilor explained.
“Our biggest hurdle so far, and I say biggest because I am sure there will be more, has been securing a space. We believe we have found the right partner, but nothing is set in stone just yet.” (You can support Two Locals by purchasing their branded merchandise here).
Despite the setback, the brothers say they’re focused on the silver lining; had they started construction on a location, they may have faced even greater delays and losses.
“Not being able to continue our crowdfunding campaign hurt at first but we saw it has a positive as well because we were able to sit back and reevaluate how our business will run in the new times we are in,” he said.
“Our business is important to us because we want to help make a change in the brewing industry and in our community. Brewing beer is almost unheard of in the Black community and we want to show that this is another avenue for a career. Not just brewing beer, but owning your own business and monetizing your hobby and passion.”