Ifi Akpandak has a new venture he hopes will make it easier for Americans to find and support Black-owned restaurants in their local communities.
The 29-year-old VueBox co-founder and CEO launched a company called Brava in New York City a week ago after realizing over the summer that many of his friends and colleagues looking to support African-American companies in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy were having a hard time finding qualifying restaurants in their neighborhoods.
“I noticed a lot of people reaching out to me based on my background in corporate America asking how they can support Black-owned businesses,” Akpandak, a former Goldman Sachs principal trader and resident New Yorker, told CNN Business on Friday. “I really didn’t have a simple answer for them.”
Brava is a monthly subscription service for digital gift cards to local Black-owned restaurants that gives customers a list of regional eateries owned by African Americans. The company’s website lets users decide the amount of money they want to put on each gift card, how many gift cards they want to purchase for themselves or others and how long the monthly subscriptions will last. Currently Brava’s website lists 19 New York City restaurants in its database, but Akpandak plans to add eateries in additional metro areas such as San Francisco before taking it nationwide.
Since funds are deducted automatically each month, Brava is also a source of guaranteed monthly revenue for Black restaurateurs at a time when many are struggling to stay in business.
New York City restaurateur Melba Wilson, owner of Melba’s Restaurant in Harlem, is currently negotiating details on being added to Brava’s database. Wilson says her sales are down 80% this month because of coronavirus and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Covid-19-related restrictions on indoor dining in the Big Apple.
Before pandemic-related business shutdowns began in March, Wilson says she had 39 employees on staff. She’s now down to 11 staffers after her latest round of layoffs a week ago.
“This past week, business was probably slower than it’s been in the past 16 years,” Wilson told CNN Business on Monday. “I’m hoping that Melba’s doesn’t close, but I can’t sit here today and tell you a few days before the New Year that we’re going to make it to February. We’re on our last leg.”
Wilson, who also heads the NYC Hospitality Alliance that lobbies on behalf of the city’s restaurant and night-life establishments, says many of her Black entrepreneurial peers are in similar financial situations.
“I am hearing from counterparts that they are not going to be able to make it past the holidays,” she said. “They’re barely making it now. So many of them have closed.”
New York City’s Department of Small Business Services, which runs programs in support of all the city’s entrepreneurs, has been introducing new initiatives to retain and increase the number of Black business owners in the five boroughs throughout the year. The agency doesn’t keep demographic data on business owners who have shut down during the pandemic, but its Commissioner Jonnel Doris says supporting Black entrepreneurs is one of the group’s top priorities.
“It is crucial that we support businesses in every way possible,” Doris told CNN Business via email.
Despite their hardships, Wilson says the city’s Black-owned restaurants have benefited this year from promotional companies like Brava and the larger Buy Black movement.
Craig Samuel, 50, owner of Peaches Kitchen & Bar, Peaches Shrimp and Crab and two Peaches HotHouse locations in Brooklyn, joined Brava last week.
The restaurateur, who opened his first Peaches restaurant in Brooklyn in 2008, says he’s not sure his businesses would have made it this far without supporters of the Buy Black movement. He estimates his overall business was down 60-70% some time between March and May before it rebounded around the beginning of August thanks to customers looking to help Black-owned businesses.
“I know my businesses in particular were mentioned on a couple of lists,” Samuel told CNN Business on Monday. “As a result, I know in my heart that there was this outpouring of support from people who helped us get through the toughest part of the pandemic.”
Despite performing well over the summer, Samuel’s businesses, like Wilson’s, have been struggling since the weather changed in November. He says it took another massive hit last week when Cuomo shut down indoor dining in the city once again. Both Samuel and Wilson said the governor’s restrictions are having a disproportionate impact on restaurants owned by people of color.
“It probably affects Black and minority-owned businesses even more because of the style of restaurants you’ll find in the outer boroughs and in Manhattan,” Samuel said. “I expect that January and February are going to be the two most difficult months of my entire career.”