| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
SARASOTA – The National Coffee Association traces the history of the storied wake-up bean to the Ethiopian highlands, and African-born Blane Charlot remembers the integral role coffee played in her family’s daily rituals. So when she crossed the Atlantic to plant new roots in America, her dream of importing and retailing one of her homeland’s most celebrated products seemed preordained.
Harrar, Yirgacheffee, Sidamo – Charlot loves to discuss the distinctions between the three popular blends, from “lemon and citrus with bright crisp acidity” to “notes of blueberries and apricots with intense aromatics” and the “pronounced delicate side with a medium body.”
Four years ago, she opened her online store, Buna Roaster, in San Diego, before moving to Sarasota in 2019 with her young family. Then came the pandemic, and business tanked. Her finances were “in a crisis.”
But suddenly, almost overnight, came a dramatic reversal of fortune.
“Oh my goodness,” Charlot says. “It’s been almost unbelievable, it’s so exciting. I am so grateful, and I love being a part of this community.”
It was a Facebook page, Support Sarasota-Manatee Black Owned Businesses, created on June 3 in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd murder that provoked coast-to-coast protests and national introspection on race relations. Within 12 hours of going online, 4,000 members had joined; at last count, that total had nearly tripled, to 11,000 followers.
The mission is simple: Give local Black entrepreneurs a platform to showcase their goods and services. Chefs, hair stylists, grant writers, home repair, artists, mechanics, health-and-fitness trainers, home décor – the targeted business community flocked to the site. The rules were explicit: patronize Black businesses, no hate speech or politicking allowed, no fundraising, positive energy only.
“One of the beautiful things about that page is, so far as I can tell, the followers are predominantly white,” says photographer Michael Kinsey, one of the page administrators. “Black people are supporting the businesses, too, but when I ask the members what’s the biggest thing you’ve noticed, I keep hearing them say how many white people have actually shown up.
“I think this really speaks to our history, because people need to understand that in the struggles African Americans have traditionally faced, we’ve always done so with the support of white counterparts. Because this is not just a Black struggle – this is an American struggle.”
In fact, the Facebook idea came from self-proclaimed “white dude” Jim Minor, who teaches International Baccalaureate at Riverview High in Sarasota.
A class of 1995 graduate of predominately Black Booker High School, Minor’s parents – pastor Jim and Peggy – are longtime social activists whose non-denominational Harvest Church supports a food pantry and homeless shelter for struggling veterans, young adults and those with substance abuse issues. After watching the horror of Floyd’s death under the knee of a white police officer, Minor wanted to take action.
“It’s one thing to post on social media and to march, but we wanted to do something that’s practical, and we wanted to be very intentional about where we spent our money,” Minor recalls. “We wanted to invest locally, and more importantly, in Black owned businesses. But when I started digging around on the internet, looking for a platform that promoted them, I couldn’t find anything.”
So he reached out to a handful of friends and acquaintances in the Black community for a discussion on how to make a meaningful difference on social media.
“One of the shocking revelations for me was not only the number of Black-owned businesses out there, but the diversity in this area, which is unbelievable,” Minor says. “I mean, whatever you need, from attorneys to therapists to auto detailing to food – it’s all right here. But I didn’t want to be the white dude doing this. It needed to be a community effort.”
High on Minor’s contact list was Kinsey, an original member of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and filmmaker who suggested they confine the appeal to businesses in 941 area code.
“Racism is a national problem, but we have to save ourselves locally,” Kinsey says. “But by focusing on the 941 district, if we can revitalize Sarasota, Palmetto, Bradenton, Port Charlotte, Venice, we can leave a blueprint for other people to follow.
“Sure enough, about a month ago, I got a message from a white woman in Chicago who was a member of the page. She said, ‘Listen, how are you guys doing this? Do you mind if we use this and emulate it where we are?’”
The query from Chicago mirrors what appears to be a nationwide impulse.
According to a National Bureau of Economic Research survey, the coronavirus has shuttered 17% of white-owned small businesses, versus 41% in the Black community. But there’s also this: Polling by the National Black Chamber of Commerce and Groupon indicates that 75% of Black business owners are reporting an increase in traffic following the Floyd murder.
“It was almost unbelievable, the way that page grew so fast,” says Facebook page consultant Todd Chandler, whose family funeral home business has a 25-year local legacy. “I think everyone was yearning for something like this to happen.
“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is, when you start something and the word ‘I’ keeps coming up, it never seems to work. But when you use the word ‘we’ and you make everyone feel a part, and welcome, it continues to grow. We’re seeing cultures stepping out of the box and learning about each other.”
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe associate managing director Travis Ray runs an online side business called the Dapper Bowtique, which sells his handcrafted, one-of-a-kind bowties and pocket squares. On the front end of the coronavirus, as the trade shows he attended began drying up, Ray shifted gears and manufactured facemasks, which tided him through the crunch. When the initial panic subsided, he went back to bowties and tried to rebuild his business.
“And once I got into the Facebook group,” he says, “I couldn’t keep up (with demand).”
But above and beyond his own prospects, Ray is crossing his fingers for a younger generation.
“I pray this is not just a flavor of the month that runs out in two months,” he says. “A lot of local businesses of color were just getting started when the page went up, and it convinced them they had a niche, and a place to share their voices. Some entrepreneurs are looking at what’s going on here and thinking, well, maybe I can make it, too.”
For consumers new to the Black Owned Businesses page, Kinsey urges a deep dive into the comment threads.
He recalls one particular post in which a young Black businessman was complaining about the incessant price haggling among potential customers. An “older” white guy weighed in and grumbled how the same thing happened in his business.
“So you had this amazing dialogue between two people who never would’ve met, a Black guy with an auto detailing business and a white guy with a boat business,” Kinsey says. “They found common ground over a universal situation, and in the end, the Black guy wound up getting a contract with the white guy.”
Whether that momentum is self-sustaining remains to be seen. For now, gratitude prevails.
Says coffee vendor Blane Charlot, “Going from having sold nothing in March to $1,000 in a week — that’s pretty good.”