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Diverse Business Owners Industry Updates Food Service Industry Updates

Entrepreneur Saw That Her Peers Were Struggling and Decided to Do Something About It

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Reign Free noticed her peers were struggling. She knew how they were feeling. She, too, had to turn her foodservice business on a dime when the pandemic hit.

Free operates a successful one-woman catering business, The Red Door Catering (TRD), in Oakland, Calif. Established in 2006, TRD has grown into a multi-million-dollar company serving clients like the Obama Foundation, AfroTech, Facebook, Louis Vuitton, the Super Bowl and Blue Shield of California. But when the pandemic hit, Free had to pivot to keep her business going.

“The challenges brought by COVID-19 forced The Red Door to change its business model, shifting from catering in-person events to providing healthy and locally grown food to our neighbors as they worked from home,” she said.

With restaurants shutting down and pivoting to take out, Free saw that other Black chefs and entrepreneurs were struggling, with many of them lacking access to kitchen space and expertise on how to scale their businesses.

“I recognized that not only could I offer these entrepreneurs a place to cook, but we could create a space where emerging culinary entrepreneurs could grow beyond their current stations,” Free said.

In 2020, TRD partnered with the Eat. Play. Learn Foundation, World Central Kitchen and Great Plates to serve the community during COVID-19. In April 2021, Free hosted a roundtable welcoming Vice President Kamala Harris, Bay Area politicians, and small business owners to her kitchen to discuss their experiences during the pandemic and the impact of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) in aiding small businesses.

And now, in partnership with the Oakland Black Business Fund (OBBF) and Oakstop Alliance, Free has launched the Black Culinary Collective, an expansion of Free’s vision to impact her community using her experience and expertise. The Black Culinary Collective provides a creative, collaborative, and nurturing environment for Black-owned food and beverage producers. In addition to access to a fully equipped commercial kitchen, the Collective offers members business consultation and mentorship services, as well as opportunities for financing through the Oakland Black Business Fund’s network.

The Black Culinary Collective was launched with support from the OBBF, a Black-led investment platform providing capital, technical assistance and growth strategy to Black-owned businesses. In order to minimize the barrier to entry for entrepreneurs looking to join the Collective, OBBF has committed to funding the first 10 members, equaling more than $50,000 in funding for the project. OBBF is the only Black-led fund providing business grants and larger investments that address the historical lack of access to capital and control of real estate.

“We’ve seen studies that show 41% of Black-owned businesses closed between February and April 2020, and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan data shows that only 130 restaurants listed as Black-owned received payments of $150,000 or more,” said Damon Johnson, director of community relations at OBBF and executive director for the Oakstop Alliance. “These numbers reflect historically weak lending to people of color, which makes community-based funds essential to creating a new economic trajectory for Black businesses. The Black Culinary Collective is one example of how OBBF’s unique approach to building peer-to-peer relationships between Black business owners and service providers offers a sustainable growth model for under-funded businesses.”

The Black Culinary Collective is ideal for small to mid-sized businesses, ranging from home-based operations to full-scale commercial production. The West Oakland facilities feature more than 5,000 square feet of combined commercial kitchen and pop-up market space. Members will also receive access to free consultation on topics ranging from certification, licensing, and insurance to production, branding, and distribution.

In addition to TRD, the Black Business Collective features various Black-owned food and beverage businesses, with more expected to join in the coming weeks. Current members include Baby Bean PieThe Final SaucePound Bizness and Teas With Meaning. The Black Culinary Collective will host an open house in West Oakland this summer, highlighting the culinary offerings of Oakland’s emerging food and beverage entrepreneurs.

“The foundation of our brand is intention, purpose, and wellness. By partnering with Reign Free and the Black Culinary Collective, we’re able to grow our business while delivering on our goal of inspiring purposeful change within our community,” said Kamilah Mitchell, founder of Teas With Meaning. “It’s an honor to be aligned with this project and have the opportunity to grow alongside other Black culinary entrepreneurs.”

Business owners interested in joining the Black Culinary Collective can visit www.blackculinarycollective.com for more information. To schedule an appointment to visit the kitchen, contact reign@reddoorcatering.com. Investors or organizations interested in contributing to OBBF or supporting Oakstop Alliance can contact info@oaklandbbf.org or info@oakstop.com.

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