IN-DEPTH: ‘I don’t know how to give up:’ Soul-Filled catering, other black businesses navigate through rough pandemic

National Bureau of Economic reports that 41 percent of Black-owned business closed immediately after pandemic hit in March 2020
Soul Filled Catering.jpg
Posted at 8:38 PM, Mar 01, 2022

MUSKEGON, Mich. — Soul Filled Eatery served collard greens, mac-n-cheese, fried chicken wings, and other southern dishes. However it was known for its turkey knuckles. Owner Lakisha Harris said they were the best around. Her small restaurant was so packed that they had 45-60 minute wait times.

However, now, the turkey knuckles will come in containers along with her others foods.

“Who doesn’t love good food. I knew I had a good product. I knew I had something unique. But what I didn’t know was the best way to propagate that,” Harris said during an interview with Fox 17 in mid-February. “I found out, almost like the mantra in Field of Dreams ‘if you build they will come.’ So, I began to build smaller spaces that people feel more comfortable coming to.”

A few months ago, Harris closed her restaurant on Glade Street and has since moved to BoomTown Market in downtown Muskegon, where there isn’t much southern cuisine. She changed her business operations from being an eatery to being Soul Filled Catering and Private Chef Services.

“I’m taking it to the places where there are no soul food. There’s no soul food in Montague, right. There's no soul food in Hart and going up north. It’s special. It’s gourmet. It’s unique, and then that’s where we'll see business thrive,” she said. “So, I’m going to be busy moving around and making moves to build a brand but also bringing them back to a headquarters, a point of reference and that’s downtown muskegon.”

Fox 17 conducted the interview at BoomTown Market.

Harris said she made the decision to move there after a rough 2021. Throughout the year, she wore many hats, from accountant to marketing manager to chef. However she never took home a paycheck, she said in a previous interview with Fox 17. All the money she earned went back into the business.

“It was very tumultuous because with the  demand and the changing prices in food my prices began to fluctuate. I had to change my menu. I had to change and adjust my hours,” Harris said. “It was very difficult most days, you know my grandmother used to say ‘Sometimes you have to drink tears for water.’ So I would go home with tears in my eyes but I would never show up that way. I just kept giving my best.”

Harris added that it was hard getting any financial assistance. She applied for the Paycheck Protection Program loan and the Small Business Association loan and was denied.

“It was nearly impossible. Every time we presented ourselves, presented the documentation, there were denials after denials,” Harris said. “So we did all of this cash-based. We did all of this credit-based. So, while they say to us ‘hey, the funding is there for you to survive, to thrive,' not really. There are some applications from April of last year that are still standing there stagnant with no result.”

Harris isn’t alone.

According to the Brookings Institute’s Small Business Credit Survey, 92 percent of Black-owned business said they experienced financial hardships in 2020. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 41 percent of Black-owned businesses shutdown immediately after the pandemic hit in March 2020.

“It’s been difficult, especially early on. When the relief was coming out, a lot of Black businesses didn’t qualify just because of the scale and the way in which some of the programs rolled out,” said Jamiel Robinson during an interview with FOX 17 in mid-February. “So it excluded a lot of Black businesses from some of the grants, from some of the relief opportunities.

Robinson is the president of the Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses. He said 5.6 percent of the businesses in Kent County are Black owned. And, 90 percent of the Black-owned businesses nationwide are either single member LLCs or sole proprietorship, which means that they don’t have employees. That fact alone excluded many businesses from receiving the PPP loan in the early rounds.

Fox 17 reached out to over 40 Black owned businesses in West Michigan — including restaurants and day cares — to see how they are faring during the pandemic. Thirteen replied and provided these results:

  • 6 said ‘yes’ they applied for financial assistance and received either the PPP loan or a grant or other aid
  • 4 said ‘yes’ they applied for financial assistance and were denied
  • 3 said ‘no’ they did not apply for financial assistance because they did not fit the criteria and opened their businesses late in 2020

Robinson added that the PPP Loan changed its criteria later to let more people qualify.

“So, they tried to rectify that a little later but at that time a lot of businesses were still suffering and a lot of businesses haven’t fully recovered just because of how long the economic downturn, and then couple that with the rise of costs of everything,” Robinson said. “It’s just a crazy time for Black businesses, especially those that already started potentially under capitalized.”

Lashae Simmons II of Black Wall Street Muskegon said that businesses suffered during the pandemic. However, the ones that thrived are ones that got creative.

“I’ve seen a lot of businesses that many would have thought failed, or would fail, become creative. That’s just something we can say in our culture in general: in struggle we become creative,” Simmons said during a Zoom interview in mid-February. “It’s about did you use your creativity? Did you use your resources? Did you manage it or did you let this pandemic manage you?”

Simmons, who operates her own financial planning firm and and runs Black Wall Street Muskegon, said that many of the businesses who survived used the pandemic time to revamp, rebrand, utilize their resources and seek out mentorship.

And, it’s paid off.

“Kaja’s Flavor, she established a cafe,” Simmons said. “That’s one of the first ones that come to mind. I’ve seen Kuntry Cookin, they last year they came with their mobile food truck. I mean Ketra Braids, she’s over in Holland. She, through a pandemic, came out with a hair salon. I think people have grown. People have expanded.”

Harris too got creative about seeking out the funds to grow. Since the money did not come to her, she went out door knocking, she said.

“I began to reach out to the people that had the money ‘Hey, wink you have money, can we partner with you? Hey YMCA, you have money, can we partner with you? Hey, Hamburger Mikey, can we partner with you?’ she said. “And that’s how you’ll see now the collaborations I have with Danielle’s Hey Sugar Cotton Candy [and] Tim at Hamburger Mikey. We’re doing Collaborations with Burl &  Sprig, Tony’s Pizza in the Park.”

Harris said she continues to encounter roadblocks, not getting phone calls returned or be invited into certain corporate spaces.

However, she soldiers on. As of Tuesday March 1, her products are officially sold at BoomTown Market, and she plans to expand to other places.

“I don’t know how to give up,” she said before bursting out in laughter. “Probably if I did I would’ve cried my way to sleep and left this city a long time ago. But now that I’m here, my feet are planted in the ground. I’m going to grow like tree.”