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Not afraid to go upscale – Black restaurateurs willing to invest in good taste

April 12, 2007 by  
Filed under Money/Business, News

Black restaurateurs willing to invest in good taste

(Akiit.com) Corey and Lamonica Smith are among a set of rising young African-American entrepreneurs who are adding flavor to the restaurant scene while helping to revitalize Milwaukee’s urban corridor.

The Smiths are the owners and operators of Soche – it rhymes with posh – at 2213 N. King Drive, a street that has lost a number of black-owned restaurants in recent years.

“We’re stepping it up,” says Corey Smith, 35, a former boiler engineer who opened his first business, a maintenance company, at just 23. “We’re offering a restaurant with a twist. We don’t want to be classified as a black restaurant. Our goal is to be a good restaurant.”

Sadly, the city has lost such well-known black-owned eateries as Bean Head Café, Eat3, Sir Desmond’s and JT Bones. Few have had the staying power of Mr. Perkins Family Restaurant, 2001 W. Atkinson Ave., a family-run soul-food establishment that has been an institution in Milwaukee for more than 40 years.

What’s promising, however, is that young urban entrepreneurs are coming into the business with more capital, resources and business savvy to sustain their businesses for the long term.

“They definitely have more moxie,” says Martha Morrison, a senior loan officer for the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp., a public-private agency that provides financing in partnership with conventional lenders for businesses in distressed areas of the city.”These are not your mom-and-pop entrepreneurs.”

They’re spending more money on décor and are hiring established chefs and professional teams in an effort to offer dining experiences that appeal to a more diverse crowd, particularly young, urban professionals.

Making it happen

Consider the Smiths. Their contemporary-style restaurant, which opened in December, features American fusion cuisine and casual dining in a 6,000-square-foot, two-level facility consisting of a dining room with an outdoor patio and a lower-level lounge featuring live bands.

The project cost $1 million and was financed through a $240,000 loan from the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp. and a $400,000 loan from Associated Bank. In addition, the couple used $300,000 from their personal savings and investments to help finance the deal.

The husband and wife team have rehabilitated more than 100 residential and commercial buildings and have developed three Cup of Java coffee houses in Menomonee Falls and Brown Deer, with a fourth one soon to open in the Milwaukee area. Among all of their businesses, the restaurant included, the Smiths have more than 150 employees, 35 of whom work for Soche.

The success of their other business ventures enabled them to open Soche.

“Going back to the first company that I started at 23, I definitely put myself in a position to get what I needed to make this happen,” says Smith, one of five siblings to operate their own businesses. “There’s nothing like taking a vacant building and creating a space and watching so many people enjoy it.”

Smith also takes pride in being able to create jobs for central city residents. “There’s no better gratification than that,” he says.

Family instilled ambition

On the other end of town, 31-year-old twins Robert and Bill Jenkins own and operate a chic east side restaurant, The Bayou, at 2060 N. Humboldt Ave., which features Cajun and Creole cuisine with a global fusion twist.

“We wanted to do a business together that we felt would succeed. The market is vastly saturated with steak houses, fast food, burgers and the like,” said Robert Jenkins. “We wanted to do something to grab attention in a location right on the Milwaukee River.”

Family support factors greatly into the ability of younger generation black entrepreneurs like the Jenkinses to open more elaborate establishments. They often come from middle-class, entrepreneurial families and receive considerable grooming to run their own businesses.

“Just growing up in the family that we did, with a father that instilled in us a no-fail attitude, we keep going at it, we keep trying our hardest,” said Bill Jenkins.

The brothers, both graduates of Nicolet High School and Valparaiso University in Indiana, opened their restaurant last fall in a deal that cost $1 million, and was financed by the U.S. Small Business Administration and M&I Bank.

Like Corey Smith, the Jenkins brothers come from a family of entrepreneurs. Their family owns the Mill Road Golf Center and operates Cassie’s, a nearby frozen custard stand. Their father, William Jenkins, a retired health care executive, was one of the city’s highest-ranking hospital administrators, and one of the twins, Bill, has successfully operated an east side cocktail lounge called Cush for five years.

Even so, a restaurant is a risky business for anyone. Almost 30% fail within the first year, and 60% fail within five years, according to researchers at Cornell University and Michigan State University.

When a black-owned restaurant fails, it’s a loss for the entire community because they add flavor to the city’s cultural scene, and Milwaukee can only benefit from having such a diversity of dining experiences.

By Tannette Johnson-Elie

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