Welcome to Washington Post Live, Pinky.
MS. COLE: Thank you for having me. So happy to be here.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. And remember we always want to hear from you, our audience. You can share your thoughts and questions for guests on Washington Post Live by tweeting @PostLive.
So, Pinky, let’s start off with this company you’ve built. You’ve built it up to be now worth an estimated $100 million. Can you briefly tell us how you started Slutty Vegan, and tell us a little bit about the name.
MS. COLE: So, I’m still here trying to figure out how I started Slutty Vegan, and please forgive me. I just had a grand opening yesterday. So, I’ve been screaming all day.
But this concept really came out of nowhere. I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and about four years ago, I was in my bedroom, and I came up with this idea out of nowhere called “Slutty Vegan.” And I called my friends up, and I said I want to create a concept that is plant‑based, but it has a raunchy, racy flavor but not typically what a vegan restaurant will have. And I want to call it “Slutty Vegan,” and all of my friends, they were like, “Oh, my goodness, Pinky, that’s a really, really good idea.”
And do you know when I did that, I didn’t realize I was solving a universal problem, and that was figuring out a way to crack the code of helping people to reimagine food, and when I did that, literally everything went up from there.
So, for the people who don’t know what the business is, it is a 100 percent plant‑based burger joint that was born and bred in the heart of Atlanta, and now we have multiple locations in Atlanta and in several other cities as well.
MS. ABRIL: So, you faced some challenges, though, in this process. I understand there was‑‑one of your restaurants lasted two years in the Harlem section of New York. It shut down in 2016. Tell me a little bit about the lessons you learned there.
MS. ABRIL: [Laughs] Lessons, so many.
So, I had my restaurant from 2014 to 2016, and it was called “Pinky’s Jamaican and American Restaurant,” located in the heart of Harlem. And it was my first opportunity being a restauranteur.
Now, half of the time, I did not know what I was doing, right? I went to Google, went to YouTube and learned everything about the restaurant industry, but what I had and what I still have is I got heart, and I’m confident. So, even in the times where I didn’t know what I was doing, I always had confidence.
So, while I had this restaurant, it was seemingly successful. I had lines down the block. People would come. People loved the business, and then I realized that I was putting my blood, sweat, and tears in a business. I knew nothing about restaurant industry. So, the best thing that happened to me, which I didn’t realize at the time, was I had a grease fire, and in that grease fire, everything caught on fire, lost everything because I did not have fire insurance. And because I didn’t have fire insurance, I wasn’t able to salvage all of the items inside of the space. So, I literally went flat broke, lost everything, and left the restaurant industry. But what I learned in that moment is I learned resilience. I learned that even in the hardest of times, you do not give up. You do not throw in the towel. You pick that towel back up, and you keep working because, obviously, whatever happened happened for a reason.
I did a commencement speech earlier this year, and I used the acronym FAIL. Failing is not failing at all, but it’s finding aspiration in the losses. So, through that perceived failure, it taught me how to be a better entrepreneur. It taught me how to make sure that I had all the things that I needed in line and be more responsible, and I’m happy that it happened that way. So, I don’t look at it as a tragedy. I look at it as an opportunity to learn, and I tell people that was the most expensive school that I ever went to, but it was the best school to learn about business, entrepreneur, and me, myself, as an individual.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I actually had a question about turning failure into success, but it sounds like you wrapped it all up very nicely right there.
I do want to ask you for a little bit more advice, though, for would‑be entrepreneurs who want to start their business in today’s economy. It’s a challenging situation right now. What advice would you give them?
MS. COLE: Even when you know everything, you know nothing. I’m learning that in business. I don’t care how many books you read. I don’t care how much you research on the internet. You got to keep reading. You got to keep researching because there never comes a moment where you know everything, and the minute that you feel like you know everything, that’s when you begin to lose.
So, to the entrepreneurs that are watching this program, you’ve got to continue to chase, chase what you’re chasing, right? If it’s success that you’re chasing‑‑not money because we don’t chase money. If it’s opportunity that you’re chasing, continue to research. Continue to do the work. Never get comfortable. Never get lazy because I promise you, the minute that you get lazy, there is somebody standing in the wings right now waiting to take your place. So, hopefully, somebody hears that, it resonates, and when you run your business, just never give up and keep trying.
MS. ABRIL: Great advice there.
I want to continue on your advice for entrepreneurs. Tell me a little bit about how entrepreneurs can find opportunities in this increasingly digital economy.
MS. COLE: So, the opportunities are endless. The advantage that we have as entrepreneurs is that we live in a digital age, right? Everything is on the internet. Everything is at your fingertips. So, you don’t have to go far and wide to find the information that you need.
What I want entrepreneurs to know is that information could be free. You don’t have to pay for the information. Instagram is free. Social media is free, Facebook, Twitter. There’s opportunities where you can market your business and in spaces where the resources are already there for you, and as you grow your business, yeah, one day you could use financial resources to be able to pay for those things. But you can grow your business on TikTok, right?
We live in a‑‑what do you call it? A viral age. So, all it takes is that one viral video to make your business go to the next level, whether it is a product or service. All it takes is that one post for the course of your business to change for the rest of your life. So, using digital resources to be able to grow your business is the best thing, and starting with the free options first because they do exist.
When I started Slutty Vegan, I used social media to my benefit. I did not pay for celebrities to eat my food. What I did is I had celebrities eat my food, and they posted on their own. So, what I did is I would rip their videos and put it on my social media page. That is how I grew in the digital space, and it’s not difficult at all.
Now, because we’re in an economic downturn, because there’s so much inflation happening, you’ve really got to get creative. You know what? Because people want to have a really good reason to spend their money. So, give people a good reason to spend their money, and get creative with your resources in how you grow your business, especially through the digital space.
MS. ABRIL: So, in May this year, you announced you had secured $25 million in funding to open as many as 20 new restaurants. How did you get that funding, and is it still as hard as it seems for small businesses to get funding for expansion?
MS. COLE: You know, it’s interesting because I talk about this all the time. Once upon a time, it was so difficult for Black businesses, minority‑owned businesses to get injections of capital to be able to grow their business. It’s just the facts, right? Our counterparts have always historically gotten more than us, but what I realize now is we are in a ripe age now where Black‑owned businesses, small businesses, minority‑owned businesses are now getting the recognition that once upon a time they didn’t always get. So now there is an open sea of opportunity to be able to get money to fund your business, and partially, it’s because most big corporations want to be in solidarity with small businesses, especially with everything that happened in the recent years with George Floyd and Rashard Brooks‑‑rest in peace to both of them‑‑and all of the things that are happening in our economy, right? Big businesses want to partner with small businesses so that they can feel real, right? Because people are no longer buying products. They are tapping into the ingenuity of businesses and the ethos, right?
So, when it was time for me to get money, it wasn’t because I was just a business that was just cool. No. They saw the environment that I was creating, the frequency and the energy and the vibration, and they wanted to tap into what I was building, which is the ecosystem for people who look like me and for people who seek opportunity.
So, was it difficult for me to get that money? Absolutely not. But I was very intentional about it, and I’m speaking again to entrepreneurs. Make sure that you are intentional when you are seeking money, building a relationship with somebody who is interested in giving you money, because it wasn’t so much about the physical capital that they were giving me. I wanted to be in partnership with people who can help to take my business to the next level through their resources, through their advice, and through their experiences that they learned.
Slutty Vegan has always been a very great cash‑flow business, but when we started to get an injection of capital, what it did is it put us in the room with the people who have grown in scale businesses to billion‑dollar companies. So, you know, there’s a saying when you’re in the room with the right people, you are going to start rubbing shoulders with the right people. So, we get to rub shoulders with those people, and I’m very happy about it. But it was not difficult, and it is not difficult, in my opinion, for people to get money. All you have to do is build something so special that it’s irresistible that it will make people start banging your door down so that they can throw money at you.
MS. ABRIL: Such good advice there.
I really want to switch to the impact of the pandemic. As we know, your industry was hit pretty hard. How much of a challenge was it for you to keep your employees on the payroll during covid?
MS. COLE: [Laughs] Oh, very hard. It is hard today, and I’d be lying if I sit here and like, “Oh, no, it’s great.” No, that’s a lie. And every single restaurant industry, I can guarantee you for a fact are dealing with the same thing.
What I realized is through this pandemic, we have created more entrepreneurs than we have ever created in America’s history, in my opinion. Most people have realized that they can create their own businesses and build their own pathway to generational wealth. So, why would they want to come to work for me? Right? So, while I have a great company and people want to be a part of the company, I also realize I’m encouraging people to be entrepreneurs.
So, specifically speaking for myself, was it difficult and is it difficult? Yes. But what we’ve done is we’ve gotten creative and started incentivizing the employees in a different way to say, okay, if you still want to be an entrepreneur, you could still work here and be an entrepreneur, and we’re going to incentivize you to make you feel like you are a part of this growth that we’re having. So, what does that look like for us? That was raising the minimum wage. That was providing full benefits for everybody in the company who works at least 40 hours a week. So, that means that restaurant crew members can get advantages of insurance. That was also providing life insurance for every single one of my employees if they need it that we paid for. Those incentives really helped the employees to feel like they’re wanted, to feel like they’re needed, and they want to stay and grow with the company.
And I realize the difference now because before, while we paid our employees good, there wasn’t such an investment, and I can be totally transparent and say this because I’m that kind of entrepreneur. But now they feel like they are part of the big picture, and when employees feel like they are a part of the big picture, then they’ll stay around longer. So, our turnover rate isn’t as high as it used to be. Yeah. Do people come and go sometimes? Yes. You know, it’s a business, but at the end of the day, what I realize is, is when you show your loyalty to the employees, they will always show their loyalty with you.
MS. ABRIL: Hmm. That’s a good, good piece of advice there. It bleeds into my next question, and maybe this is one in the same. But, if there’s more here, I’d like to dig a little bit more. You know, the massive growth of your company really occurred during the pandemic.
MS. ABRIL: Tell me a little bit about how you were able to succeed at a time when so many other businesses failed.
MS. COLE: I’m still trying to figure it out.
You know, that is probably the most beautiful story about Slutty Vegan. You know, I like to say Slutty Vegan had its meteoric rise in the midst of the pandemic, right? So, while the world was seemingly falling apart on this side, you had this small business that was bringing the world together on this side in the middle of a pandemic. I opened up four locations in a pandemic. So that tells you that we created something that people wanted to be a part of.
So, many of my peers had to close their businesses because they couldn’t keep employees or they couldn’t get people to come through the door, but what I did is I got super creative, right? We took a pause down for about two weeks to just press restart to make sure that we had everything that we needed to provide a sustainable business for the people, and what I’m interested is making sure that my businesses maintain sustainability. And how do we do that? We do that by making sure that our marketing is top tier, by making sure that people are always talking about Slutty Vegan, and showing people the core of what we’ve dealt with in America for years. No matter the tribulation, we always rise above. No matter what we see around us and the energy that tries to take over us, if that energy is the pandemic, it’s covid, it’s the recession, it’s all of these things, we still find a way to rise above, and that energy and that spirit resonated with so many people, which made people want to come back.
Specifically speaking, my foundation, the Pinky Cole Foundation. When I realized that there was a pandemic and people weren’t eating like they used to at restaurants, right, and they weren’t supporting other businesses like they used to, we realized that we wanted to help organizations, right? We started to pay the local rents of businesses so that they didn’t close. We paid the balances of college students so that they could graduate. We’ve donated fruits and vegetables. We paid the insurance of families that needed it. Right now, we’re currently providing life insurance for Black men in Atlanta that make $30,000 or less, and there’s a long list of all the things that we do, but we did that in the middle of the pandemic. So, people realized that, yes, although we are in a trying time, this is the time that we need each other the most, and we linked on that. And that has driven the success of the business for us to be able to grow.
MS. ABRIL: That was a great segue to what I wanted to touch on next, which is your philanthropic work. You mentioned the Pinky Cole Foundation. I want to talk a little bit about that. Can you tell me a little bit about the importance of supporting future entrepreneurs and small business owners from underrepresented groups?
MS. COLE: You know, first of all, I love the fact that I have a foundation, right? So, before, I was just helping everybody else, and like my CFO was like, “No, we got to put this on paper. You are helping everybody. We got to track this.”
So, I created my foundation in 2019, and it was called the Pinky Cole Foundation, and I really wanted to build that generational wealth gap. So, just like what I told you, some of the things that we’ve done is really a way to be a resource to the community. I’m all about building and ecosystem, and if I can build the ecosystem with the consumer in mind, then there’s a big win for everybody, right? We get a lot of business; we give a lot to the community. And it makes sense, and I believe that is the secret formula of success for small businesses, right?
And I’m not saying like give all you got out, right? If you don’t have it, don’t give it. If you can’t afford to give it out, don’t do that. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, is that if you have a viable business and you can create an infrastructure where people can benefit off of the business even when you’re providing them a service, that is when your business will do good, the community will do good. People will talk about your business, and people will continue to rotate in and out of your business. That is what I learned about that.
So, for entrepreneurs who are trying to grow their businesses, you need a philanthropic arm. That philanthropic arm will show that you are not just a business that sells product. It will show that you are a business that cares about ecosystem, that cares about community, that cares about recycling the dollar. That is what we’ve done, and it allowed us to position ourself in a lane outside of all the other lanes because we are a community‑based business, and community‑based business always win.
So, my advice to entrepreneurs who are listening to this, make sure that you create a community‑based business first, and then everything will follow. I’m a living testament of it, and I continue to do that. And even when I got investors, I made it very clear that I wanted to continue to be a community‑driven business so that, you know, the community will understand that we are not just here to make money. We are here to make the community better.
MS. ABRIL: So, we have about a minute left, Pinky, and I really want to go back to the commencement speech that you gave at your alma mater, Clark Atlanta University. You said, quote, “Here’s the truth. You don’t know what you’re made of until it’s been battle tested and proven.” I want to know what have you learned about yourself.
MS. COLE: Oh, I learned about me that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing everything right. Sometimes you don’t always have to know. You don’t ever have to know. You just go with the flow, right? And what that flow is, it’s that spirit. Like, I’m an energy person, right? So, I’ve amassed so much success in a very short amount of time, and I look up and I ask myself like I’ve done things where I don’t even know the answer to that. I did not go to an Ivy League school, right? I did not like read a gazillion books before I started Slutty Vegan, right? I did not go to like all these big courses and pay all top dollar to hear people and celebrities speak. I didn’t do that.
But what I realized is that not knowing was all right, and you don’t have to know everything. You just got to be excited about the journey, and what keeps me is that I remain confident in my journey, even in the times that I don’t know, right? I’ve gone through a whole lot. So, when I say battle tested, battle tested, I’ve been through the mud. I went flat broke. I’ve lost loved ones, right? I had moments where I wanted to give up, but I realized it was in those moments that made me realize that I got work to do. I got people watching me. I got people that believe in me.
So, you know, life has been so good to me, and I don’t know anything, but I know everything that I need to know.
MS. ABRIL: I think that’s a great place to leave it. Pinky Cole, thank you so much for joining us today.
MS. COLE: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
MS. ABRIL: And I’ll be back in a moment.
MS. URRUTIA: Hello. I’m Luz Urrutia, CEO of Accion Opportunity Fund, the leading nonprofit organization providing small businesses across the U.S. with access to responsible loans, coaching, and support networks.
With me today are two accomplished small business owners who were recently awarded a $25,000 Love, Tito’s Small Business Grant sponsored by the Tito’s Handmade Vodka in honor of their 25th anniversary and administered by Accion Opportunity Fund.
Antwon Brinson is the founder of Culinary Concepts AB in Charlottesville, Virginia; and Danielle Ruttenberg is co-founder of Remark Glass in Philadelphia.
Antwon and Danielle, welcome, and thank you so much for joining me and for all you do to make your communities and our economy more vibrant.
Antwon, I’m going to start with you. The mission of Culinary Concepts AB is to empower people and build communities in the kitchen. Why is community so important to you as a small business owner?
MR. BRINSON: You know, there’s an African proverb that goes, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go further, go together,” and I think that’s the ethos of what we stand for. Culinary Concepts is all about moving together within the community.
Culinary Concepts is we are all about removing barriers for folks and creating equitable opportunities, and we do this through our training programs. Some of the ways is by prioritizing low- to no-cost programs for our students and working with employers that offer equitable opportunities by removing barriers such as livable wages. They pay livable wages, and they have strong kitchen coaches.
Our programs understand that, you know, we want to make sure that the folks have the right mindset. So, we incorporate life skills into our training programs, and at the end, when the students graduate, we connect them to career pathways with employers that are willing to invest in them.
In the end, our training programs, they’re a win-win for both the individual and for the employers. At the core, Culinary Concepts and our workforce development, community makes everything work for us.
MS. URRUTIA: Great. Danielle, your business, Remark Glass, is similarly dedicated not to just generating revenue but also generating impact by keeping thousands of pounds of glass out of landfills. Why is giving back such a critical part of your business model?
MS. RUTTENBERG: So, honestly, I don’t think of it so much as giving back but as doing our part. While we started this business in a creative design space, blowing glass from old bottles, Remark Glass is now disrupting a system in which recyclable materials aren’t making their way out of the waste stream, and the community and our environment are inherently at the heart of our mission. And with dwindling national resources and limited space in that landfill, it’s really now a critical time to start thinking about source materials and our ability to reuse as manufacturing, as makers alike. So, while we’re all affected every day by waste and there’s really a lack of transparency on the part of our public waste system, we hope to continue to educate and to involve the community in what we believe is the start of a solution to an ongoing problem.
MS. URRUTIA: Wow. Starting a business is a huge investment of time, capital, and passion, and there are so many barriers to becoming a small business owner; most importantly, access to financing.
Antwon, what advice would you give to first-time entrepreneurs?
MR. BRINSON: You know, the best advice that I could give someone is surround yourself with the right people, and that doesn’t mean surrounding yourself with people that are going to tell you yes every time you say something great. But it means surrounding yourself with folks that are going to challenge you to think differently, people that are going to push you, people that are going to help you strategize.
You know, in our network, if it wasn’t for, you know, the small business development here in Charlottesville, we wouldn’t have known about the Tito’s grant. So, you know, be engaged, and make sure that the people that you have around you are genuinely adding value to you and your business.
You were both recently awarded a Love, Tito’s Small Business Grant from Tito’s Handmade Vodka, which provides $25,000 to small business owners who are following their passion and making great impact in their community.
Danielle, what does receiving this grant mean to you and to your business?
MS. RUTTENBERG: Well, I really think that one of the major hurdles for small businesses in the past few years has been desire to make considerable improvements for our team, while also navigating the waters of such heavy inflation.
Our staff is amazing, are creative and talented, and they’re dedicated to making change alongside us. However, the cost of living has skyrocketed, as we all know, and we want to make sure that we can grow our team and business in a responsible way, and that people can, you know, take care of themselves and their families and feel a safe haven in their job.
Opportunities like the Love, Tito’s grant supports existing jobs and job creation and, internally, social enterprises like ours to continue building their impact. I’m incredibly grateful to larger organizations like Tito’s and like Accion Opportunity Fund for their financial support and their public recognition to businesses like ours that can really help to encourage positive change in the world.
MS. URRUTIA: Wow. Danielle and Antwon, thank you again for your inspiring entrepreneurship, and now I’ll hand it over to The Washington Post.
MS. ABRIL: Hello again. I’m Danielle Abril, tech at work writer for The Washington Post.
We’re going to continue the program with the mayor of one of the countless cities in America whose small business owners have been challenged the past couple of years. He is the mayor of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Jon Mitchell.
Welcome to Washington Post live, Jon.
MAYOR MITCHELL: Well, thanks for having me, Danielle.
And remember we always want to hear from you, our audience. You can share your thoughts and questions for guests on Washington Post Live by tweeting @PostLive.
Mayor Mitchell, how important are small businesses to the economy of your city of around 100,000 residents.
MAYOR MITCHELL: Yeah. Well, of course, it goes without saying, small businesses are important everywhere, and cities and towns of every size and for good reason, right? We talk about small businesses as being the mechanism to which so many have pursued the American dream. They’re the source of, if not the lion’s share of jobs in America’s economy, certainly a large proportion of them, and they are, in many ways, the spice of the cities that they operate in.
I would go–I would take those general observations that everybody accepts just a step further and say that in cities like mine, the vitality of small businesses are even more important. By that, I mean this. New Bedford is a city of 100,000, and we are not part of a major metro. We sort of sit on our own bottom with our own suburbs and our own smaller metropolitan area, and like other cities of our type, right, especially those with an industrial past, we don’t have Fortune 100 companies anchoring the regional economy where major research institutions sat. Our economy is driven by small businesses, and so much of our identity is connected with small businesses. Many of our immigrant neighborhoods, small businesses have turned over with every new immigration wave, over a decade, decade after decade, and people feel a sense of belonging to their neighborhoods in part because of the small businesses that they recognize and associate with.
So, you know, for us, especially as we entered the pandemic, so much of our efforts were centered around stabilizing our small businesses, and I think that we’ll be talking a little about that in a moment.
MS. ABRIL: Absolutely. Actually, that’s exactly what I want to talk about. What have been the biggest challenges facing these businesses that you’ve seen, and what have you done to help them?
MAYOR MITCHELL: Well, so our response has evolved over time, but in the early days of the pandemic, of course, none of us in public office or elsewhere had a full grip of what we–on what we were facing, right? We hadn’t had a pandemic since–well, since 1918, and so we really didn’t know what was unfolding and what the threats were. But, as we started to learn a little bit more about covid 19, we understood that we had to sort of break through certain perceptions in order to enable small businesses to continue to move forward, to stabilize.
In the first month of the pandemic, our unemployment rate here in New Bedford went from about 5 percent to about 24 percent. Our businesses shut down, and this wasn’t by virtue of any government orders at all. People didn’t want to go into restaurants and shops and so forth.
And so, my job as mayor, to a great degree, was to ensure that the public understood that it was okay to go in and order from a takeout pizza joint, for instance. So, I would, really within the first two weeks of the arrival of the pandemic, I was going around the city, mask on and all, showing up at places and ordering out and posting it on social media so that everybody understood it was okay to do that.
And then we took extra steps in terms of literally using city departments to build out sidewalks to offer, so that restaurants could offer up outdoor dining.
You know, New Bedford, of course, is a big fishing industry. We’re the largest fishing port in America. We took a number of steps to ensure that boats could go out safely during the early part of the pandemic and helping with–helping through social distance and to take other precautionary measures. So, it was initially a big scramble, right?
But then other things started to set in, right? So, there were social distancing measures in place, and there were mask requirements and so forth here as there were just about everywhere else, at least in the early going. And so, people needed to understand that folks were still open for business, and again, social media activity was important in that regard. But we also understood that so many businesses were losing employees, and that it was actually safe to work in a number of these–in all these–all the small businesses that we were trying to stabilize.
And then, as time went on, you know, we saw the effects of still greater staffing shortages and inflation, and so helping small businesses with working capital was a big part of what we attempted to do through loans and certain grant programs, and we can go into a little more detail about it. But suffice it to say, stabilizing our small businesses required us to work just very, very closely with them, to have an understanding of what their challenges were, and to try with the resources that we’re getting from the federal government, state government, and our own resources, to ensure that they could pay the bills. They could hire folks out, that they could–they could pay for–pay all their vendors, that they could keep the lights on literally in their businesses.
So, you know, it was an iterative process along the way to go. It really was stabilization and then get businesses back on a pathway of growth.
MS. ABRIL: Are there new challenges that they’re facing now?
MAYOR MITCHELL: Well, there are, right? And so, you know, they range from, again, just feeling the distortionary effects of heightened inflation, right? That has caused–so, you know, there’s a restaurant literally a block from where I’m seated that, you know, sold $12 tostada salads that suddenly became much more expensive for them to make. They started–because of supply chain bottlenecks, those salads started to cost them nearly $14 to make, right? So, they were actually losing money for a while making salads, and that’s just one, one example of many.
Now, of course, we still see the effect of Great Resignation. Still many people aren’t coming back to work, and so that’s starting to play out. That’s starting to sort itself out now to a certain degree, but not nearly fast enough. Every small business in the city and in our region is still feeling like they don’t have the staff they need to get the job done. And then, of course, you know, they’re looking at heightened interest rates and the possibility that reinvesting in their business might prove difficult.
So, what we have done is, in addition to providing working capital to keep things going, we’ve created new loan and grant couple–and new loan programs and coupled them with grant programs to make the cost of capital lower so that they can start to pour money back into their businesses. We’ve also created for many of them two programs that I think are very important, and I’ll stay this, right? So, the effort here is around stabilizing small businesses and getting them on a pathway of growth, but at the same time, we want to make sure that small businesses are continuing to protect their energy into the city. It’s been a long pandemic, and we want to make sure that what businesses are doing in the way of getting themselves back on their feet is actually being felt in the community, as it were. So, we have invested a considerable amount of federal money into a new storefront program for small businesses that had over 90 applications, and we’re getting that money out the door now. And it leverages both public sector and private sector funds and other public and private sector funds as well.
So, what we’re going to see across the city in a very inclusive way or businesses seeming–that apparently, to the public, coming back to life with new doors, new awnings, and, you know, these little things like that give people confidence that, you know, this city is alive, and that it’s worth patronizing those businesses.
We’ve also spent a fair amount of money helping artists, working artists, get back on their feet. New Bedford is blessed with a really large artist community, one of the larger ones per capita in the country, and we have created a set of programs that offer technical assistance, business technical assistance to them like how an artist might write a business plan, which is not always intuitive to a lot of artists, so that they can understand how they can sell their wares and promote them in the city as well as directly funding certain art projects, again, as well as performing arts projects.
So, again, we’re projecting energy back out into the economy. We’re boosting consumer and resident confidence, all the while supporting small businesses.
MS. ABRIL: So, you mentioned a couple of things there that I want to return to. You talked about covid, high inflation, supply chain gridlock, the Great Resignation. I mean, it seems like this would have had a really big impact economically on your region. Can you tell me a little bit about the effect it’s had?
MAYOR MITCHELL: Well, you know, it’s been a little bit of a mixed bag. There have been some successes along the way. Initially, as it was in many places, the arrival of the pandemic was a real trauma on the city, right? Unemployment spiked. People were–you know, retreated back into their homes, of course, and we remember all that from two years ago.
Here, it played out in a number of ways. We still have very much an industrial economy. We’ve had–we had some factory closures because of outbreaks and such, and what we’ve tried to do, again, is try to project confidence and stability along the way.
So, you know, we have seen through some of these programs which we’re providing, we’ve provided working capital to small businesses. Some do very well. As it turns out, one of the things we’re most proud of is that during the first two years of the pandemic, New Bedford actually was a net plus seven for new restaurants. That is to say, during this period in which the restaurant industry took it on the chin in the United States, here in New Bedford, an older industrial city in the Northeast, we actually added seven more restaurants than we lost, and I attribute some of that to the great work that so many entrepreneurs did, as we heard from Pinky Cole in the first segment, really pivoting, wisely, early in the pandemic and meeting their customers where they are and thinking creatively.
The loan and grant programs also helped providing, again, working capital, some infusion of cash right at the right time. We were able to keep a number of these businesses going, and so we don’t see all sorts of boarded up storefronts at this point.
That’s not to say they’re all out of the woods yet. We continue with these programs, and they’re being heavily subscribed because, again, we’re still feeling the distortionary effects of the pandemic still, staffing and inflation and so forth, but at least it feels like we’re on a pretty solid pathway forward.
MS. ABRIL: So, I want to talk a little bit more about the money. You announced earlier this year, as you mentioned, that the city is providing $3.3 million in grants for local businesses from the American Rescue Plan Act. Tell me, how is that money being used, and what requirements did the government have for businesses to access those funds?
MAYOR MITCHELL: Well, so ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act regulations laid out a whole set of preconditions as to who may receive the money and so forth. What it boils down to in general is that, you know, the businesses have to demonstrate having experienced some loss during the pandemic, but the regulations are also forward looking. They allow for cities like mine to underwrite efforts to promote new business formation.
So, what we’ve tried to do is, again, supporting businesses emerging from the pandemic. We’re also supporting businesses that are just starting to form now, and under current–in our uncertain times right now providing them the technical assistance and seed capital to get going. So, that program is the New Bedford Forward program and the NBForward! program, and the idea there is that we are providing entrepreneurs right up front $10,000 in cash if they go through a series of training exercises with a number of local institutions, community colleges, accelerators and such, put together a business plan to get a sense of their cash flow projections and so–to get them going. And we’re starting to see a real uptick in subscription on that effort.
And so, you know, the idea is here that, you know, we don’t want to just sort of go back to where we were when the pandemic started. We want those–the businesses that were around then to be around now and to be on their feet, but we also want to be accelerated forward as things start to stabilize, as they appear that they might in the next few months.
MS. ABRIL: So, Mayor, I want to talk about another program that you guys started called an Enhanced Façade program and it’s helping businesses get improved storefronts, raising their curb appeal. Tell me, how is that working out?
MAYOR MITCHELL: I think it’s working out very well. Again, businesses weren’t reinvesting in themselves in the last year at the same rates they were pre pandemic, right? No surprise there. But when we think about small business investment, we often talk about–as I have, about working capital and paying the everyday utility bills and the staff salaries and so forth. But the outward manifestation of so many small businesses around the country is that storefront on a busy street. You know, it’s that restaurant we recognize by the color of its awning or the sign on the door, and ensuring that, giving businesses a little bit of a push to giving themselves a little bit of a facelift can go a long way, not only in helping them but also helping the neighborhoods in which they do their business.
So, we have a number of business districts around the city that have storefronts of the type that I just described, and what we’ve tried to do is ensure that there’s–that they’re getting access to funds to do–a very generous set of funds to get–to reinvest in those storefronts. So, we set up this Enhanced Façade program, which offers a 75 percent match for investments in a business’s storefront, up to $40,000. So, in other words, you know, for every quarter you put in, you’ll get 75 cents from the city of New Bedford, up to $40,000, which is in most instances plenty enough to do a really nice storefront.
And so, we’ve had, at this point, 90 applicants. We think that there will probably be about 75 that will be fully eligible. We’ll spend, you know, between $2- and $3 million in ARPA funds for that purpose, but it’s not a total giveaway, right? The matching requirement ensures some level of accountability. We’re not just handing out funds. We’re expecting each of these small businesses to have to ante up something, if for no other reason, to ensure that what we’re investing in as a city government is something that they also are willing to pony up for, too. So, we think that that is going to stretch our dollars even more, taxpayer dollars, but at the end, it’s going to have a really, very visible improvement across the city in many of the most densely populated and heavily trafficked business areas that we have. So, we’re really bullish on it.
MS. ABRIL: Mayor, we have a few minutes left. So, I’m going to try to squeeze in a couple questions here. New Bedford is known for a large fishing fleet and seafood industry. Can you tell me how the maritime economy has weathered the past two-plus years?
MAYOR MITCHELL: Yeah. So, early on, the price of many fish crashed here because people weren’t going out to restaurants in the United States and in Europe. New Bedford is a big source of America’s seafood, right? About 8 percent of the fish landed in the United States are landed in the port of New Bedford.
And so, when we saw the prices crash, boats didn’t go out. It wasn’t profitable for them to go out, and that meant that fishermen weren’t fishing. They weren’t making a living.
As restaurants started to come back open, as grocery stores started to sell more seafood around the country, the prices came back up, but we also wanted to make sure that we did everything that we could to backstop the maritime economy. So, eventually, we did things like, you know, we had offered up testing, free testing for fishermen before they go out on the boats so that there weren’t be outbreaks out at sea, right, that would cause them not to go out the next time and so forth. We had vaccination programs for fishermen as well, and we tried very hard to work with our federal delegation to promote the consumption of seafood as well.
And, you know, by and large, right now, the seafood industry has weathered the storm. The prices have come back up. Fisherman are fishing again, and now, you know, the big thing next for New Bedford is the offshore wind industry. Vineyard Wind will be America’s first industrial scale offshore wind project, and that will deploy from our docks, come six months from now, and so that promises to–that represents a large potential infusion into our regional economy. So that we’re very–we’re getting back on track and really starting to move forward as the maritime–in the maritime economy right now.
MS. ABRIL: Understood. Mayor, I want to ask you one last question. How does government balance spending taxpayers’ money on supporting a business that may be failing with offering assistance to these struggling business owners? It seems like, you know, a tricky balance there.
MAYOR MITCHELL: It is a tricky–that is the trickiest balance, I think, Danielle. You know, we were just talking about the enhanced storefront program a minute ago, and there were a number of folks in the city who said, “You know what? You should just give them the money. Give everybody, every store owner $10,000, no questions asked.” And, you know, so I asked the question, “Well, what if that’s a failing business? We will just be, know, just throwing away money,” and I didn’t think that would be responsible.
So, we established a match requirement that at least ensured that the business owner thought that the project they were applying for was worthy enough to spend their own money, right? So, that added some accountability to the process.
You know, we had the saying, if these programs are going to work, you have to get money out the door, and you can’t–there isn’t room for a whole to of second guessing about how the money is spent. So, there’s a tricky balance between accountability and being effective in getting money out the door, and that’s something that we monitor closely. We have a number of guidelines in the application process in which the store owner has to–the small business owner has to demonstrate need, and we watch it. We watch it very closely because the money–like, it’s hard-earned taxpayer dollars that we’re deploying, and taxpayers deserve that that money go as far as possible.
Well, unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there, Mayor. Thank you so much for joining us today and giving us such valuable insights. I really appreciate it.
MAYOR MITCHELL: Well, thanks for having me, Danielle. I appreciate it.
And thanks to all of you for joining us. To check out what interviews we have coming up, please head to WashingtonPostLive.com and find out more information about all upcoming programs.
I’m Danielle Abril, and again, thanks for watching.
Leave a Reply