NewsInside Wilmington Delaware's Black Business Boom

Inside Wilmington Delaware’s Black Business Boom

Wilmington, Delaware, has a booming Black business scene that amplifies the city’s rich Black history.

BLACK ENTERPRISE was recently invited to tour Greater Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley’s Black business scene and saw firsthand how eager the predominantly Black community was to receive visibility on their thriving entrepreneurial pursuits. From food, hospitality, and the arts to education and community building, Wilmington offers Black businesses of all sizes the opportunity and resources needed to blossom. Whether Black-owned or Black-led, there are very few businesses in Wilmington where Black Excellence isn’t at the forefront.

ARTS & APPAREL

Haute The Studio

Delaware’s premiere Black woman-owned photography and podcast studio, Haute The Studio serves as a creative space with creators in mind. Owner Leslie Eugene curated an innovation-forward hub where locals and visitors can host maternity shoots and live podcasts or use it as a home studio to brand their company. She takes pride in serving as one of Wilmington’s first multi-content studio spaces. With plush decor, a variety of luxury-inspired sets, and a private recording studio, Haute is quickly becoming the go-to center for creative expression. A monthly subscription starts at $4.99.

Town & Shore Handcrafted

With her luxury goods, she has amassed a diverse clientele that spreads far beyond the local Wilmington area. To offer a “different perspective of Made In The USA,” as she told BLACK ENTERPRISE, McClintock also aims to expand the vision for other Black business owners and inspire them to think big when it comes to appealing to consumers beyond the Black community.

Cabernet Candles

Couture Greek Store

Any Divine Nine Greek-lettered organization member knows firsthand how important a piece of quality paraphernalia is. It’s part of a new initiates introduction to their respective org. A customized jacket, cardigan, or T-shirt will show the world how proud a member is to serve and represent their fraternity or sorority. Delaware’s Couture Greek Store is the premiere custom Greek paraphernalia shop for the state’s local HBCU Delaware State and beyond. D9 members from far and wide come to this Black woman-owned business that uses the help of her family to create custom pieces for the D9 community.

Elite Feet

Elite Feet is Delaware’s premiere footwear company, specializing in a unique shoe-fitting experience that pairs customers with the perfect pair of sneakers to live a more active and healthier lifestyle. Owned by the husband-and-wife team of Jason and Joy Hunt, the duo trained their staff in their “Elite Fit Process,” which helps educate customers on shoe fitting. Elite Feet’s use of the gait analysis system helps them choose the right shoe for walking, running, and organized sports backed by science. 

To complement a customer’s physical activity with improved nutrition, one of a few Black-owned specialty footwear companies also has an ISSA-certified Specialist in Fitness Nutrition on staff for assistance. Community-focused, Elite Feet enjoys taking their mobile store on the road to marathons or to give out free shoes to the homeless. To amplify other Black-owned businesses, the Hunts proudly sell accessories like anti-inflammatory ointment and bulletproof book bags designed by Black entrepreneurs.

EDUCATION

Books & Bagels

As conservative-led states around the country pass policies to ban and censor books written by or about members of the Black and LGBTQ+ community, businesses like Wilmington’s Books & Bagels represent the importance of Black-owned bookstores. This community-based bookstore sells books and food and serves as a safe space for after-school programs, book signings, or a peaceful reading session. This Black-woman-owned and operated bookstore puts the community at the forefront of its operation model with breakfast and dinner servings, an after-school program, free book offerings, and their bring a book take a book model. Owner Eleanor just wants her local community to read. Her decision to partner with the Black woman-owned food truck The Stand to offer food and beverage services to patrons highlights her drive to bring locals in and get them to stay. With food, good vibes, and a community feel, Books & Bagels has quickly become Wilmington’s new go-to neighborhood bookstore.

Network Connect

Network Connect is on a mission to create a brighter future for youth and families across Delaware and beyond. It was founded by Ciara Pickens-Hall, a mom, wife, and Wilmington native who felt compelled to launch an after-school program that works with schools and community members to help educate and uplift the local community. Her non-profit background aided her decision to return to her hometown and fill a void she noticed was impacting inner-city youth. To reverse the effects of trauma, Network Connect serves as a safe healing space with its programs implemented in eight schools throughout Delaware and counting. 

Programs include The Future Culture Creators Employment Program, which provides youth ages 14-19 enrolled in school with 12 weeks of training on workforce development, trauma-informed care, design thinking, financial literacy, and community engagement ahead of job placement. The Dual School Program offers a 12-week curriculum focused on social impact initiatives to inspire youth to be agents of change. The RACE to Wellness Campaign puts mental health at the forefront with programs that use the CDC’s six strategies to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Through Network Connects’ RACE Kits, students are provided with positive affirmations, stress balls, creativity books, and more to remind them of their worth and paths to greatness.

Code Differently

As more companies work to amplify diversity and inclusion in the workplace, Wilmington’s Code Differently is on a mission to prepare the next generation of diverse talent in tech. Through hands-on training and coding classes for youth to adults, Code Differently gives participants technical and cognitive abilities in technology-driven work environments. Founded by Stephanie Eldridge who used her years of work as an engineer to fill a void and feed the tech pipeline for diverse talent, she now serves as the only Black woman-owned tech company focused on tech workforce development in Delaware.

BEAUTY

Bitterfoxx

While many businesses struggled to survive the pandemic, the Black-owned beauty studio Bitterfoxx expanded to a bigger and better location in Wilmington’s Trolley Square. Owner India Brooks prides herself in the “professional, punctual, personable, and consistent” service she and her team provide to everyone who enters the posh hub. With high-grade waxing, brow, and makeup services and a line of pre and after-wax products, Bitterfoxx is successfully giving some bigger chain wax studios a run for their money.

FOOD

Greenbox Kitchen

There’s a growing Black vegan food scene that’s sweeping Wilmington and Greenbox Kitchen is among the restaurants leading the charge. Owned by Bronx native turned Wilmington local Jason Aviles, Greenbox has become a staple to the community with its award-winning fast-casual, plant-based menu and authentic approach to green eating. Its menu consists of signature smoothies, super fruit bowls, juices, and munchies like avocado toast, PB&J toast, Belgian waffles, and a chickpea tuna salad that will leave your mouth watering for more. With community at the forefront, Aviles uses Greenbox Kitchen to connect people to nourishing, delicious, nutrient-dense food and provide free meals to those in need.

“It was the people that kept us open,” Aviles tells BE. “And making smart business decisions.”

Even as Greenbox Kitchen thrives with patrons filling the restaurant during its Monday-Saturday operating hours of 8 A.M.-2 P.M., Aviles notes the barriers many Black business owners face in Wilmington due to the lack of owning the land they operate on. While it’s relatively easy to get financial support to open a brick-and-mortar in the city, Aviles is hoping to see more opportunities when it comes to infrastructure and development.

“The missing piece here is culture. Trying to convince the powers that be that this is where the market is going,” he says. “Supporting Black businesses shouldn’t just be a check in the box.”

Aviles is committed to guiding and supporting clean eating, health, and wellness. When he’s not running Greenbox Kitchen, he returns to his hometown of New York City to the Bronx and Harlem to teach kids meditation, mindfulness, and nutrition.

Connie’s Chicken & Waffles

What happens when two brothers leave their corporate jobs to combine IT and real estate skills? A soul food restaurant named after their mother is born. Connie’s Chicken & Waffles is the Black-owned chain restaurant dominating the restaurant food hall scene in their native Baltimore and neighboring Wilmington. With various delicious chicken and waffle combos and signature sauces, Shawn and Khari Parker enjoy incoporating customer ideas to add new menu options and keep patrons coming back for more. Combinations include the Oreo waffle with two pieces of chicken, the Red Velvet waffle with two chicken breast tenders, and the popular Crunchberry waffle with chicken. They are located in Wilmington, DE.CO food hall, Connie’s is constantly growing with three locations in Baltimore and one in Delaware, along with the Parker brothers’ pizza shop called Last Slyce.

“Wilmington is an emerging Black-owned food scene and that’s one of the amazing things we see when other Black-owned businesses pop up and grow,” Khari says while noting how “D.C. started the trend, then Baltimore, now Wilmington.”

The “We’re watching the growth of African Americans who are grabbing market share.”

Not bad for two Black restaurateurs who never saw themselves entering the food and beverage industry. Khari had taken time off from his IT job to write a book on personal finance and pursue his passions when he met with his brother Shawn, who worked in real estate, and decided they wanted to grab a bite to eat. With a craving for chicken and waffles, the brothers realized there weren’t any spots to satisfy their urge, so they sought to fill the void. Owning locations in food halls within predominantly Black communities, the Parker brothers pride themselves in the job and mentorship opportunities they offer local youth. They’ve hosted company trips to Miami and used their daily team meetings to inspire their staff to enter business and entrepreneurship. With a goal of franchising or licensing their growing eatery, the Parker brothers hire to motivate their team to be great and hopefully help bring Connie’s Chicken & Waffles to a city near you.

Oath ’84

If you’re spending time in Wilmington, there’s one question almost everyone will ask you. “Have you gone to Oath ’84?” In its two years of operation, Oath ’84 has become the go-to for those seeking an inviting, stylish, and sophisticated dining and drinking experience in Wilmington. The tapas-style menu offers tasty small plates of new American cuisine, expertly crafted cocktails, sports entertainment on flat-screen TVs, and cigars for those on the move. Founded by Wilmington native and sports fanatic Justin Womack, Oath represents truth and integrity, and ’84 is considered one of the best years in sports history.

Rooted AF

Going vegan isn’t for everyone. But veganism would be the standard way of life if all vegan food tasted how it does at Rooted AF. From mouth-watering empanadas to chopped cheese, tacos, loaded sweet potatoes, a jerk cheesesteak dubbed “The Pinky Cole,” Rooted AF has a taste and energy that will captivate your soul and leave you craving more. The popular vegan food spot was founded by Nikita Thomas, who birthed the restaurant to provide healthy food options without sacrificing flavor quality. Culture and natural herbs combine with Rooted’s traditional Spanish-style empanadas, New York-style chopped cheeseburgers, and hibiscus-rose tea. The empanadas are so good, that they’re even offered in local grocery stores.

She tells BLACK ENTERPRISE, “How do I create something that’s good but also good for you?” was Thomas’ thought process when she decided to start a business.

“My food is really good. My heart is really sincere. People can sense I’m doing something bigger than just the food,” Thomas says.

Word of mouth continues to be the source of Rooted AF’s success. But like many others, Thomas wonders if big businesses will continue to drive out Black-owned businesses and prevent them from achieving longevity. 

“I need to level up to owning the building,” she says.

Delectablez

An all-day vegan breakfast and lunch menu awaits at Delectablez in Wilmington’s DE.CO food hall. From soft and sultry house-made cakes to delicious dairy-free shakes and burgers, Delectablez will have you second-guessing why you have yet to go vegan. Founded by vegan chef Tamara Earl, Delectablez grew after selling small plates to salons and barbershops with her 1-year-old son in tow. After winning a pitch competition, Earl’s menu expanded from just a waffle to cakes and eventually, hot pockets, burgers, pizzas, and specialty wraps. Her vegan pizzas are also available in local ShopRite locations.

FUNDING/INFRASTRUCTURE

Speaking with these founders highlighted one of the biggest concerns facing Black business owners in Wilmington and across the country. While opportunities for funding and brick-and-mortar might be available, the lack of access to ownership of the land and infrastructure development can see a small Black-owned business close its doors so soon after launch.

The dark cloud lingering over the Black business ecosystem is an area Christopher “CJ” Bell aims to address as the Economic Development Director at the New Castle County Office of Economic Development (OED).  

“There’s so much to say on providing support to Black Business owners, commonly referred to as MBEs but I’ll highlight three key things our office is doing,” The Connect founder tells BE.

1) Lack of access to capital has been a common theme for far too long for minority-owned businesses. One way to address this – providing prize money for several pitch competitions that are designed for underserved populations (woman-owned, minority-owned, etc.) We have sponsored the top prize for both the Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce and New Castle County Chamber of Commerce pitch competitions. This provides minority businesses with the initial funding needed to grow and expand their business.

2) Secondly, Our Public Works Department conducted a disparity study that indicated low utilization of minority businesses in construction projects. In response, we have introduced a Small Business Enterprise (SBE) program which has several elements: hired an SBE consultant to validate our existing vendor database, increased our bid limits to match the state (which allows for more first-time companies to receive government contracts), and hired an SBE Program Coordinator. These initiatives will result in a significantly higher minority-business utilization rate in our government contracts and the number of minority-owned businesses eligible for various bids in government contracts.

3) NCC’s Economic and Community Development Committee found a common interest in revitalizing blighted neighborhoods hindered by substandard or deteriorating conditions. These commercial corridors reflect the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on underserved communities that were already disadvantaged before Covid-19. By creating a program designated to revitalizing targeted commercial corridors, we’ll be able to provide real-time relief to businesses that will thrive in better-supported environments.

With support from the local community and among the community of Black business owners, along with resources to help small businesses last and thrive from advocates on the government level, Wilmington’s Black business scene is alive and well and is available for residents and visitors from all backgrounds and walks of life. Whether you’re looking to retire in peace, relocate to a more budget-friendly city, or take a tour of Black business hub, Wilmington, Delaware, has you covered. 

RELATED CONTENT: Did You Know There Are More Than 3.6 Million Black-Owned Businesses In U.S.?

Source: Black Enterprise

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