Behind a glass window papered over with a “coming soon” sign, ice cream entrepreneur Nicole Foster chatted with Lynnette Dodson, a fellow business owner who is preparing to open a tea house next door. Outside the new businesses, a planter with tropical palms and yellow bistro set on the sidewalk signal changes underway.
This Saturday, Foster and her husband will open Cajou Creamery, the first brick-and-mortar shop for their line of plant-based ice creams. Cajou will be joined soon by Dodson’s Cuples Tea House, as well as a juice bar and a spa and skincare store. A gym will offer personal training across the street. All are owned by Black women, all are dedicated to health and wellness, and all are on a single block of Howard Street in Baltimore’s Market Center-Bromo Arts District.
The arrival of the new business is the latest sign of rejuvenation for a gritty thoroughfare dominated by vacant, historic structures and streetcar tracks. Advocates hope it will be a model for how groups can support Black-owned businesses and revitalize neighborhoods in the same breath.
When Lynnette and Eric Dodson, owners of the tea shop, tell their friends that they’re opening on Howard Street, the response from many is: “Have you lost your mind?”
To be sure, the location itself poses challenges, given a lack of foot traffic — several buildings are boarded up — and a shortage of parking. The block is bisected by the light rail, which regularly chugs down Howard Street. Lynnette Dodson said she’s been annoyed to find trash in the planters she carefully positioned outside her tea shop. As in other parts of the city, rats have been a problem here, too, eating holes into the tree wells along the sidewalk.
Still, the couple and business partners, both Baltimore natives, remember when Howard Street was a thriving downtown hub and commercial center, decades ago. They hold out hope that the arrival of the new businesses marks what Lynnette called the “second coming of Howard Street.”
A contest was the impetus for growth. In 2019, the local development firm Poverni Sheikh Group launched a storefront competition with the promise of a year of free rent. Winners included Foster and her husband, whose ice cream shop is opening at 411 Howard St. Cuples Tea House was the other contest winner, clinching the space at 409 N. Howard.
That competition was a model for how the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore developed its Downtown BOOST, or Black-Owned and Occupied Storefront Tenancy program. It will offer Black-owned businesses $50,000 each to help renovate a vacant storefront space.
Foster said the appeal of the 400 block of N. Howard Street wasn’t just about the free rent.
“We could have paid a lot of money to rent a space in a predominantly white area,” she said.
In moving to an underserved neighborhood, surrounded by fellow Black business owners, Foster said, “we’re embracing our culture and we feel immense pride in doing that.”
On the verge of opening Cajou Creamery, Foster sees the business sharing in a legacy of Black commerce dating back generations. She points to the history of Black Wall Street, a successful Black business community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed by white mobs in the 1920s. Today, she said, Black Americans are making concerted efforts to “buy Black, buy small,” she said, and to keep Black dollars circulating in Black communities.
“There’s a sense of solidarity among Black people,” she said.
A former criminal defense attorney and prosecutor by trade, Foster and her husband, Dwight Campbell, started their business in 2015 after struggling to find a nondairy ice cream for their son, who can’t consume milk. Over the years, they’ve expanded operations and now sell pints at area farmer’s markets and local grocery stores.
While the pandemic hit Black-owned businesses harder than their white-owned counterparts, the past year has also seen a historic uptick in the number of Black entrepreneurs. The Kauffman Foundation’s annual study found a surge in Black entrepreneurship, driven, in part, by pandemic-related job losses.
Downtown Baltimore is attracting other Black-owned businesses like T-shirt company Mess in a Bottle and hot dog company Sporty Dog Creations. When the redesigned Lexington Market opens to the public next year, its developers say it will include more Black-owned businesses than ever before.
Businesses led by Black women in particular are among the fastest growing in the country, said Larry Ivory, chairman of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. In supporting those companies, he said, civic leaders can help repair generations of inequities, creating sources of wealth and employment in underinvested communities.
“It’s in America’s best interest to take a look at those who have been left out of the economic process and address those in a systematic way,” Ivory said.
But Ivory cautioned that the number of businesses doesn’t necessarily translate into success: The average revenue of a Black-owned business is a fraction of its counterparts. In supporting Black entrepreneurs, local leaders need to also “create sustainable businesses that grow and prosper,” he said. “We must be intentional about doing business with Black people, quite frankly.”
How to create new streams of revenue is at the forefront of the Howard Street business owners’ minds. As they’ve scrambled through the lengthy process of getting needed permits and watching construction begin on their spaces, they’ve also found strength and support in sharing knowledge with one another.
“All of us, pretty much, didn’t know what we were doing,” when they were starting out, said Takira Bullock, who will open her Unique Beauty Blends just north of Cajou Creamery.
The first-time business owner, who also sells her products online, questioned whether she was qualified to open a retail space. But she gained confidence in hearing from peers going through the same struggles.
“It encouraged me to keep going,” she said.
When it opens, Bullock’s space will include a retail store and spa offering special services for Black skin. Black women, in particular, have unique skin concerns that are often not addressed by the European-centric beauty industry.
“We have these stores everywhere else. It’s really needed here in the city,” she said.
Mekole Wells, who is opening a gym on the block called Memphis 40/50 Fit, said that Black communities need the services that the businesses on Howard Street provide.
“When we hear ‘fitness,’ we don’t think we’re included,” she said.
A street like the 400 block of Howard, with so many health-oriented businesses, Wells said, “is something we don’t have in communities of color.”
Her business was born from her own health struggles: at 35, she had heart bypass surgery. She weighed more than 200 pounds — overweight for her 5-foot-2-inch frame. Through a combination of exercise and a strict no-sugar diet, she lost more than 100 pounds over a period of a few years. She encourages clients by telling them: “Baby, I know what it is to be the big girl.”
In recent months, she has struck up a friendship with Dominique Allen, owner of Vegan Juiceology, which also is opening on the block. The two began training in the gym together a few months ago, and Wells has enjoyed drinking Allen’s hand-pressed beverages.
“Her juices are perfect,” Wells said.
She and Allen even came up with a new name for the block: Healthy Howard Row.