Kelsey Jackson had a vision to open a soul food spot with true down-South cuisine. It took him 15 years, time he spent tucking away money he earned as a cook at Trump Marina Hotel Casino or by catering local events as the “King of the Grille.”
“If I failed, I wouldn’t owe anybody,” he said recently.
But eventually, Jackson was able to quit the casinos and launch three restaurants, Kelsey’s supper club in Atlantic City and two Kelsey and Kim’s Southern Cafes in Pleasantville and Atlantic City.
When Guy Fieri picked out the menu he wanted Kelsey Jackson to prepare for him for an upcomi…
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “Now all shapes of people from around the country visit my restaurant.”
Jackson is among many black entrepreneurs who have faced challenges that come with owning a business. Jackson likes to think that not only is he thriving, he is also paving the way for younger generations of entrepreneurs.
The number of black-owned firms in New Jersey rose 66 percent between 2002 and 2007, totaling 60,300 businesses in the state, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011. At the same time, the bureau also showed black business growth to 1.9 million firms in the country.
But not many can do what Jackson did, which was save enough to pay all of his start-up costs.
Getting access to money to start a business is one of biggest challenges business owners face, said John Harmon, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.
“People are turning to crowdfunding, which is raising money online through collective efforts from friends, family, customers. ... Seems to be the word of the day for business owners,” Harmon said.
Harmon said the overall growth of black-owned businesses has not kept pace with other business enterprises throughout New Jersey because more than 90 percent of New Jersey’s black businesses are sole proprietorships. Having partners in a business can make it easier to attract investment, he said.
“Most black businesses are first-generation and have no chamber relationships compared to the mainstream,” Harmon said.
The chamber’s main goal is to show resources and opportunities that will give black business owners sustainability.
Harmon believes the best strategy for black entrepreneurs is to forge partnerships with corporations, government, nonprofits and business organizations, but segregation and racism within businesses have affected, and continue to affect, the black community.
Take the the Public Religion Research Institute survey in June 2014, which found that one in 10 Americans believes small-business owners should be able to refuse service or do business with black customers.
Jackson said he serves white people at his Atlantic City restaurants occasionally. When he was located in Pleasantville, it was rare.
“Back then I was hesitant to send tourists to certain cities because there weren’t many places I could suggest in a safe area,” Jackson said. “That’s why I was so motivated to have multiple sites.”
Another local entrepreneur, attorney Richard Fauntleroy, opened a law firm in Pleasantville in 1984. He maxed-out three credit cards, but that was not his biggest challenge. Fauntleroy was often mistaken for a defendant by judges he appeared in front of.
“I’d be shocked if that were to happen nowadays,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done on stereotypes and biases, but I’ve been in this field a long time, and progress has been made.”
Eric Thomas, owner of Sunshine Dentistry in Cape May, has seen that progress within his business. Thomas purchased a 900-square-foot office in 1995, eventually extending it to 2,400 square feet. The dentist started planning in November for a new location on Route 9, making the office more visible from the main road.
It was 9:15 a.m. on a rainy Friday morning, with a northeaster on its way, but Dr. Eric Thom…
Thomas said that starting out, he had trouble getting funding from banks, but he thinks having an established business makes the process easier.
“It’s hard for young blacks — or any young person — to start a new business from scratch,” he said. “I wish banks were more understanding to that.”
Like many successful black entrepreneurs, Thomas, Fauntleroy and Jackson acknowledged that racism continues to pose a challenge to minorities who are simply trying to claim their slice of the American dream.
Yet they refuse to dwell on it.
“I’ve learned over the years that if color was an issue for patients, they just don’t bother coming. But for those that do come, I make sure to over-deliver,” Thomas said.
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