Terrell Smith’s livelihood — his dream — was put in peril by COVID-19.
Smith has co-owned Gentlemen Cuts on St. Paul’s East Side since 2016, but didn’t have much for savings when the pandemic hit. He said the barbershop, which is situated on Payne Avenue north of Phalen Boulevard, did not qualify for emergency relief funds through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Smith, who was drowning in bills, relied on his wife of 20 years and her job as a chemical-dependency counselor to keep the barbershop from going under.
“I had to sit home,” Smith, 49, said last week, “and my wife helped take care of me. I did a couple basement cuts, but I didn’t like bringing people into my house because of COVID.”
Even when the barbershop was given the green light by state health officials to reopen in a reduced capacity after the initial shutdown, Smith said, many customers did not return.
This month, he was given a lifeline.
Smith was in the barbershop when he took a call from a producer of the Deluxe Corp. reality TV series “Small Business Revolution,” telling him that Gentlemen Cuts is among six Black-owned businesses in the Twin Cities — three from St. Paul, three from Minneapolis — picked to be featured in the show’s sixth season.
Last month, Shoreview-based Deluxe Corp. announced that the show will be centered on the Twin Cities, bringing money and advice from the company’s business and marketing teams to one small business in six neighborhoods — all while highlighting their stories.
“When I got that call, I was sitting in this barbershop and I went into the back and kind of told all the barbers what was going on,” Smith said. “I put it on speaker and (the producer) said to sit down. She said that we actually made it. I’m hollering, ‘Yeah! Thank you so much!’ It was just a wonderful experience, because I’ve watched a couple episodes and have seen what they do. So I was like, ‘Wow … that would be so nice over here on the East Side of St. Paul.’ ”
Deluxe Corp. recently announced that “Small Business Revolution” will also help out and feature these small businesses:
- Elsa’s House of Sleep, a furniture store on University Avenue in St. Paul’s Midway area that was started in 1997 as a mattress store by Elsa Rezene, who emigrated from Eritrea, Africa. It is now owned by her son, Tetra Constantino.
- Taste of Rondo Bar & Grill, which opened last July on Concordia Avenue, just south of Interstate 94 and a few blocks east of Lexington Parkway.
- Lip Esteem, a plant-based, cruelty-free, paraben-free and gluten-free cosmetic line that 45-year-old Tameka Jones, a St. Paul native, launched last year online and as a vendor at the farmers’ market on Lake Street in South Minneapolis.
- Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a South Minneapolis-based newspaper that was founded in 1934 by Cecil E. Newman. It is the oldest Black-owned newspaper in Minnesota. Tracey Williams-Dillard, Newman’s granddaughter, is the publisher.
- Sammy’s Avenue Eatery, a sandwich and coffee cafe that owner Sammy McDowell opened on West Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis in 2012 after spending nearly 25 years working in the hospitality industry.
One business and its neighborhood will be featured in one episode of the show, which airs on Hulu, Amazon Prime and at SmallBusinessRevolution.org. Filming begins this week.
A CALL TO ACTION
Focusing on neighborhoods within two big cities is a change from past seasons, which were centered on small towns.
Amanda Brinkman, who is Deluxe Corp.’s chief brand and content officer and the creator and co-host of the series, said that Deluxe chose the Twin Cities in part because of George Floyd’s death. She said it caused people to recognize that there are many things society needs to do to address racial injustice. Economic empowerment and investing in entrepreneurs of color is one way, she said.
Community leaders from St. Paul and Minneapolis helped nominate nearly 100 small businesses from six neighborhoods — Rondo, St. Paul’s East Side, Midway, South Minneapolis, Lake Street and West Broadway.
Business owners had two weeks to submit an application, which asked what inspired them to start their business and where and how they face challenges. They were also asked what they love most about their neighborhoods.
Brinkman said selecting the businesses was a difficult challenge. During the process, she was joined by community leaders and Deluxe employees representing the company’s African American Employee Resource Group. It included a round of video interviews.
“We’re always looking for how the impact carries beyond just the success of that business,” said Brinkman, a Minnesota native who grew up in Mounds View and Circle Pines. “The program reaches millions of small businesses facing similar challenges across the country. In this way, we can support not just a local community, but also have national impact.”
Baron Davis, retired NBA star, TNT commentator and entrepreneur, will join Brinkman as co-host. Cheryl Mayberry-McKissack, Deluxe board chair and one of only a handful of Black female chairs of a Fortune 1000 company, will also provide business advice.
BARELY HANGING ON
Charles Carter can relate to Smith’s struggles over the past year, and the sudden excitement that came with being picked for the show.
The pandemic has hit Carter’s business hard. The 53-year-old launched Taste of Rondo Bar & Grill in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood on July 5, four months later than he had initially planned and with takeout only.
“It’s killing it,” Carter said of the pandemic. “We’re barely even hanging on, to be honest. It’s tough. You can have a beautiful establishment, but if people won’t come out and eat because they’re afraid of the pandemic, it’s just like having a Corvette and you can’t buy gas.”
Like Smith from Gentlemen Cuts, Carter said he looks forward to the marketing help from the Deluxe team and also the exposure from being on the show.
“It’s a blessing to have someone to pick you up during a time like this,” he said. “That could be worth gold, just to have someone to put your name out there.”
Carter and a business partner bought the Taste of Rondo building, which was the former Attucks-Brooks American Legion Post 606, in 2012, saving it from being razed. It had been the only African-American legion in the city.
“I always wanted to turn this place into a restaurant, a gathering place for the community, because the city wanted to bulldoze it,” said Carter, whose other job is working for Catholic Cemeteries. “But I wanted to hold onto it because it’s the only piece of history left since the freeway.”
Carter said he wants the restaurant to serve as a sign of hope for the once vibrant and vital Rondo neighborhood that was devastated by the construction of Interstate 94 during the 1950s and ’60s, and more recently the death of Floyd in Minneapolis.
Carter learned to cook from his grandmother and mother while growing up in the southern United States. He said he looks forward to having more people try the soul-food staples the restaurant is serving, like catfish, shrimp and grits, fried chicken, shrimp etouffee and corn bread made from house-ground cornmeal.
“This is what I grew up on,” he said. “This is what America grew up on. It’s not just bringing back Rondo, but it’s bringing back the soul to all Americans.”
DEVELOPING A PLAN
At Elsa’s House of Sleep, the marketing team from Deluxe and its partners plan to focus on rebooting the St. Paul furniture store with branding, marketing and tech solutions to help the business better compete against online rivals.
For several days last May, following Floyd’s death, owner Tetra Constantino, 42, was among other Black business owners near the University-Snelling intersection who stayed out all night guarding their businesses, hoping to prevent damage. Neighbors came to help board up the storefront.
“As far as the show, we’re really looking to highlight our store and how we really are different from other stores out there,” said Constantino, who has 12 employees. “My mom started this business in 1997, and she always said to have the best customer service and be community-minded and focused. We employ diverse people from all backgrounds. We pay livable wages. And our company reflects the communities that we serve.”
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