The Maloney brothers were worried. Two months into the pandemic lockdown, their South Bronx chocolate company was still taking online orders, but it was struggling, and they were discussing whether to dig into their savings.
Then the Black Lives Matter movement gained ground, with massive protests and wider recognition of racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd.
The company, Sol Cacao, appeared on a HuffPost list of Black-owned businesses to support in solidarity with the cause. Soon, well-known chocolatiers and Instagram accounts with as many as five million followers were sharing word of Sol Cacao, and sales increased by 20 to 30 percent – an unusual shift, given the difficulty of shipping chocolate during the summer.
The boost was repeated around the city, from Harlem to Brooklyn, as many Black-owned businesses found new and unexpected support – though not everyone benefited, and the long-term effect remains a question.
Daniel Maloney said that, for the first time since Sol Cacao had opened three years ago, he noticed businesses owned by people of color attracting active interest from investors.
“They know that, in order to support these communities, they’ve got to put the money back into them,” he said.
Maloney arrived in the United States from the Caribbean island of Trinidad when he was 5. Accustomed to a life of climbing coconut trees and picking mangoes, the brothers turned their love of sipping cocoa tea into a life of working with chocolate when they founded Sol Cacao, the first entirely Black family-owned chocolate factory in the U.S.
“No matter which walk of life you come from, you should be represented in the business world and should have that opportunity to grow your business and support your community in the way you know best,” he said.
Mark Pinn, who co-owns the Harlem gift shop NiLu, also felt a shift this summer after the boutique was listed on Beyonce.com, in a section of the singer’s site called “Black Parade.” It was among dozens of other Black-owned businesses, but the shout-out drew more people to the store’s stock of locally made goods, from candles to artwork to skincare products.
“People were coming into the store that didn’t even know we were in Harlem,” he said.
The uptick in business was much needed, and Pinn recognizes that not all Black business owners have had the same luck.
“So many people are affected by [COVID-19] and have died, but disproportionately, it’s people of color,” Pinn said. “That’s the same thing with small businesses. All businesses are struggling, but specifically, minority businesses in areas, such as Harlem, are decimated.”
Getting on a widely-shared list of Black-run businesses was, sometimes, a matter of chance.
“There was a lot, and it became overwhelming,” said Desiree Mullins, who assembled a list for a June 3 post on a friend’s food and lifestyle blog, “Dom N’ The City.”
Mullins chose 11 Black-owned Brooklyn businesses – including sellers of tea, wine, plants and essential oils – that she already knew about, whether through a chat with the owner, social media or her own shopping.
She often writes about small Black-owned businesses and interviews their owners for her personal blog, as well.
“There are people who don’t know that there are Black candlemakers, or who don’t know that Black people are selling prints of their art, and while it may sound like something that everyone should know, it’s not,” Mullins said.
Abraham Tekeste did not notice his family’s Harlem-based Ethiopian restaurant, Massawa, listed anywhere after Floyd’s death, but he saw a boost in takeout-and-delivery business during the summer. He said both the pandemic and the national outpouring of support for Black-owned businesses may have contributed.
“There was a sense of togetherness,” Tekeste said. “As a Black man, I understood the sympathy with what was going on. Enough is enough, and there just needs to be a sense of support. It was a rallying cry for all people, I felt.”
Kimberly Waters saw page views for her luxury fragrance site – Modern Urban Sensory Experiences, or MUSE – go from as few as one per day earlier in the year to hundreds in June. The highest was 718 views on June 9, after the Harlem business appeared on lists by sites like Popsugar and Yahoo!. Then, an Allure article in October about diversity within the fragrance industry got MUSE real traction, she said.
Waters worries that the torrent of support for the Black community will be short-lived. “What’s the sustainability of that theme? Is it here to stay, or it is kind of just a reaction to the times?” she asked.
The Sol Cacao chocolatiers received about 500 online orders in just one week in June, Maloney said. Although the volume isn’t as heavy today, daily orders have remained consistent in number, with most coming from new customers in states from Maine to Kansas to New Mexico.
A spike in business can test a company’s infrastructure, and shoppers should be patient, said Natalie Madeira Cofield, who founded the digital platform Walker’s Legacy to support businesswomen of color.
“You pray for a day like that,” Cofield said. “Then when it comes, it’s like, oh my god, do I have someone to ship these things off? How much time does that take? … I think many businesses were learning, again, about what it takes for their infrastructure to be where it can be and should be, for them to continue to operate at that level.”
Sharene Wood, president and CEO of the uptown boutique Harlem Haberdashery, said her company was shared on more than 20 lists of Black-owned businesses and gained hundreds of follows, likes and impressions from people across the country, leading to international inquiries and sales.
“I wish that buying Black, though, was not just tied to a protest, but rather a way of life and a way of commerce for a lot of people,” Wood said. “I’m hoping that the great recognition that has been given to a lot of Black-owned businesses during this really terrible time will be something that will become part of normal buying patterns, instead of just part of a protest.”