Charlotte's Black-Owned Businesses Get Creative to Stay Afloat During COVID-19 Pandemic
It's the lunch rush at Cuzzo’s Cuisine.
Staff behind the counter call out orders and the cooks respond, ringing a bell to signal each new order.
Smells of fried fish fill the air as smooth jazz flows from the speakers.
The crowds are back at Cuzzo’s. But owner Andarrio Johnson says that when restaurants were ordered to shut down in March, he had to pivot and focus on his food truck.
“We wound up going to neighborhoods and residential areas, apartment complexes and going to the people when they was home during the pandemic,” he said.
His restaurant sits in the West End. It’s one of the oldest Black communities in Charlotte, but gentrification is changing how it looks and who lives there.
Johnson C. Smith University archivist Brandon Lunsford says the community was once full of Black-owned businesses like barbershops, nightclubs and restaurants.
“Black families started moving here because the culture of the university, and the intellectual environment," Lunsford said. "In the McCrorey neighborhood, there were Black doctors, principals, ministers, lawyers, dentists, doctors. I mean, it was middle-class families at a time when that just wasn't really the common thing to happen.”
Although the community is changing, Black entrepreneurs such as Johnson remain hopeful that it’ll bring more business.
In the meantime, businesses like Johnson's will have to survive the impact of COVID-19 while they wait for that expected growth. The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a blow to Black and Latino business owners across the country. A Stanford University study found that 32% of Latino-owned businesses and 41% of Black-owned businesses across the country vanished between February and April 2020. That’s compared to 17% of white-owned business.
Johnson applied for federal relief with the Paycheck Protection Program but was denied. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce estimates about 10-15% of Charlotte’s Black-owned businesses landed a PPP loan during the first round.
One barrier was the lack of a banking relationship. The New York Federal Reserve surveyed small businesses around the country last year and found fewer than one in four Black-owned businesses had a recent lending relationship with a bank.
“If you are a larger company, you probably already had a banking relationship. You probably already had your financial documents ready. The banker may even have called you and said, 'Hey, this thing's coming,'” said Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce Director Shanté Williams.
A lot of Black businesses are also considered microbusinesses with 70% across the country having fewer than five employees.
“If you're a microbusiness trying to play in the small business pool, you get drowned out very quickly. And that's exactly what we saw with the PPP loans,” Williams said.
To keep their businesses running, Williams says a lot of owners in Charlotte sold equipment, got other jobs, or a “side hustle,” or used money they had been saving for years.
This was the case for Blaq Lyte Tattoos owner Lamont Love. When he closed his doors during the shutdown in March, he relied on savings to stay afloat.
“I'm pretty decent with money, you know," he said. "We weren’t hurting. I mean you know, I was prepared.”
Love reopened in May, with safety measures in place and by appointment only. Since reopening, he says business has picked up significantly. Both Love and restaurant owner Andarrio Johnson are focusing on making money right now in case there’s another shutdown.
Note: Shanté Williams has been a member of WFAE's Community Advisory Board since 2019.