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May 1, 2021

Atlanta Business Chronicles – Westside entrepreneurs plan to expand after surviving pandemic

Marddy's founder Keitra Bates Standing in front of a mural

By Jessica Saunders  –  Senior Editor/Print, Atlanta Business Chronicle

Some of the entrepreneurs in historic Westside neighborhoods who survived the Covid-19 pandemic are making plans for expansion in 2021. These businesses endured the shutdowns by cutting back, taking advantage of burgeoning online sales, and utilizing loans and grants. This year, their owners are optimistic, laying plans for new partnerships, expansions and hiring.

Over the past 11 years, from FY2009 to FY2020, the Small Business Administration has made 312 loans totaling $197 million to small businesses in ZIP codes 30310, 30314 and 30318, which include the neighborhoods of English Avenue, Vine City, Ashview Heights, Atlanta University Center, Just Us and Booker T. Washington, SBA Georgia District Director Terri Denison said.

Those loans don’t include Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds, which were used to support businesses affected by the pandemic.

 Local Green Atlanta

One of the Westside businesses aided by the EIDL and PPP programs was restaurant Local Green Atlanta. Owner Zak Wallace knows personally the physical effects of a poor diet and carte-blanche lifestyle. That’s what’s behind his three-year-old restaurant — an attempt to redefine healthier eating.

After losing 70 pounds from a top weight of 304, the former songwriter and Sho’Nuff Records LLC label co-owner tried out low-cholesterol, high-fiber, high-protein recipes on family and friends. His menu was inspired by dishes he tried while traveling to cities like San Francisco, and incorporated ingredients like avocado, chia seeds and flax seeds.

He built a following through tastings with friends and family and by using social media, expanded to serving meals at a health center and bought a food truck, eventually signing on his own brick-and-mortar location at 19 Joseph E. Lowery Blvd NW. Local Green’s grand opening was in January 2019. It did nearly $600,000 in sales in the first year, Wallace said. He supported the growing business with standardization, costing out recipes, administrative and operating partner changes. It paid off in national exposure. “So we get all geared up and ready for 2020,” he said.  

When the pandemic hit, governments ordered most businesses to shut down and for restaurants to close dining rooms. Local Green followed suit, and sales dropped 80%, Wallace said. The restaurant let go of all hourly employees and kept salaried employees.

“We just said, ‘well look, we’re going to fight through it. We’re going to lose money, but we’re going to fight through it,’ ” he said.

Local Green’s team built an app and did a lot of curbside deliveries, and sales began heading up. The demonstrations that followed the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Ga., inspired “a wave of support for Black businesses and small local businesses,” Wallace said, and the restaurant saw an uptick in May and June, and regained momentum in the latter half of 2020. From an 80% decline in the first quarter, Local Green ended up with a 21% decline for the year compared to 2019, he said.

Local Green also took advantage of around five loan and grant programs offered to small businesses in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns, including the SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan, Invest Atlanta’s Business Continuity Loan Fund and its Resurgence Grant Fun, an Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative’s COVID-19 Small Business Relief Fund grant, a Village Micro Fund grant, and the federal CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program. Wallace was unsure of the total dollar amount of relief funding the restaurant received. Records show Local Green was approved for a PPP loan of $46,536.

The relief funding offset Local Green’s downturn in sales so it was able to retain employees and make investments to recover from the pandemic, Wallace said. He’s projecting to triple 2020 revenue — which was in the mid-$400,000s — in 2021.

Local Green now has roughly 20 employees, including operations, corporate staff and independent contractors, he said.

Local Green is planning to add outdoor dining at the restaurant, which along with the food truck and a ghost kitchen represent its three points of distribution, Wallace said. He’s also partnering with Chef Sammy Davis, founder of recently sold The Real Milk and Honey, on a split kitchen, or two restaurants in a single building, on Main Street in College Park.

Marddy’s

Marddy’s, a shared kitchen and collective catering business, was able to maintain its building at 1017 Fair St. SW in Ashview Heights through the pandemic with a grant and occasional business opportunities, said Keitra Bates, who with her husband Kevin Smith has owned Marddy’s since 2016. The idea was to give home cooks that sold pies informally in retail outlets on the Westside a commercial kitchen so that they could prepare products for more formal distribution channels.

“Nobody was really thinking about the people that sell pies in barbershops. No one was aware of them except for us,” Bates said. “And once you close down the places where these people interact with customers, they’re just gone and there’s no way for you to find them again, because they’re at their house and you don’t know where they live. I felt like Marddy’s was something that had to happen, you know?”

In 2021, the company is building out its online marketplace and helping its vendors create correct information for product marketing and labeling. It’s planning an expansion at the Pittsburg Yards development and the launch of a contactless mini-market. Bates is even considering bringing back the pizza from an earlier food venture, Westview Pizza.  

As of April 13, Bates was vetting more than two dozen new vendors seeking a commercial kitchen for preparing health-conscious and traditional foods, spices and sauces in order to select the next Marddy’s vendors. Marddy’s seeks to preserve and promote the culinary traditions of cultures from all over the world by giving Westside food makers a permanent place to prepare, market and sell their goods.

“Definitely you can expect to have Filipino food from Marddy’s, and you could expect to have Egyptian food from Marddy’s. We had a new vendor yesterday from Armenia. She and her partner make low-carb offerings,” Bates said. “I love things that have exotic spices. This is really how I live. And I’m really looking forward to sharing that with others.”

Marddy’s catering uses the products its vendors made and prepared meals from them. “It puts us in a position that one, we have an unlimited menu and grants exposure for our vendors to people that would never have encountered their food,” Bates said. “That’s one of the major ways that Marddy’s actually partners with our vendors, is helping them broaden their market share.” The name Marddy’s is short for “market buddies.”

The pandemic dried up catering work, Bates said. “That’s majorly how we make money outside our first clients, our vendors. If our vendors don’t have clients, then we don’t have clients,” she said, except for partner nonprofit organizations that want lunch. “But if there’s no conference, if there’s no meeting, there’s no need for lunch.” 

There was a four-week project in which Marddy’s chefs cooked family meals to aid local students who temporarily were not receiving meals at school during the first weeks of the shutdown. They used organic, local produce from an urban farm tended by students from Thomasville Heights Elementary and The Paideia School, and Black farmers. The project was funded through a private foundation, Bates said.

Bates declined to provide Marddy’s gross annual revenue. She began working on the concept while participating in a Village Micro Fund cohort at Morehouse College. She won a $10,000 grant from the Center for Civic Innovation during a Westside Future Fund pitch competition, most of which paid for research, she said. The couple used personal property as collateral for loans.

Marddy’s owes a great debt to the Westside Future Fund, she said. It was at a WFF biweekly summit, then in-person, where she met Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy and was able to ask him whether his company had any old but usable restaurant equipment it might donate to Marddy’s. All of the company’s refrigeration is from Chick-fil-A, she said.

The company also got help through a WFF connection from The Home Depot Inc. in evaluating its website and recommending changes, she said. A grant it received from the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, another WFF partner, helped sustain Marddy’s through the shutdown came. Bates declined to provide the grant amount.

Vendors that make products that can be used by home cooks have fared better than others, Bates said, because more people have been cooking at home. “Our vendors are starting to come back,” she said. “People have started coming to our website a lot more.”

Peters Street Station

Miya Bailey is the founder and owner of Peters Street Station, which provides resources, education and exposure to help independent artists show and sell their art. It’s located at 333 Peters St. in Castleberry Hill. Peters Street Station’s nine artists grossed about $500,000 in revenues from art services, including selling art online, last year, said Bailey, who is also a painter, illustrator, tattoo artist, art consultant and curator of the Peters Street Station art gallery. Like him, all the artists wear additional “hats” in the business, like scheduling and grounds maintenance. “There was no other way to do it,” he said. “A collective of artists working together to make money — someone’s going to have to do other jobs.”

Prior to Covid-19, Peters Street Station (PSS), in addition to selling art, made money hosting events and social gatherings and renting the space out to film companies, Bailey said. That stopped with the pandemic. PSS also includes a coffee bar, a pottery room, an art gallery and a private tattoo and art studio, some of which are small businesses that pay rent to Bailey for the space.

PSS is part of a complex of five buildings next door to each other on the same block that also house City of Ink LLC, a tattoo business Bailey owns with partner Chris Carter. The partners started putting the complex together about 15 years ago.

“City of Ink is the foundation. It started off everything else,” Bailey said.

He was able to buy the PSS building from a representative of the owner of The Goat Farm Arts Center community in West Midtown. The rep asked Bailey to use the space to do something art-based for the community. Bailey sold art for four years to fund construction, and closed on the building last year. On the ground floor, PSS is a community center with the gallery and brew bar, and on the second floor it connects local artists with work opportunities. “For example, if you’re looking for a photographer, a filmmaker, a graphic artist, a painter, an illustrator, you would come to Peters Street Station. We’ll hook you up. We’ve got in-house artists. Or we’ve also got a network of freelance artists, and we connect the jobs with the artists,” Bailey said.

Jobs run the gamut from painting wall murals to designing logos or interior design. “Anything art-related, we’ve got it covered on the visual side,” Bailey said.

The pandemic actually seemed to help business, he said, because it can be done remotely and usually is delivered by mail to clients anyway. There were “more people stuck at home, looking at the blank walls [thinking] ‘I’ve got to remodel my house. I’m stuck here for a couple of months. I’ve got to have some art,'” Bailey said. “We sell most of our artwork on social media, so we really didn’t have to do much different than we were already doing,” he said, other than cancelling events.

As far as pandemic business funding, Peters Street Station received $10,000 that didn’t have to be paid back from the government, Bailey said.

At the time of the interview April 12, Bailey was about to close on another building on the same block. He’s also looking to hire six more tattoo artists. Bailey plans a solo exhibit of his work in September at the PSS gallery.

Although he’s technically a landlord to artists, as well as an artist himself, Bailey doesn’t see it that way. He calls the community of artists “a family,” which operates in space he provides.

“I don’t get in any way. You rarely see me pop up,” he said. “Even though I’m an owner of this tattoo shop, you’re not going to see me there. I’m going to have someone else [who] can truly run that. And that’s creating jobs and opportunity for someone else. I don’t want to micromanage anybody.”

 Iwi Fresh

Iwi fresh Skin Farming in Castleberry Hill offers skincare products using handpicked fruits, vegetables and herbs from local Atlanta farms, as well as beauty treatments including manicures, pedicures, facials and massages using the Skin Farming products at iwi fresh Skin Farming Spa, said owner and founder Yolanda Owens. The beauty products are sold online, on site and at Whole Foods Markets in Atlanta.

Iwi fresh spa had to close for four months during the pandemic, she said. When it reopened, it limited the number of clients served to allow for social distancing and time to sanitize between appointments.

Invest Atlanta provided assistance during the pandemic and iwi fresh was approved for PPP funds by a small local bank, Owens said. Records show iwi Fresh LLC received three PPP loans totaling $170,730. Owens is planning to launch the iwi fresh franchise company in June 2021.

Small business lending in historic Westside Atlanta

U.S. Small Business Administration 7(a) and 504 loans approved in ZIP codes 30310, 30314, 30318 (which include the English Avenue, Vine City, Ashview Heights, Atlanta University Center, Just Us and Booker T. Washington neighborhoods):

FY 2009 – FY 2020 (Oct. 1, 2008 – Sept. 30, 2020)

Number of Loans Total $ Volume

312 $197,285,600

FY 2016 – FY 2020 (Oct. 1, 2015 – Sept. 30, 2020)

Number of Loans Total $ Volume

154 $100,988,900

Source: Small Business Administration Georgia District

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