SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Many Black-owned businesses, especially smaller ones, are struggling during the pandemic. But Atlanta food entrepreneur Keitra Bates is getting creative. NPR has been following Bates as part of our Kitchen Table Conversations, which started four years ago. Back then, she was launching a new business. Now she's looking to expand. NPR's Debbie Elliott has her story.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: When I first met Keitra Bates in early 2017, she was peering through iron bars into a dilapidated building she was trying to buy in a long-neglected neighborhood.
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KEITRA BATES: Here's my dream come true.
ELLIOTT: Now she's across town, showing me a gleaming new retail space with floor-to-ceiling windows facing a bucolic green space.
BATES: Come inside. Right now, we're looking at almost 2,000 square feet of raw space. It has original beam work...
ELLIOTT: It's twice the size of the Fair Street location where Bates first opened Marddy's, short for Market Buddies. It's a shared commercial kitchen where home cooks can prepare their goods and collectively market them.
Bates is now planning to open a second Marddy's in this new development called Pittsburgh Yards, situated on Atlanta's popular BeltLine, railways converted to trails and parks encircling the city. Bates says it's a big step.
BATES: Operating on Fair Street is a bit different than operating here, where everybody's looking. You know, like, literally there's no hiding. You know, everything that we say that we are, people can kind of peek in and see, like, are they really making those pies? Yeah, we're really making the pies (laughter).
ELLIOTT: Black-owned small businesses have long faced difficult odds, whether it's access to financial capital or discrimination in contracting. Now the pandemic has hit them the hardest, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that Black businesses closed at more than twice the rate of white-owned businesses in early 2020.
Pittsburgh Yards is specifically designed to address obstacles facing Black entrepreneurs. The public-private project converted an old transportation hub into shared working space. The idea is to create an affordable environment for African American businesses to nurture one another, says Erika Smith with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which also sponsors NPR. Smith says Atlanta's BeltLine is an economic generator but has also fueled gentrification, pricing out Black-owned businesses.
ERIKA SMITH: So part of the strategy is, how can we leverage a physical space like Pittsburgh Yards to also satisfy that business displacement issue?
ELLIOTT: That's Keitra Bates' story. She ran a pizzeria in West Atlanta until revitalization priced her out. And she saw other Black-owned businesses closing as rents went up. That shut off venues where local home cooks could sell their breads, sauces and pies. She calls them hidden entrepreneurs in danger of being ghosted along with the traditional flavors of the neighborhood. Here's Bates from 2019.
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BATES: These people have created a business with their talents, and they have a right to survive. Just because, you know, there's new money coming in doesn't mean that their business should get snuffed out.
ELLIOTT: Bates, who is 47, has worked to grow a catering business, aggregating the products her vendors make. About a dozen now use Marddy's shared kitchen.
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ELLIOTT: Bates takes me by on an afternoon when workers are pressing pineapple chunks through a commercial juicing machine, bottles set up in an assembly line on a stainless steel work table.
BATES: I'm going to introduce you to Gigi who's our vendor who's working right now. She owns a company called Juiced Up.
ELLIOTT: Gigi is Georgette Reynolds.
GEORGETTE REYNOLDS: Everyone calls me Gigi or the Juice Lady.
ELLIOTT: Reynolds started making healthy juices to help her ailing father and autistic son. But soon, her gym partners were placing orders. As word of mouth spread, she couldn't keep up with demand. Now Marddy's gives her that capacity.
REYNOLDS: So being able to have the space when I need to fill these orders is a big help.
ELLIOTT: It also allows for the flexibility she needs to care for her 7-year-old son, who is learning to press juice.
REYNOLDS: And he loves the juicing and the sound and the cause and the effect of the process.
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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Have you ever been juiced up?
REYNOLDS: He's my best salesman. He's always asking people, have you been juiced up? Have you been up?
ELLIOTT: Like Reynolds, Keitra Bates is also a mother. She and her husband, Kevin, a graphic artist and music producer, have five kids. She says she wants to show them what's possible.
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ELLIOTT: Sitting outside the original Marddy's, she reflects on the ups and downs of the last year. During shelter in place, she says, things were tense. Business came to an abrupt halt. Then opportunity surfaced when she teamed with an urban farmer to have her vendors make meals for hungry students and their families using food grown and harvested by the kids. Bates says that was a full circle moment for the business, underscoring how much entrepreneurs need one another.
BATES: This place is proof. You can save yourself.
ELLIOTT: She's been able to tap institutional and corporate resources as well. In addition to opening a second location, she's working to place Marddy's fresh food vending machines around town. Bates says with the pandemic and the broader push for racial justice, people are more deliberate about how they spend their money.
BATES: People who are changing their habits in their decision-making, that's real change to me.
ELLIOTT: The past year has also seen Bates and her co-worker Timothy Dobbins survive an attempted carjacking and shooting as they were heading out on a catering job. It was traumatic, she says. Yet, after they filed the police report, they didn't go home.
BATES: We still had an order to deliver.
ELLIOTT: It's something she's been analyzing a lot.
BATES: This is what it's like to be Black in America. It's this moment where I felt compelled to finish the job because I had already started it. And what's going to happen if I go home and cry? I think so many of us think this way. I know for sure my grandmother thought this way - that we don't have the luxury to fall apart.
ELLIOTT: Bates says she's trying to grant herself a little more grace these days, even as she works to grow her small business.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Atlanta.
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