Jermaine Richardson, chef and owner of Spirit and Soul Catering, grew up in Austin and had long dreamed of creating a safe space in the community for his neighbors.
Because of a grant from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, Richardson will now have the chance to make Austin the location for his company and achieve his goal of creating a safe haven in the community.
“It is important for me to establish a business in a community that needs it like Austin, especially putting a black business in a black community,” Richardson said. “I am someone who has come from and understands [that] area. It is an opportunity to reach back and bring somebody else up.”
Richardson’s contemporary soul food business was one of six in Austin to be awarded a grant in the fourth rounding of funding. In all, 15 Austin-based businesses have been granted a total of $1.3 million in funding through the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund since 2017.
Richardson said the $41,295 grant will enable him to give his company a home. He’ll also use the grant to buy equipment needed to run Spirit and Soul Catering. He applied for the grant after completing an entrepreneurship program through Bethel New Life.
Along with Spirit and Soul Catering, other Austin businesses awarded grants this year are: D.G. Deli and Produce Market, Melvina Masterminds, The Jumper Store, Avenue Dogs and The Lighthouse Cafe.
“This gives small businesses the chance to get started and get their vision properly funded and moving forward, which is so needed for the Austin community,” said Latoya Pinson, owner of The Lighthouse Cafe.
Pinson, a stay-at-home mother, said she is honored to represent Austin with her business and appreciates the $29,425 grant, which will be used to make renovations this summer. She plans to change the overall look of the space with new counters, lights and updated plumbing.
The Lighthouse Cafe, 524 S. Laramie Ave., will be a community coffee shop with espresso, fresh smoothies and pastries and will partner with other vendors to offer grab-and-go food.
“Being a community member and a resident of Austin I ask myself, ‘What can I do to help the community?'” Pinson said. “Personally, the grant is helping me bring value to the community, to serve people better, to show people we have a beautiful community.
“Having this grant really helps take a load off,” she said, adding it helps business owners who don’t normally have access to capital.
Pinson said she learned about the city funding in 2018 while researching grants to get her business started. She spent a year preparing a business plan so she could apply for the grant this year.
“The Neighborhood Opportunity Fund needs to continue,” said Malcolm Crawford, who operates Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center and serves as executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association.
Crawford received $51,350 in funding for his Avenue Dogs, 5845 W. Chicago Ave., which will offer a variety of healthier beef and turkey products. The grant money will go toward outdoor sitting and an eating area, which Crawford said is rare in Austin.
He said the Neighborhood Opportunity program is a great program, but that it could improve by partnering with the city’s Retail Thrive Zone and targeting specific areas.
“I want to showcase the best of this community,” Crawford said.
Kevin Bargnes, information coordinator for Chicago Department of Planning and Development, said the businesses and groups are chosen based on their plans to provide catalytic impact to a community or commercial corridor.
The city considers four key factors: how the project makes a difference in building a stronger community, if it builds community wealth, how it defines and measures success, and whether the project is feasible and has a clear path to implementation.
Bargnes said applicants can request any amount of money up to $250,000, but there are limits based on total project cost. New construction projects are eligible for up to 30 percent of total project cost, and rehabilitation projects are eligible for up to 50 percent of total project cost. Those amounts can increase up to 15 percent if the business owner lives in, or plans to hire employees who live in, the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund eligible area.