Austin is sometimes deemed a food desert, where fast-food chains take up more real estate space than supermarkets. But that’s not why Rev. Bobby Butts opened Our Community Mart grocery store last month.
The store, located at 205 S. Cicero Ave., sells a variety of canned and dry goods. But Butts’ decision to open the store was based on the simple economic premise that blacks must control their own communities.
“Every nationality of people seemed to control the retail business in our community,” said Butts, pastor of New Philadelphia Christian Ministries, which is located a few doors from the store. “I didn’t see any reason why they should, and we couldn’t.”
Taking a leap of faith, Butts asked his church members to pool their resources to buy several storefronts in the 200 block of South Cicero. As a minister, Butts often preaches about black economic development. He said if churches are truly here to help the community, they must do more than collect tithes. They must also create businesses and jobs.
“The Church of God in Christ by nature is a church of holiness, and we believe you can be holy and an entrepreneur at the same time. It’s not one or the other,” said Butts, who as a high school dropout got his start at a black-owned grocery store on the West Side in the 1970s.
About 10 other church members vowed to put away $100 a month to raise seed money to buy three buildings, some of which were dilapidated and used as drug havens. Eight years later, they raised enough cash and approached the owners to buy the buildings situated on six lots that stretch from the alley to Adams Street.
Opened about a month, Butts said he wanted the store to be an asset to the neighborhood and decided not to sell cigarettes or liquor. The store, he added, has been well received by the community.
“I wanted to create a different atmosphere,” said Butts, who plans to stock other black vendors’ food products into the store. “We don’t have any bulletproof glass because when people come in, that gives them a certain sense of trust.”
Initially, Butts said the grocery store was to be a revenue source to help pay to rehab the other buildings since bank financing was hard to come by. But the store evolved into an entrepreneur training program for the church’s youth, many of whom invested in the project.
The store employs six youth who are learning the ins-and-outs of the grocery business, including how to price inventory and how to use demographics to stock merchandise. “And most of all, how to keep count of that money,” Butts quipped.
The idea, he said, is about empowering youth to take control of their community’s economics and giving them freedom to brainstorm business ideas. Butts said he does not plan to rent the retail space out, but to create incubators for youth to develop their business ventures. Young people should have the opportunity and the choice to be employers rather than employees, added Butts, who operates a funeral home with his wife, Dorla, and also a construction business.
For two young investors, co-owning the store was a life-changing opportunity. Nicholas Butts, Rev. Butts’ nephew, jumped at the chance to become an entrepreneur. It was a far cry from the road he was on while living in Rockwell Gardens. But the 24-year-old said strong role models like his uncle put him on the straight path. Now he wants to be that example to other men to show them “they have a responsibility to their communities.”
Shana Williford, a Triton College graduate, wants youth to see that they don’t have to be 30 or 40 years old to own a business. The 24-year-old added that owning a business is better than “selling drugs or demeaning their bodies.”
“It gives a different outlook on life,” she said.
Rev. Butts agreed. He too has had several brushes with the law and was incarcerated at one point before being ordained a minister in 1996. Butts said he used to gangbang and experimented with drugs, but he added one’s past shouldn’t define or limit you.
“The thing I want to do is to show these kids that although you have had something in your past, you can still have a bright future,” he said.