McAuliffe Focuses on Needs of Black Businesses, How to Help Them

By Brandon Carwile
March 3, 2021

Former governor discussed the problems with Mama J’s owner Lester Johnson on Facebook Live.

RICHMOND-Nothing could prepare Mama J’s for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Richmond-based soul food eatery took a hit when the doors closed.

“Operating a business from a black standpoint has challenges already, and then this challenge was the opposite of a cherry on top,” said Mama J’s owner Lester Johnson.

When the country essentially shut down last March, Mama J’s transitioned to primarily a to-go and takeout restaurant. It was a relatively swift transition seeing that takeout was already a part of their business model. However, doing it full-time required changes to their menu to make it more to-go friendly.

In July, Mama J’s shut down briefly after a staff member contracted the virus. They remained closed for nine days before re-opening.

Even though Governor Northam has since allowed residents to return to restaurants in a limited capacity, Mama J’s hasn’t changed their policies.

“To this day, we’re still doing to-go and takeout only,” Johnson stated. He called it a personal choice to maintain a takeout business model for the health and safety of staff and the customers.

Right now, Mama J’s is stable, but the struggle is still very real for other minority business owners. Johnson has seen friends and surrounding businesses close their doors from the pandemic.

“COVID has negatively affected black and brown communities worse than other communities,” said Johnson.

That’s where Terry McAuliffe believes his plan could make a difference.

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Black Businesses Take a Hit

The former Virginia governor, who’s running for another term, spoke with Johnson Feb. 27 over Facebook Live.  The two discussed how the pandemic impacted the restaurant industry and black-owned businesses in particular.

Black-owned companies experienced the brunt the COVID-19 pandemic has had on small businesses. An H & R Block survey from February found 53% of Black business owners saw revenue drop by half. Only 37% of White business owners reported the same.

McAuliffe believes part of the solution is offering more state assistance to small businesses, and specifically minority businesses.

“You think of COVID and what everybody’s been through, and you look at the small businesses of the black and brown communities, they have absolutely been decimated,” said McAuliffe.

When the economy opened back up last year, either you could adhere to the guidelines or you were facing the possibility of going under. Some business owners chose to shut down completely. Those who tried to weather the storm saw a substantial loss in revenue. Those who never recovered closed for good.

A significant number of Black-owned businesses didn’t make it. A Main Street Alliance survey from Oct. 2020 found by that point, only 40% of Black-owned businesses had remained open since the pandemic started.

The discourse regarding what needs to be done to help small businesses is well underway. For instance, the CARES Act was put in place to provide relief to struggling businesses.  Last October, Governor Ralph Northam directed $30 million and another $20 million in December to be allocated towards the CARES Act so the program could be expanded.

However, there may need to be a more sustainable process moving forward. Currently, the conversation about what needs to be done for continued relief is ongoing.

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McAuliffe Offers a Different Option

The former governor hopes the downfall COVID created can be an opportunity to have a more open economy. McAuliffe envisions a more adaptable economy that is more inclusive to minority-owned businesses.

When McAuliffe served as Virginia’s governor from 2014-2018, he said he prioritized state funding for minority businesses. He believes if all levels of government did the same, it would have a profound impact on the economy.

McAuliffe asked Johnson if there were any changes he would make if he were governor. Johnson responded by saying small businesses need more access to financial capital. Businesses would be able to grow and flourish without having to cut corners.  

McAuliffe agreed more funding should come from federal, state, and local governments to support local businesses.

“They are the economic engines for us,” he said.

As it stands right now, the avenues for relief in Richmond are sparse. The city provides some assistance through the Office of Minority Business Development. Richmond Region Tourism also provides help for minority and women-owned businesses.

Other than that, Johnson and other minority business owners have taken it upon themselves to help others. Richmond Black Restaurant Experience begins March 7 and lasts until March 14. For the entire week, black-owned restaurants in the Richmond area will be promoted with the goal of gaining exposure.  

It’s a chance to highlight the little guy who is often overlooked when funding is handed down.

Brandon Carwile is a freelance reporter with Dogwood. You can reach him at [email protected].

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