In The Black: African-Americans Cash In On L.A.’s Business Landscape

Categories // LA Focus Wednesday, 06 December 2017

In The Black: African-Americans Cash In On L.A.’s Business Landscape

With entrepreneurship among African Americans, women and minorities reportedly on a steady climb nationwide, a growing number of Los Angeles-based black businesses are realizing impressive successes–some with ventures earning sizable profits in their early years.

  Many emerging business moguls agree that there is no secret to success. But the driving factor is a passion to deliver a product or service they believe will improve lives, offer fulfilling experiences and meet their customer’s need at the right time. 
Such is the case for Kareem Cook and Claude Tellis, former college buddies turned business partners, who in 2012 acquired Naturade. Their company produces a full line of health-related products including vitamins, nutritional supplements, meal replacement shakes, skin care and hair care products and a line of anti-aging products. They started in business together by installing vending machines with healthy options in Los Angeles public schools and advocating for the ban on junk food for students. 
This campaign led them to develop a business plan to prevent illnesses like diabetes and it ultimately lead to their purchase of Naturade. Both are Duke University graduates who desired a bigger platform to help African Americans prevent common illnesses that plague the community.
“We’re the largest black owned Nutraceutical company in the country. We’re in CVS, Walgreens, we’re in Walmart, Sam’s Club, we’re all over,” says Cook. “We’ve doubled the company [in size] since we bought it.” 
C ook and Ellis both have family histories of diabetes and cancer. Their experiences growing up inspired them to start living healthy lifestyles and they say Naturade allows them to empower the African-American community through that mission. “We chose this industry because it’s really about doing great by doing good,” Cook said. “We wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on the world.”  
The two are not alone when it comes to the passion of ensuring the community has access to more healthy food options. Kia Patterson opened the first Black-owned grocery store in Compton, CA as the owner/operator of The Grocery Outlet. Her vision — to bring organic food options to people in the community at more affordable prices. According to reports, the chain claims it is the nation’s largest extreme value grocery retailer and offers brand-name items as well as fresh, organic produce for 40 to 70 percent less than the actual retail price.
“This store is really good for the community. The most important thing is we sell a lot of organic products at a bargain," said Patterson in a Facebook video. “I made the decision to own a Grocery Outlet so that I could have the freedom to be able to do what I want to do and not be pigeon-holed to anything.” 
After working for several years at Smart & Final, Patterson was initially recruited by the Grocery Outlet to help expand the brand into the Los Angeles area. “Now I have the ability to set my own destiny,” she tells reporters.
With the courage to risk rejection and some days little to no pay – these up and coming business leaders  say that as entrepreneurs in pursuit of their calling, the dollars will follow as long as you have the right motivation.
Buffalo Wild Wings franchisees Karim Webb and business partner Edward Barnett, are seeing a return on the sacrifices they made with four restaurant locations in L.A. going strong and plans are to increase that number. The two have been friends since childhood and Ward said when they discussed the possibility of doing business together, “the sports bar concept was a no brainer.” 
“In 2006, we became franchisees. It took us three years to open our first store and it was a difficult time because the market had crashed,” Webb explained. “We weren’t able to get bank financing so we had to come up with the cash. It was a pretty expensive endeavor…about $2.5 million plus to get one of these [Buffalo Wild Wings] open and begin the process.” 
But money wasn’t the only obstacle for Webb and Barnett’s Culver City-based PCF Restaurant Group.
“We are in our early 40s now, but we started when we were in our early mid 30s,” Webb recalls. “The market had crashed and we went through 21 different real estates transactions where we would get to the end [of the process] and landlords would see two African Americans come in and the deals would fall apart.  We knew it was because we were young and black.”
The doors of their first location opened in Torrance at Del Amo Mall in 2009. Restaurants in Baldwin Hills and Carson followed. Recently they added a location in Koreatown and plans for two more in the L.A. area – one near the Rams stadium in Inglewood—are in the works. 
Webb said their brand is catching on to social media, smartphone apps, fantasy football, and loyalty programs. They’re embracing methods of payment through Facebook or even Instagram. “All of the different ways that people are using technology, Buffalo Wild Wings, like all the other different brands, is trying to figure out the best way for us to leverage it.”
 Currently, PCF Restaurant Group employs some 400 people between the four restaurants and enjoy offering youth and young adults the opportunity to work and develop job skills.
“It lends itself to what my personal passion is which is developing young people – especially under-served young people,” Webb says. “Entry level employment is a great conduit for that. You can come and work for us and in four years–whether you have a high school diploma or not–if you have integrity and you show up every day, you can be making $70,000 to $80,000 a year running a multi-million dollar business.”
Their level of core competency, they say, is connecting with the community.
“We have roots in the community so our brand lends it self to really getting engaged with schools,—with adult and youth sports programs,” Webb states. “We often become the place where people come and fundraise. That helps us maintain the consistency of volume and then you get really good at operating the business.
“When sales are soft in other places of the country, our sales are still strong. Part of that is because people are making the choice to come to Buffalo Wild Wings because they hire our people, they take care of our kids, and they give back to the high schools, and things we care about. Why would I go give [T.G.I.] Friday’s my money when I can go to people who are supporting our community. Not everyone has that mindset, but some people do and that's a competitive advantage.”
It was mentors, frat brothers and other positive role models that inspired real estate and mortgage lender, Nick Gouche’, to pursue his dream in finance. He attributes his success in part to working around leaders in the field of banking who believed he was worth a shot despite his unstable upbringing. 
Gouche’ is the product of a single parent home, where he had a history of academic troubles and truancy issues throughout high school. Now, 33, he says none of his teachers would have guessed he’d one day be president of his own company, The Gouche’ Lending Group and Branch Manager of New American Funding.
His lending group has been helping African-American residents throughout Los Angeles become homeowners. According to Gouche’ the company is on track this year to reach $50 million in home ownership for their clients since launching in 2012. 
Gouche’s group has been recognized nationally among the top one percent of loan originators in America by Mortgage Executive Magazine for the last two consecutive years.
“Real Estate and mortgage banking is probably one of the most powerful [industries] you can be in,” he contends. “Being able to be a part of that conversation we kind of help create sustainable wealth and a legacy for our families and our community.” 
Bringing resources to the business sector in the L.A. community is what motivates Angela Gibson, president of The Greater Los Angeles African America Chamber of Commerce (GLAAACC). The organization promotes the economic growth and development of local business persons with classes on how to find the right investors, alternatives to business loans, networking, how to maintain relationships with contractors and more. 
“In Los Angeles, there is an unprecedented amount of projects that are taking place in our community,” says Gibson, who went on to name the LAX renovation, the Coliseum’s prep for the 2028 Olympics, the 2018 NBA All Star Weekend, as examples of the opportunities entrepreneurs should be going after. 
“There’s enough projects around here for everybody to participate in but we’ve got to help each other,” she stressed. “[Entrepreneurs] need to join organizations like GLAAACC, the Black Business Association, the National Association of Minority Contractors, Women in Construction. That’s where you’re going to have your strength in numbers. You’re not going to be able to navigate [success] in time by yourself.”
Three years ago, educator and entrepreneur, Omar McGee fell in love with the cigar culture and saw an opportunity where he could co-own a cigar lounge. Widely known as the founder and CEO of L.A.’s Executive Preparatory Academy of Finance, McGee said, “It was something that intrigued me and I jumped right into it head first. I got excited when I met my partner C.W. who is a cigar official and knows everything about cigars.” 
McGee, who credits CW for having the dream for a lounge, put up the funds to revamp the venue’s atmosphere and says the venture, Dubzzsterz Cigar Lounge, has attracted the likes of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, actress Kym Whitley, Louis Gossett Jr, Yendi Smith and a variety of celebrities. 
Adding an upscale Cigar Lounge to his portfolio wasn’t McGee’s childhood dream, but says the heart and soul of an entrepreneur is an inherent quality. 
“Everybody in my family is an entrepreneur,” he said. “My father owns a car collision shop, my sister is into daycare centers, and me in schools. But [this cigar lounge] is just something that was just dear to me [after hearing CW’s story].”
McGee is extending his love for the cigar industry even further as he and another business partner, Don Juan Gross, will introduce a new brand of cigar this year. The two have developed Dignity Cigars and express confidence that the product will be a contribution to connecting people socially from all walks of life.
Gross, who studied marketing at Xavier University in New Orleans, did a majority of the research in the product’s development phase. He said several proposals were rejected by various plant growers before landing upon a quality tobacco brand that’s grown in Costa Rica.
“After two years of traveling and meeting various growers, we got one yes,” said Gross. “I’m coming up on nine years in the game and I’ve still got a whole more to learn but our main focus is to create a high-end cigar in a classy package.”
According to Gross, he and McGee agree they have similar entrepreneurial drive and passions–and as a team they have identified and are leveraging their experience and strengths. 
“As a kid I knew how to make money,” McGee recollects. “I knew how to make opportunities when others weren’t looking for them. I always say, you have to be wired for business. It’s something that you’re born with…Everybody was not meant to be a business owner. Some people can take a business over from somebody and make it successful. Some people can’t work for anybody else but have to create their own. [As] for me, I was wired for business.” 
Gibson, who retired from corporate America, insists that no matter where you are on the entrepreneurial spectrum, you must at minimum possess the knowledge and the confidence “to step up and step out.”  
“We tell people to go to the Small Business Administration and look at what they have to offer,” asserts Gibson. “Get your business plan together. Learn how to get certified. How to get your loans. How to get your bonding. If you just have the desire and the tenacity, there’s a whole lot of money on the table.”

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