Black business owners help keep each other afloat
As tech and retail giants like Amazon boom in Portland, small businesses are struggling to stay afloat. A microcosm of its effect can be seen in North and Northeast Portland as several black-owned businesses — already feeling the strains of gentrification — do their best to keep from shuttering altogether.
Some of them are banding together to help one another.
Pastor E.D. Mondaine, who leads the Celebration Tabernacle Church and a number of business ventures, including Po'Shines Cafe De La Soul, in particular is far reaching in his aid to fellow black business owners.
Mondaine, vice president of Portland's chapter of the NAACP, is looking to keep a stronghold on what's left of the African American community in North and Northeast Portland.
A culinary school program Mondaine recently started isn't doing too well.
"We're struggling, but we're doing something real unique," he says. The culinary program didn't receive as much grant funding as he had hoped.
Meanwhile, Poshette's Cafe along North Greeley, the sister cafe to Po'Shines, is also being forced to relocate after the building was sold "out from under them," according to Mondaine.
"I got mad at the owner of the building. They saw an opportunity," he says. "The good thing is, it's a shoe shop going there. That's right up my alley."
Mondaine's culinary program is extending its hand to the Billy Webb Elks Lodge, an iconic bar and hangout for African Americans at 6 N. Tillamook St.
The lodge has seen low membership over the years and it's trying something new — adding food service through Po'Shines.
The site originally housed a project of the YWCA to reach out to Portland's African American community. According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, people referred to it as the "Colored YWCA" and it was sold to Billy Webb Elks in 1959. Considered one of the most significant African American historic buildings in the Pacific Northwest, the Billy Webb lodge was a member of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, an African American branch of the BPOE. It's named after Billy Webb, a prominent musician who led an African American Elks band that played in Portland and on steam ships during the 1920s.
There was a major renovation in 2009, but there's still work to do.
There's no dining — and that's where Mondaine and his culinary empire comes in, along with a new grant from Prosper Portland to put in a new commercial kitchen and outside signage. The grant is for $62,500 while the project budget is $155,000.
Entering the food service
Until the kitchen goes in, Po'Shines employees are supplying food buffet style at the lodge, which is open to anyone.
On a recent Thursday evening, coleslaw, chicken wings, sweet potatoes and more were being warmed while a few folks from the National Association for Black Veterans were gathering for their usual meeting.
"We've never really had a kitchen per se, we've always had people come in, and they'd cook and serve different things, but that's never been on a consistent basis," says Billy Webb Elks Lodge president Lou McLemore.
"Basically, we're trying to re-establish ourselves in the community and improve our image a bit more in the neighborhood," he says.
The site is used by all sorts of community groups. Recently, a discussion was held there about the destruction of Albina, about how the city of Portland conspired in the '60s and '70s to kick black residents and businesses out of the neighborhood.
McLemore moved to Portland from Texas eight years ago, when he became president of the lodge. He found out about Billy Webb's when he asked a friend where to get involved with the black community in Portland.
The lodge is trying new things to continue operating. There are 42 members, McLemore says, and while the majority of members are black, they've added two white members in a recent wave of new membership.
"In order for us to stay a viable part of this community, we have to run a business," says McLemore, 73. "What's happening in our neighborhood — it's changed a lot. And the demographics have changed a lot. To keep up with the things changing in the neighborhood, this is a way to be able to do that. The old part is still here, but this is the new part of it as well."
Initially neither he nor other members wanted to be in the food business at all.
"None of our members know anything about it," he says. But starting this month, folks can now eat and have "a place to come and sit and talk to your neighbor."
A bright side?
Mondaine is also reeling in Theotis Cason to some of Po'Shines' endeavors. Cason operated Cason's Fine Meats on North Denver Avenue. But it's closing too.
Cason couldn't afford both rent — which had gotten more expensive, he said — and fixing up the place on his own dime with no help from the landlord.
"There's no such thing as a black community in Portland, Oregon, anymore. I'm 62 years old, and that's gone," says Cason, an African American meat cutter and business owner since 1975, and lifelong Northeast Portland resident.
Before choosing to close the North Denver shop, last year Cason applied for two grants through Prosper Portland, formerly the Portland Development Commission, to help fix up the building and solidify the business's longevity.
Prosper Portland confirmed Cason had been approved for a Prosperity Investment Program grant. A property owner is required to sign for it. But for whatever reason, Cason's landlord, Carl Budd Hoffmann, refused. He wasn't reachable for comment.
Cason says Hoffmann wouldn't sign for a second grant several years prior but Prosper Portland couldn't confirm that because its recordkeeping process was different at that point.
A spokesperson for the commission said it's "not typical" but happens occasionally "for various reasons," that is, when a landlord doesn't accept the help.
In any case, Cason is now looking to relocate to a building along Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Though only in talks, Cason might start serving meats and teaching butchery skills at some of the businesses that Mondaine helps operate.
Po'Shines Cafe De La Soul is Mondaine's flagship restaurant, located at 8139 N. Denver Ave.
Made to walk the plank
While Poshettes and Cason's Fine Meats make their way to hopeful new locations, Mondaine remains positive about the black community coming back together — at least somewhat — in Portland.
"We're making some migration back for those folks that were bamboozled," Mondaine says. "But more importantly, if that doesn't happen, it's very important we keep a black presence for business and et cetera. Our organizations that are there ... we don't need to just have offices in Rockwood, or wherever we've been displaced. But our presence needs to be strong in the middle of where we were pirated. Made to walk the plank."
Cason's Fine Meats is on its sixth location since 1975, Cason says.
Teetering between optimism and cynicism in many of his statements, he says black folks in Portland "can be employees, not owners."
"That's the way it seems to me. It's shameful to see that because we're professional people. I was taught and trained by some of the best meat cutters around and they were older white gentlemen," Cason says. "And some of them didn't want me in the business, but I showed up every day. Everywhere they sent me, I showed up."
If the next building he's applying for doesn't pan out, he's possibly seeking retirement. Although it's easy to tell in Cason's voice that he isn't quite sure about that. In the same breath talking about retirement, he discusses dreams of the store opening more locations.
"I just want to be able to serve everybody," he says. "Neighborhood folks shouldn't be waiting at the bus stop to get to Fred Meyer to get food."
Mondaine harbors some resentment toward the big tech and retail businesses, like Amazon, which recently expanded in Portland.
"I say we take a piece of the Amazon business away from them," Mondaine jokes. But deep down he knows there's room in there for them, somewhere. "Amazon can't do it all."
He hopes people will return to the idea of community.
"It's what made America great," Mondaine says, playfully mocking President Donald Trump's campaign slogan. "That's what's going to make America great again. We're going to have to take a step back from industry and start looking at community. It's not necessarily a color thing."