Walk into Northeast Killingsworth juice bar Drink Mamey and you’ll see a bright orange neon sign screaming “Drink ya juice’’ sitting on a faux-grass-lined wall above an abundance of potted plants. Noetic Plants — a Portland-based, Black-owned business — sells its monsteras and dracaenas out of the shop, opposite a wall of other beautifully packaged products from other Black-owned businesses: sea moss from the Hussle Way, moon candles from Onya’e Naturals, and bottles of Ella Dean hair oils, carefully lined on shelves below another neon sign that reads, “Mamey’s Faves.”
The wide array of Black-owned businesses and artists on display at Drink Mamey is intentional: Co-owner Cydnie Smith-McCarthy only allows products from Black-women owned businesses to be sold at the shop. She’s declined multiple offers — even if this means the shelves aren’t always fully-stocked. “We are a Black-owned business, and our space is for Black people and our shelves are for Black women,” Mamey says. “Our shelves are light right now because it is really hard to be a Black small business in Portland. You wouldn’t believe how many emails I get from white people and white women who ask on a regular basis to be on the shelves.”
Since 2020, there has been more of a collective focus to support Portland’s Black-owned businesses — partially a response to the city’s overarching reckoning with its own racist history, and partially due to the rising number of Black-owned small businesses, restaurants, and pop-ups opening across the city. Local projects like Support Black-Owned Restaurant Week and BIPOC markets like Come Thru PDX and My People’s Market have contributed to helping build visibility for brands and business owners over the past several years.
But for Black business owners in Portland right now, what has really helped elevate their businesses is collaboration — working specifically, and sometimes exclusively, with other Black-owned businesses. Working with other Black-owned businesses allows new ones to build a foundation more easily — not only for their business, but also socially. “It’s important to bring Black wealth back and generational wealth,” Smith-McCarthy says, “Everyone deserves a chance to do that.”
Portland doesn’t have as many Black-owned-and-frequented third spaces compared to other major American cities; this is the direct result of Portland’s racist history, dating back to exclusion laws enacted around the time the state of Oregon was founded. Racist lending practices and development projects — like the I-5 expansion and the Legacy Emmanuel expansion that displaced thousands of Black families and businesses — made it difficult to keep Black-owned businesses afloat in Portland long-term. Now, decades later, these Black-owned businesses are recreating those spaces for their community in a way that allows them to multiply; in the face of systematic persecution and restrictions, the fostering of these businesses could be considered a revolutionary act.
Brea Gladney is the owner of Treats By B, a plant-based custom cake business that she started about eight years ago in Oakland. When she moved herself and her business to Portland, she immediately began connecting with other Black-owned businesses, which was a natural transition for her.
“I cater to everybody, [but] when I do look at it, everybody I do work with is Black,” Gladney says. “That has made it a lot easier from a cultural aspect, because they just get it. The products blend together more naturally — taste, look-wise. … It’s not from a shade standpoint; in a sense, we have to. There’s a different way we look out for each other. It makes it easier to win with your people.”
In early 2021, she began selling her Treats By B pastries at Plant Based Papi’s first restaurant on SE Morrison Street, selling cake slices and cupcakes to pair with owner Jewan Manuel’s vegan comfort food. Manuel himself only started popping up in 2019, but regularly collaborated with other businesses to get his footing; in particular, he has described Fatou Ouattara and George Faux of Akadi as mentors. When he first opened the Plant Based Papi storefront, which he has since left, he said he wanted to open up space for other small businesses trying to get their start. “That’s what got me here: people offering me opportunities,” he told Eater in 2020. “I’m excited to offer that to someone else.”
“What [Manuel] does inspires me to create things for people they can have in that same fashion but, dessert-wise,” Gladney says. “It builds relationships with people who are like you, especially when you’re an entrepreneur.”
Working with other Black folks became even more important to Gladney after moving from the diverse city of Oakland to Portland, one of the whitest cities in the country. However, in her perspective, the small community can also give Black businesses a unique opportunity to stand out, she says. “In the Bay Area, you can find anybody that does anything and they’re great at it — especially people of color,” she says. “[In Portland], it makes it a whole lot easier for us to stand out.”
During the ongoing trials of the COVID pandemic and the systemic violence against Black Americans nationwide, making connections with other Black-owned businesses has allowed some Black Portlanders the small comfort of solidarity. Like Gladney, Two Wrongs owner David Hall moved from another diverse city — Los Angeles — to Portland, which was a challenging transition. When he opened Southeast Sandy sports bar Jackie’s in the summer of 2021, Hall knew he wanted to work with other Black-owned businesses, especially when sourcing ingredients for the food and drink menus. At Jackie’s, Drink Mamey juices serve as the foundation for mimosas, and diners can order Deadstock’s coffee and Lebronald Palmers with their eggs Benedict or shrimp and grits.
Hall feels lucky that his business has been able to stay open and even grow, despite pandemic-related challenges. For him, incorporating Drink Mamey and Deadstock is more than just a business decision; it’s also provided a sense of emotional support among other Black folks during a historical period of civil unrest.
“Being Black and brown business owners and actively growing a business in trying times, and then you add the layer of protests — we check in on each other on the mental health side of things,” Hall says. “You’re always looking out for each other. Continuing to grow in this sector is the goal, and to grow together. I think it’s dope that there’s a big sense of community and how we can help each other out.”
Many businesses, like Jackie’s, began their journey either during the pandemic or months before, so they’ve been adjusting their business models constantly — using it as a way to grow and experiment together. While COVID resulted in many shuttered businesses in the food industry, many Black business owners have found a chance to thrive through trial and error. “COVID has given us an opportunity,” Hall says.
Ian Williams, the owner of Deadstock Coffee and the new Concourse Coffee in Northeast Portland, agrees with Hall: Williams feels the last two-plus years put him in a position to experiment, trying things as a pandemic pivot. Williams has collaborated with other coffee shops and businesses, he’s provided coffee for pop-ups and outdoor events, and he is taking on wholesale clients. “COVID made you more intentional with the thing that you’re doing,” Williams says. “But also with COVID you can throw things at the wall and see what happens.”
It goes beyond just stocking shelves with products from Black-owned businesses: Some have focused on hiring Black people to work in their spaces, as servers, baristas, and cashiers. By hiring more Black people for front-of-house positions, these business owners consequently create safe spaces for both their employees and their Black clientele. “The interactions are different when you walk up to a place and see someone that looks like you and you kind of disarm a little bit,” Hall says. “Employing a diverse staff that we’ve been able to attract with the culture here lends to a space that feels like home.”
As the pandemic begins to subside and businesses continue to open and grow, Hall says he looks forward to seeing what Portland’s Black business community will look like down the line if businesses continue to grow at this rate and uplift other Black entrepreneurs.
“The community of Black business owners are really coming together,” Hall says. “Hearing uplifting words from your peers, people you admire and respect given what they contribute to the community — these are all people I look up to. I’m excited for everyone’s future and to be able to reconvene in 10 years and see where we’re at.”