The scent of popcorn lingers in the air outside of the Blodgett Building, 15 Ionia Ave. SW, the new home of Mosby’s Popcorn. Inside, salty and sweet smells mingle, flooding your nostrils and enticing your taste buds. The shop’s inviting atmosphere, with its bright colors and clean lines, welcomes visitors, and a row of tables and chairs await guests who might want to enjoy their treats before continuing along Ionia Avenue. Perhaps they’ll head south two blocks to the new Studio Park entertainment complex where they’ll visit Malamiah Juice Bar & Eatery for a juice or smoothie.
At least that’s what Jermale Eddie and Brian Mosby are hoping. Eddie, the owner of Malamiah Juice Bar & Eatery, recently relocated to Studio Park from the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, while Mosby’s shop is the store’s second location (the original is located in Kentwood).
Malamiah had been a market tenant since 2013 when the Downtown Market first opened. After six years, Eddie was ready to move his business to the bustling corner of Ionia and Oakes and to expand its operations to include a small food menu. In addition to juices and smoothies, the shop is offering breakfast options, including toasts, chia puddings and oatmeal, and lunch options like salads and grain bowls. He hopes increased foot traffic will support his business and help him expand his operations further.
“We need to increase our walking traffic. Being down there will give us that,” Eddie said.
Mosby said increased foot traffic also was a motivation for his move downtown. While his Kentwood shop has grown steadily, it’s mostly thanks to orders, not walk-in customers.
“If everyone is downtown or within the city limits, we need to be closer to our population of people patronizing our business,” he said.
As small business owners, both men have faced typical startup challenges, but they’ve also faced challenges as young Black entrepreneurs.
While Grand Rapids has been heralded as a “best city” to raise a family, to retire and more, in 2015, the city landed on a list it would have preferred to avoid. On a ranking of “The cities where African-Americans are doing the best economically,” Grand Rapids landed in the 51st spot, making it the second to last, and in effect, one of the worst cities in America for African Americans.
So, Eddie points out that five years later, it is a big deal that his business and Mosby’s are ready to thrive downtown. And, they aren’t alone. Ambiance GR, GRNoir Wine & Jazz and Mel Styles (a men’s tailor shop) — all Black-owned ventures — also have opened or announced plans to open downtown.
Ambiance GR is a new cocktail lounge offering live entertainment and a food menu focused on American and Creole cuisine. Jamiel Robinson, one of six men behind the venture, said Ambiance will cater to the lunch, evening and late-night crowds.
He said the space offers a laid-back atmosphere that promotes conversation. “It’s going to be a unique place downtown that you can’t find anywhere else in the city,” he said.
While Robinson is reluctant about making too much out of the fact that the business is an African American-backed venture, he does acknowledge that it is important. “We aren’t the first ever, there were other African American-owned or -ran establishments downtown. We’ll be the first one in quite a while to actually own the business and own our liquor license.”
He said the visibility can influence other entrepreneurs to pursue their own ventures.
That sentiment was echoed by both Eddie and Mosby, who talked about being just like any other small business opening downtown and wanting their businesses to succeed and be judged on their product but also acknowledging that being a minority-owned business in downtown does mean something.
“Historically, downtown Grand Rapids hasn’t seen too many Black-owned businesses or businesses of color,” Eddie said. “We’ve been around for six years, so I think we’ve proven that folks want us, not just folks that look like us, but most of Grand Rapids. Our product is a crossover product; folks want a healthy, great product, customer service, smiling face and the food to taste good, and we are able to bring that.
“Perhaps, too, by seeing Black-owned businesses pop up downtown, it will attract other Black-owned and Latinx businesses, or other ethnicities, so we can be this world-class city that so many people see us as but also so many people don’t see us as.”
Robinson agreed that having more minority-owned businesses downtown is important to the future of Grand Rapids.
“I think it’s more important for the city of Grand Rapids’ future to have racially and ethnically diverse businesses opening downtown because it looks to be a global community and global center, a global area for the region,” he said. “You can’t be global if you have homogenous businesses downtown. It’s more important to the future of Grand Rapids when looking at talent retention, attraction, those types of things.
“Grand Rapids won’t have a future, when you look at demographic and culture shifts, all these things occurring, if the city isn’t growing as the nation and global population is and being representative of those things. We will get left behind. We’ll be dubbed as a dying city if we don’t embrace a diverse business community.”
City leaders and other decision-makers in Grand Rapids agree with Robinson. Since the 2015 Forbes listing, the city and other funding entities have begun making changes to try and reduce barriers and increase access for minority business owners.
Kyama Kitavi, economic development manager at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., said his role involves trying to “get businesses downtown, with a focus on trying to get more diverse ownership, diverse types of businesses and more vibrant, engaged business owners downtown.”
He helps operate a retail grant program (Retail Business Incubation Program) for small businesses looking to locate in the downtown area. The year-old program already has been used to support a handful of minority-owned businesses, including Ambiance GR, Mosby’s Popcorn, Tamales Mary and others.
Kitavi said the grant program is just one piece of the puzzle, however. Businesses looking to locate downtown already are investing thousands of dollars on renovation work, equipment and more. Often what they need, according to Kitavi, is help navigating the systems and processes — and access to the right people and rooms where the handshakes happen.
“There needs to be a larger infrastructure and ecosystem of support that goes beyond our dollars,” Kitavi said.
Another program that is available to Black entrepreneurs is GRABB 5, a six-month accelerator program for Black businesses. It is a collaborative effort between Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, Start Garden and the city of Grand Rapids. The goal of the program is to “significantly expand the overall ecosystem and improve access to social, intellectual and financial capital that is essential to entrepreneurship.”
GRABB was started in 2013 by Robinson in response to the revitalization of Wealthy Street and the dwindling of Black ownership along that corridor — which was once a street full of Black-owned businesses. Initially, GRABB served as a directory of Black-owned businesses in the city but has grown to become a business and economic development organization focused on making systemic changes across the city.
GRABB connected with Start Garden back in 2015 when it hosted its annual GRABB Awards and Black Market at Start Garden’s office. “We had 200-plus African Americans coming into Start Garden at that time, the largest number of African Americans to have ever walked into Start Garden,” Robinson said.
He said that event was the catalyst in creating relationships between African Americans and Start Garden. “We set a pathway toward helping to make Start Garden more accessible to people of color here in Grand Rapids,” Robinson said. “We started doing GRABB dinners, inviting business owners and creating intentional collisions with Start Garden, to bring these two groups together.”
Soon after, in 2017, Darel Ross II and Jorge Gonzalez were hired by Start Garden to serve as part of its leadership team, and Robinson said the emphasis on supporting minority businesses has continued to grow.
But change is slow. “Even though there’s more energy, focus and attention when you look at the quality of life, it still hasn’t … no transformation has occurred. It’s trending in a good direction, but it needs to be accelerated even more,” Robinson said.
So, the addition of Malamiah, Mosby’s, Ambiance, GRNoir and Mel Styles to the downtown landscape is a step in the right direction and a cause for celebration, but it’s also just the result of a level playing field with more work to be done.
“Any time a business is able to grow and expand, it should be cause for celebration, not just because it is African American or Black-owned or Latino-owned. When you create accessibility, these are the types of things that occur. These things should just happen naturally if opportunity is available and accessible,” Robinson said.
Don’t miss these great places
Local Mocha: Next time you’re in need of a caffeine fix, get your jolt from Local Mocha. While it’s located next door to GR coffee behemoth Madcap, Local Mocha has actually been in business for two decades longer, and it’s a Black-owned business. It also offers sandwiches, so it’s a great spot for a quick lunch, too. 96 Monroe Center NW
Muse GR: Muse GR is an “interactive gallery” where people can host events, take classes, hold workshops or schedule photo shoots. It is owned by Stephen Smith and Taylor Smith, who opened the space on the city’s West Side in 2016. 727 Leonard St. NW
Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives: George Bayard III helms the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives. The small museum in the heart of downtown offers a glimpse at the past through a collection of items that include political campaign buttons to household items with offensive caricatures that were common in the past. 87 Monroe Center NW
Daddy’s Dough Cookies: While Daddy’s Dough Cookies doesn’t have its own brick-and-mortar location (yet), its cookies are offered at a few retailers downtown. Look for these delicious treats at Bridge Street Market and Mosby’s Popcorn.