COVER STORY

Homemade:
Black-Owned Businesses Thriving and Inspiring in OKC

Nick Gallo

BY NICK GALLO
BROADCAST REPORTER AND DIGITAL EDITOR
Feb. 11, 2021


No one in Oklahoma City has a cleaner, warmer or better-smelling garage than Marshelle Walker. The only oil slicks are olive, and all the tools typically have some sort of delicious cake batter on them. Thanks to the passing of the Home Bakers Act, Desserts by Marshelle has been hosting cooking classes, preparing catering orders and making neighbors jealous since 2013.

Walker is a former business executive, working 26 years in telecommunications in New Orleans, Mississippi and Arizona before returning home to Oklahoma City. She wiped her hands of the corporate world and returned to her roots, starting her own bakery business from her home. Many contractors perused her garage and one finally got the vision for the space, which includes a separate entrance, a restroom and an 8-foot kitchen counter. The 400-square-foot baking studio can host up to 10 people for classes, including children as young as 6 years old.

“I have this long history of love with food. That's what has always relaxed me,” Walker said. “It's hard work, but it is what I truly want to do and I've always wanted to do.”

These days, with her 7-year-old granddaughter swinging by as a frequent co-chef, Walker looks back fondly at herself at that young age. She used to spend hours going through baking cookbooks and trying out intricate recipes alongside her mother, who was an executive chef and the first black female chef for Sheraton Hotels.

“The kids in the neighborhood were eating hot dogs and hamburgers,” said Walker. “We would come home to Beef Wellington and kumquat salad.”

Patrons of Desserts by Marshelle learn to cook a main dish, a side dish and a dessert in a two-hour time frame with a pre-planned menu, tailored to their palates. The two full kitchens in her home are perpetually in motion so she can complete catering orders and provide desserts to sell at a variety of locations in the metro area, from the Oklahoma City Public Farmer’s Market to A&R Beef Provisions in Goldsby to 3J Farms in Blanchard. Recently, she hired her first part-time employee.

“He's learning entrepreneurship from the ground up as well because he's getting to see what it takes to put everything together – from the labeling, the packaging, the product knowledge, the setup, and when we go deliver to the locations, merchandising,” said Walker. “It's a full spectrum job.”

All of her desserts are made from scratch and arrive fresh. Organization, attention to detail and a love for making food from the heart are the only other requirements. Be it a lemon cucumber cake with a gin buttercream frosting or a blueberry-goat cheese-basil hand pie, Walker aims to “build an empire one cup of flour at a time.”



GETTING THE WORD OUT

As a small business and a Black-owned business in Oklahoma City, getting the word out and building a following can often be a challenge. In many ways the city is not totally integrated, with citizens of different races and classes often set in their routines and choosing convenience and familiarity over exploration and novelty. That can make a niche business like Walker’s a huge challenge to sustain.

“It's very difficult for a small business survive anywhere,” said John Veal Jr., the District Director of the Oklahoma District Office of the US Small Business Administration (SBA). “It’s even more difficult in your underserved communities. If there's a person who is taking the chance to start a business in an underserved community, we owe it to ourselves to support that business.”

That spirit of support for Black-owned small businesses is what brought Walker in touch with a man named Apollo Woods. Like his first name would suggest, Woods is a bit of a legend when it comes to supporting Black-owned restaurants, food trucks and chefs. Originally from Duncan, Woods left the state in 1999 for Houston to pursue higher education and a career.

When Woods returned to Oklahoma City 18 years later, the metro area was almost unrecognizable. It was time to explore, but he had trouble finding Black-owned restaurants to support, the way he’d done in Houston.

“I wanted to discover it, but in discovering and taking clients out I was telling myself, ‘there have to be more than the handful of Black-owned businesses that I find listed,’ ” Woods recalled.

To solve that same problem for others, Woods founded OKC Black Eats in 2019, at first by driving for hours on Saturdays, simply writing down the names and locations of Black-owned restaurants that he stumbled upon throughout Oklahoma City. In the first seven months he tracked down 34. The list has now swelled to 89.


If you ask him for his favorite Black-owned spot for a bite to eat, he’ll turn the question around and ask you about your favorite types of foods. Once he’s got your belly rumbling, he’s in his zone – rattling off suggestions like Carican Flavors on N. Martin Luther King Avenue, Bobo’s Chicken on NE 23rd Street, Blues and Jazz Café in Edmond and Brielle’s Bistro in Midwest City. Woods’ focus isn’t just on finding any Black-owned establishment. He has one other criterion that stands even further above it – quality.

“If you're eating bad food, your face will show it. But if it's really good, I don't care how you try to act. If it's really good, there'll be a twitch in your eyebrows,” said Woods. “What we do is try to show people that there's something beautiful about my culture and my community and that culture is open for people to experience in a respectful way.”

“If you can show appreciation for someone's cuisine, you're showing respect and appreciation for their culture and the culture is in the people,” Woods added.

Woods grew up with a large, sprawling family that included 47 first cousins. In any family of that size, there’s destined to be people with different beliefs and opinions, but the family relied on meals to stay connected. Woods views his own life experience as an allegory for Oklahoma City as well.

“The one thing that kept us together and keeps us bound together is sitting down and slowing down and enjoying food and fellowship,” said Woods. “I recognize that because our city is siloed and segregated still in a lot of ways, what brings people together is food, music and sports.”

Desserts by Marshelle is one of the many local eateries that OKC Black Eats has helped elevate into the city’s consciousness. In fact, it was Woods’ tip that brought Walker and her desserts (900 of them to be exact) to the Thunder business office on two separate occasions.


“The mission is to increase visibility of Black-owned restaurants, food trucks and chefs in the metro area, but also to be a platform to increase directed public spending on those entities,” said Woods, who lobbies Oklahoma’s elected officials to implement a Minority Business Enterprise program like many other American cities have used to amplify Black entrepreneurs.

“We have some difficult conversations with our elected officials about where we stand with creating sustainability through policy for Black-owned businesses,” Woods said.


HERE TO HELP

At the SBA, Veal recognizes the appropriate focus on minority-owned businesses because of the various challenges they've had over time. The SBA identifies those obstacles and tries to put resources in place so that all businesses, and especially minority-owned businesses, can thrive. The SBA can effectively serve as a co-signer on loans to up-and-coming businesses, but also provide business acumen and education about how the support of small businesses keeps spent dollars circulating through local communities.

“Most small businesses, especially minority-owned businesses, haven't had the opportunities to build a good, strong financial background,” said Veal. “One of my big things is to work with lenders so they can be more aware of what minority-owned small businesses can offer and also be more willing to do loans with these businesses.”

Support from the SBA is timelier than ever. Perhaps no subsection of the economy has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than small businesses and minority-owned businesses, many of which are scattered throughout the periphery of the metro area as opposed to the city’s well-funded downtown urban core.

“What COVID has done is ripped off the band-aid and put in the forefront things that we've been talking about for the last 100 years,” said Woods, alluding to the segregation that was instantiated by Oklahoma’s first legislature in 1907, which used Senate Bill Number One to both define who was considered Black and to place bans on interracial marriages, schools and other public facilities.

That bill and the segregation that came with it led to the creation of insulated Black communities, including the famous Deep Deuce neighborhood in Oklahoma City. In the early 1900s, Deep Deuce served as a haven for jazz music, entrepreneurship and Black culture, with appearances from the likes of Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington.


John Veal, Jr.

If there's a person who is taking the chance to start a business in an underserved community, we owe it to ourselves to support that business.”

–John Veal, Jr., the District Director of the Oklahoma District Office of the US Small Business Administration



TAPPING INTO THE PAST

About a mile from Deep Deuce stands Culture Coffee Company, the first Black-owned coffee shop in Oklahoma City history according to its co-owner, 29-year-old Tori Beechum. Beechum and her family had to close Culture Coffee for the months of April and May due to COVID-19 before re-opening in June. Their family restaurant, Bistro 46, exited its brick-and-mortar location and pressed pause on its Sunday soul food brunch in exchange for a mobile kitchen. Despite those COVID-induced obstacles, the Beechum family presses on at Culture Coffee with its unique ambience and delicious drinks, like its summertime special – cereal milk lattes.

“Getting the ball rolling was the hardest part,” said Beechum, echoing Veal and the SBA’s stated purpose of getting Black-owned businesses on their feet. “Once you got the ball rolling, then everything kind of became a little bit easier.”




The walls of Culture Coffee are adorned with imagery of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Oklahoma’s own civil rights pioneer, Clara Luper. On an exterior wall of Culture Coffee’s building is a mural that includes Charlie Christian, an Oklahoman and jazz musician who went to Douglass High School, cut his teeth in Deep Deuce and was named posthumously to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Recently, Culture Coffee partnered with Prelude Coffee Roasters to create their own unique coffee blend, which honors Christian.



INTENTIONAL FOCUS ON FUTURE

Beechum, Walker and Woods are all entrepreneurs – venturing out on their own, taking a chance and elevating the quality and awareness of Black-owned businesses in the city. There are others, however, who have created organizations intentionally designed to ensure that there are future generations of Black entrepreneurs to follow in their footsteps.

Dr. Willie Haskins grew up in the Forest Park neighborhood in Oklahoma City. His father had a third-grade education. His mother finished her bachelor’s degree at the age of 60. Over two decades ago, Haskins had $2,000 saved up and an idea in his head. He put his name on a lease for a space at One Western Plaza for $1,500 a month in the hopes of building a substance abuse counseling organization. He saw citizens suffering around his community, which was being ravaged by drugs, alcohol, fatherlessness, psychological distress and racism.

During Haskins’ third week in his rental space, with next month’s rent looming overhead like the Sword of Damocles, he received a call out of the blue from an old acquaintance. Suddenly, he was connected with Guthrie Job Corps for a contract to provide substance abuse counseling to its employees. That first contract helped Haskins stay in business and build up COPE, Inc., a multi-cultural behavioral outpatient clinic and 501(c)(3) non-profit that is geared to meet the specific needs of Oklahoma City’s Black population.

COPE Inc., offers programs on topics ranging across the spectrum – investing, family skills development, education tutoring and employment. It’s a wide net that Haskins casts, but his aim is to not let anyone in the community fall through the cracks.

“We do not turn anyone away from the agency here that needs help,” said Dr. Haskins. “That's the most important thing that I try to get out there into the community.”

Dr. Christina Kirk, Esq., provides a similarly crucial service to her community through her Prep University program, albeit with a different client target – young women from grades 8-12 who are preparing for college and careers. When she owned a counseling company in the mid-2000s, Kirk noticed a disconnect between young women, their education and where they wanted to be in their lives. Prep University serves as a bridge for those young women at a formative stage of their development.

Kirk is a renaissance woman: an author, a Ph.D, a municipal court judge and the 2019 OKCPS Teacher of the Year for her work teaching eighth graders at Star Spencer Mid-High School. On February 11th, 2020 she was awarded Thunder Teacher of the Game. She teaches from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, serves her duties in court on Wednesday nights in Coyle and Langston and, on the weekends, meets with her Prep University mentees.



“The biggest thing about entrepreneurship is finding where there's a need and meeting the need.”

–Dr. Christina Kirk, Esq.


From bringing her young women out into professional industries to actually have a chance to see a doctor in action, speak to a lawyer or sit in a CEO’s chair, Kirk tries to provide positive role models for the next generation of Black women to emulate. Over the past 11 years, her program has earned 100 percent college admission and retention rates; the 2016 and 2017 classes of young women earned nearly $2 million in college scholarship offers and rewards.

“We make sure that they're holistically ready,” said Kirk. “They have the academics, but they also have the maturity, the communication and the stamina and that its going to take to be successful.”

Many would be shocked to learn that Kirk, with a “Dr.” before and an “Esq.” after her name, dropped out of high school. After overcoming the illness that caused her to press pause on her education and attaining a GED, Kirk studied at Fisk University, an Historically Black College and University in her hometown of Nashville, TN. She then earned a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of Tulsa and her law degree from Vanderbilt University. Growing up, she was encouraged to be a lawyer due to her chattiness.



“I do talk a lot, but I have some great points,” Kirk grinned. She gets to flex those argumentative muscles as she presides over municipal court, but she gave up a full-time law career to do what she loves best – inspiring young women in her community to be their best selves. It was through teaching that she began to feel the rewards of a career in service of others. When she recognized that education wasn’t the only thing preventing some young women from accomplishing their dreams, she decided it was up to her to fill in the gaps.

“The biggest thing about entrepreneurship is finding where there's a need and meeting the need,” said Kirk.




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History, Pride and Excellence: Celebrating HBCUs | READ
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