Hedy Tung, Contributing Photographer

Due to forced closures and social distancing protocols put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of New Haven’s Black-owned businesses have struggled to stay open. Despite these obstacles, three Elm City restaurants have found ways to succeed during the public health crisis.

Since March, when nonessential businesses were ordered to shut their doors, these eateries have faced unprecedented challenges. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 41 percent of Black-owned businesses have shuttered due to COVID-19, compared to 17 percent of white-owned businesses nationally. 

This year, New Haven’s Black-owned businesses have adjusted their business models in an attempt to retain profits — some with community, city and federal assistance — while also giving back to the city’s broader community. Ricky D’s Rib Shack, Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant and Vegan Ahava are small Black-owned businesses that serve a variety of cuisines across New Haven. Representatives from the three restaurants shared with the News their experiences operating their eateries during the pandemic.

Giving back to the community: Ricky D’s

“Why not motivate other people and build with people in the community?” Ricky Evans, the owner of Ricky D’s Rib Shack, told the News.

At Ricky D’s Rib Shack at Science Park, the smell of barbecue is in the air, and old school R&B music plays in the background. Flags and pictures of historically Black colleges and universities hang on the restaurant’s walls — an homage to the institution that educated the owner, Ricky Evans.

Ricky D’s Rib Shack is located on a Yale University property at Science Park and is run by Ricky Evans, a New Haven resident. Evans, who is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, relocated to the Northeast after graduating from Virginia State University.

After four years of working as a facilities manager, Evans told the News that he realized “corporate America wasn’t really for me.” He put in his notice, bought a food truck and moved to New Haven — partially because his now-wife is an Elm City native. Evans started the food truck in 2013 and by 2016, he had expanded the business into a restaurant.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Evans said that business took a hit — especially in March and April, when stringent Connecticut lockdown orders were in effect. Evans managed to secure a $26,000 loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, which he used to cover the costs of running the business.

All of Evans’ employees are residents of Newhallville, a New Haven neighborhood, and he told the News that while he cut hours due to COVID, he never cut staff — he even hired two people during the pandemic.

“Other people might have looked over some of these people, but, you know, I’ve embraced employing young people from the community who have the will to want to learn how to make the orders and earn the business,” Evans said. “It also impacts the community and I feel like I kind of represent the people.”

From the first week in May until around two weeks ago, Evans worked with the city’s Food System and Policy Division Square Meals program to deliver 55 meals a day at a discounted rate to homeless people around the city. The program also provided them with COVID-19 tests, shoes and clothing. Evans told the News that while he could not afford to give away free food, this collaboration allowed him to give back to vulnerable residents of the city while securing work for his employees and revenue for his business.

Hope and “a different way”: Lalibela 

Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant — a business run by couple Wub and Shilmat Tessema — is known for their homemade Ethiopian dishes served on injera — a type of traditional flatbread. The restaurant is decorated with artifacts, pictures and pieces of artwork that celebrate their heritage.

Wub and Shilmat Tessema immigrated to the United States in 1995 and 1997, respectively. Since then, they have established a successful small business in the city.

“The way we cook the food home is the same as we prepare at the restaurant,” Wub Tessema told the News, adding that eating at the restaurant is a cultural experience. “Ethiopian food is different from other cuisines. … We eat in different way — we don’t use, usually, utensils. We use hands, fingers, to eat our food.”

Earlier this year, the restaurant was shut down for almost four months, which Tessema described as “really, really just a very tough time.” When they finally reopened, Lalibela could only offer orders for pickup, and while they were able to secure a $17,000 PPP loan, the business is still grappling with a drastic drop in profits. Previously, according to Tessema, around 30 percent of their profits came from catering for Yale University faculty, departments and student associations. But since the pandemic hit, Tessema said they have not received a single catering order.

Still, Tessema remains hopeful, insisting that “something [is] better than nothing.” During the pandemic, he attended Zoom meetings that addressed ways that small business owners could set up their businesses to address the new situation. He successfully applied for a permit to add a patio for his restaurant, which a Yale architecture student volunteered to design. He said that the addition has been beneficial to the business, as indoor seating is still limited.

Soul food at Vegan Ahava

Vegan Ahava, another local Black-owned business, is a vegan food truck owned and operated by Poreyah Benton. On Saturdays, when Benton serves her “Jackson Five plate” — a combination of mac and cheese, collared greens, sweet potatoes and cornbread — the truck draws out huge crowds.

“People drive from Massachusetts or New Jersey … just to get the soul food,” Benton said.

Benton’s parents, who are originally from New York, moved to Israel with the Hebrew Israelite community around 40 years ago and have been there since. As a result, Benton was raised in Dimona, Israel, and said that she draws inspiration from the region’s cuisine in her vegan soul food recipes.

She told the News that when food trucks across the city shut down for the first three months of the pandemic, she was in disarray.

“I didn’t know what I was gonna do, I didn’t know what was gonna be my next move, if I was gonna shut down completely,” Benton said.

However, once Benton was able to open up her truck again, she said that business picked up quickly. She gained over a thousand new followers on Instagram and even had to hire an employee full time to make enough food to meet demands.

Benton credits much of her businesses’ success to the widespread dialogue this summer about supporting Black business owners. She says she received numerous “shoutouts” on social media and the movement even pushed her to partner with Edible Couture — a Black-owned business that sells gourmet cupcakes — to establish a storefront in downtown New Haven. This summer, Benton partnered with Black Lives Matter New Haven to cater for a protest at a 50 percent discount. She has also set up her truck at numerous injustice walks across the state.

ConnCAT and citywide assistance

City initiatives, such as the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology, or ConnCAT, are also taking steps to support Black businesses during the pandemic.

“A lot of Black businesses are severely undercapitalized, so only 12 percent of Black and Latino businesses received full PPP funding requests,” Anna Blanding ’03 SOM ’09, chief investment officer of ConnCAT, told the News. “We thought about how can we really help support our businesses but also make them more resilient in the future so that they can access, let’s say, traditional financial capital.”

ConnCAT was founded by Erik Clemons, a New Haven native and long-time activist in the city. Their work originally focused on providing free job training programs to unemployed and underemployed New Haven adults, but expanded to include after school programs, youth programs and community events. During the pandemic, they raised $5 million for their Economic Justice Fund, which is intended to provide support to Black business owners and prospective homeowners around the city.

ConnCAT’s Economic Justice Fund has not yet distributed its money to Black business owners in New Haven, but plans to do so next month.

Benton, who attended ConnCAT’s culinary training program, said, “I don’t think I would even be in the brick-and-mortar if it wasn’t for one of the members at ConnCAT.” She added that the owner of the store had confidence in her as an entrepreneur because of her association with the organization.

ConnCAT was founded in 2011.

Simisola Fagbemi | simi.fagbemi@yale.edu