Black, Indigenous and people-of-color (BIPOC) businesses make Tacoma-Pierce County a more vibrant community. Meet three Black business owners who are creating jobs and realizing dreams in Pierce County.
Go Philly Cheesesteaks and Wings: Comfort food for trying times
Jason Kinlow loves to cook and loves Philly cheesesteaks. Even during his 20-year career in the hair business—he owned two shops and was the barber for the Seattle Seahawks for a decade—he dreamed of opening a takeout restaurant. A visit to Philadelphia cemented his desire to bring the authentic taste of the City of Brotherly Love to the City of Destiny.
Go Philly Cheesesteaks and Wings opened eight years ago in Tacoma, offering mouth-watering takeout fare, from the classic Philly sandwich (and some new twists) to catfish, wings and hushpuppies. Kinlow opened a second location in Lakewood in February 2020 to offer customers the Go Philly dining experience. Business boomed for four weeks after opening the doors. We all know the rest of the story.
“We had to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic like everyone else,” Kinlow said. “Fortunately, the type of food we were serving was a win-win. We offer comfort food and quick service. It’s not fast food, but it’s also not fine dining. It was a happy medium.”
While the Tacoma location was already set up for takeout and delivery, it took some creativity to get the Lakewood location up and running. Kinlow fast-tracked the restaurant’s online ordering process, something he’d planned to do down the road. A new Go Philly app is expected to launch this month.
Since the Lakewood restaurant had just opened, the business qualified for minimal PPP funding. And after a hefty investment in the location, Kinlow was leery about taking on more debt. Regardless, he’s been impressed by the grant opportunities that have been rolled out by Governor Inslee, the county and the city. “There’s been a concerted effort to help us all survive.”
Kinlow definitely saw a big boost in business after the events of last year that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement. “There was a big rally cry to support Black-owned businesses in the community, but I was concerned what would happen a few months later.” His sales were at an all-time high in June and August, but things have died down since then. His advice to people talking about wanting to make a difference? Don’t just make this something to check off the list. Find ways to continue to support these businesses.
“The SBA is a good resource, but it would also be great if there were more programs that focus primarily on minority business development,” Kinlow said. “I think Tacoma is awesome, and Black-owned businesses have a great history and a bright future here. Now is a great time to continue to plant seeds for a greater harvest yet to come.”
iHAUL: Big or small, they haul it all
From work-at-home professionals who need office furniture delivered to a spare room, to businesses looking to quickly get their goods to customers, iHAUL Hauling and Delivery provides top-notch delivery services and logistics solutions.
“We’re essentially an on-demand delivery guy in your back pocket,” said owner Markiss Cooper, who created the third-party logistics company in 2018 with his wife, Ashley.
Termed “white-glove delivery” in the transportation world, iHAUL takes the burden of delivery off the buyer, offering services like inside delivery, room-of-choice delivery, assembly and haul-away services. Along with South Sound residents, the company also works with shippers, retailers, distributors and warehouses, ensuring everything from order to warehouse management to shipment and delivery comes off without a hitch.
As brick and mortar moves more to click and order, demand for iHAUL’s services is booming. But like so many other small businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into their operations. It also opened doors.
“We had to adapt to a new way of doing things,” Cooper said. “But I can honestly say the pandemic pushed us four years ahead of where we thought we’d be at this point. We needed to respond to the need for same-day, on-demand service.”
Over the last year, Cooper developed business relationships through Zoom seminars and networking events, and created community partnerships he probably wouldn’t have pursued otherwise. He participated in an Associated Builders and Contractors mentorship program and completed a 12-week construction course. He also joined the EDB’s Trade and Logistics Cluster team that kicked off in October of last year. The group is working to shape a strategic plan to foster the growth of trade and logistics businesses in the South Sound. Along with boosting its business plan, iHAUL also provided free grocery delivery for local seniors during the pandemic.
Of course, COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing going on last year. And while Cooper is pleased the conversation has started around ending systemic racism, taking action is the key.
“It’s not just up to non-minorities,” he said. “We’ve all talked a lot, but now it’s time to make some changes. I face challenges every day as a man of color. But like so many others, I’m just a family man trying to provide our community with a service.”
Love By The Slice: Pound cake to profit
When demand for her pound cake made clear there were bigger plans for her baking talents beyond church fundraisers, Cassandra Williams got to work. Love By The Slice Baking and Catering Company started in 2002 in a friend’s kitchen in Lakewood where Williams did her magic by night and commuted to a full-time job in Issaquah by day. As her repertoire evolved to designer cakes and signature treats, revenues soared.
“It was stunning,” she said. “I didn’t intend to grow that fast, I didn’t have a plan and I wasn’t getting any sleep.” She scaled back and spent the next decade baking exclusively for a corporate client before expanding operations in 2014. Five years later, Williams secured the first storefront space for Love By The Slice in the Hilltop neighborhood, where she was born and raised. “It felt like we were just getting settled when the pandemic hit,” she said. “But God revealed to me everything would be ok.”
She was concerned about the effects of COVID-19 on the community, particularly in regard to access to food. As a founding member of the nonprofit Cultivating our Sisterhood International, Williams was in a position to help. She wrote a proposal for the Revive Washington Box and Drop Food Program, and with funding and donations and using her storefront space, Williams, her staff and volunteers fill and deliver boxes of nonperishable food items and supplies to people in need. Since May, the organization has served more than 600 individuals.
“The pivot allowed us to get through two months of operations despite an 80 percent decrease in revenues,” Williams said. “We kept the doors open, and we created a new socially conscious program that will continue.”
When Love By The Slice began offering curbside pick-up services per state guidelines, word spread quickly that the bakery was back in action. Hilltop business “crawls” in August and December helped elevate awareness of the store along with other minority-owned business and boost gift card sales. CARES Act relief loans have helped ease the financial strain, and a Working Washington Small Business Emergency Grant gave Williams access to a CPA, a marketing firm and HR professionals. “It was just the lift I needed,” she said. “In 2021-22, Love By The Slice will reap the fruit of that labor.”
COVID-19 certainly posed challenges last year, and the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Manuel Ellis in Tacoma brought additional upheaval. While community response has been positive, Williams hopes people will go beyond just talking about systemic racism and social injustice.
“I believe that every member of our community needs to be involved and actively participate in creating equity for black and brown people,” she said. “Join an organization dedicated to this work, give your money, time and/or expertise on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, in another 10 years, we’ll find ourselves in the same place.”
To support and connect with Black-owned businesses in the community, check out the Tacoma Urban League’s directory of Black-owned businesses.