By Lou Cespedes
Back in April of this year, I walked into LIPS Café (IG @lipscafe_) for the first time. It’s located on Nostrand between Linden Blvd and Martense. I was there that day because I was working with the owner Jamane Weekes who volunteered to help feed frontline health workers at SUNY and Kings County Hospital during the height of the COVID emergency. I am a coffee lover and what I saw was an oasis in the coffee desert of E. Flatbush. It’s a tasteful space, warm and bright, with aromas and edgy music. It is a glowing example of young Caribbean entrepreneurship, and sadly a cautionary tale about the struggle young entrepreneurs in our community face. This is a story of overcoming those challenges, and about how community redeems itself.
Jamane Weekes is 30 years old, born in E. Flatbush of Vincentian lineage. He travelled a bit as a young adult picking up inspiration at different venues like Art Basil in Miami, learning about food and beverage without any formal training. He describes himself as just a “curious and determined” guy. One day sitting at his local barber shop he noticed the shuttered storefront of Michael’s, a popular neighborhood butcher shop, a vestige of E. Flatbush’s Italian past. He inquired and suddenly found himself in front of a lease he signed. Without political or economic development assistance, black professional friends and colleagues stepped in. His lawyer, Antoine Southern negotiated the lease pro-bono. Other black owned establishment like Joel Patrick from Brooklyn Perk (IG @brooklynperkcoffee) and Chris Gandsyfrom DaleView Biscuits and Beer
(IG @biscuitsandbeer) on Nostrand Ave, gave of their expertise and guidance. Just like that, he was up and running, relatively unknown, and facing the challenges all start-ups normally face. Then COVID shut his business down only a few months after he opened.
As Jamane tells it, this was a moment of deep anxiety and reflection, and he used the time to perfect his business and craft. He learned more about accounting, improved his food offerings, refined his barista skills and presentation. All the while, his investments were at risk of being lost. The opportunity to open for take-out in May was like being reborn, a new start for him and his business. Still the COVID pressures were very real when he volunteered to donate his food and service for health workers. I remember praying for his business when we gave thanks for the food LIPS Café provided that day. Jamane says he never felt right asking for help because “everyone was struggling”. Nonetheless help came!
Devena Smith IG @venavisuals and Noah Love IG @iamnoahlove of VNF Productions Inc. a production company (specializing in fashion production and brand development) privately raised money for 3 businesses on the block through their Black Business Fund https://www.vnffw.com/blackbusinessfund providing support and seed capital to the black entrepreneur community. Neither NYC Small Business Services, nor grants through the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, nor support from NYC Economic Development Corp, nor any guidance from local elected officials, were provided to LIPS Café or thousands of other black owned businesses. The institutions that are dedicated to supporting the business community have failed to meet the need of black entrepreneurs. That is the takeaway here. We need to dwell on this for a moment.
Save for the grace of G-d, without our own local ingenuity and the vision to create our own “venture capital resources” like the “Black Business Fund”, this story could have ended in tragedy. Many entrepreneurs fail in our community because they weren’t as lucky as Jamane Weekes. Lacking critical financial and government support services offered to white businesses, Lips Café is a testimony to what can be achieved for other businesses in our community, with our own resources, when leadership fails us. Jamane tried to seek out the support of Payroll Protection Program, but had no banking history, no one to help him navigate the process, and he wasn’t in business long enough to qualify. The reason this is important to note is because his investment and failure would have been a loss of wealth to him, his employees, and the community he serves. It is up to us to make him succeed because then E. Flatbush succeeds. We need to keep those black dollars circulating in our community, and we need to keep dedicated and tenacious black entrepreneurs in Flatbush. We need to do it “For Us By Us”, with our own skill and our own sources, with our own talent, and in our collective black community.
When I asked Jamane what he imagined the future would be like, he responded: “Now I want to grow, grow, and grow! I don’t mean just financially, but to grow and invest into the fabric of my community by constantly providing a better product and experience. During this entire COVID crisis the community has been my support system. They are the reason I am succeeding, and above all else I want them to know that”. Jamane Weekes is answering the call!
Isaiah 48 v.17 (KJV)
Twitter: @loufor45 Instagram: LoucespedesAttachments area