In honor of an LGBTQ Pride Month that is largely being celebrated remotely this year, we are pleased to highlight two queer- and minority-owned small businesses that have received a grant, and a big shout out, from Renaissance woman Janelle Monáe via LISC's Rapid Relief and Resiliency Fund. In true Monáe style, these Harlem-based enterprises are, in very different ways, creating spaces where people can be who they are.
There’s no pigeonholing Janelle Monáe. This woman from a sprawling working-class family in Kansas City grew up to be a superstar singer-songwriter, actor (Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Amazon’s series Homecoming), and CEO of her own record label, Wondaland. She’s used her global platform to speak out against police brutality and voter suppression, and to amplify the voices of women, black and brown people, and LGBTQ people—all reflected in Monáe’s joyful affirmation of her own singular personhood.
“I think it’s important for people to be proud of their identity,” she said, shortly after dropping her latest album, Dirty Computer. “I am very proud to be a queer, young black woman in America.”
So it comes as no surprise that Monáe, who has been supporting LISC’s Rapid Relief and Resiliency small business grant fund, is directing her donations to shine a light on the work of queer- and minority-owned enterprises. That includes two Harlem-based businesses that, in very different ways, are creating spaces where people can be who they are.
Harlem Food Bar
Longtime partners in life and in business, Ernesto “Ernie” Gonzalez and Scott Siler would love to do something special at their neighborhood eatery, Harlem Food Bar, to mark this weekend’s historic fiftieth anniversary of the New York City Pride Parade. But the boisterous parade has been canceled due to the pandemic, and Gonzalez and Siler are having a very busy week.
For more than three months, it’s been just the two of them, Gonzalez in his role as head chef and Siler as general manager, serving up carryout six nights a week to customers they saw only through a window. This week, as hard-hit New York City entered phase 2 of its reopening, they’ve been welcoming back some staff and inviting customers to once again enjoy a drink and a burger at appropriately distanced outdoor tables.
There have plenty of takers. After eight years on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Harlem Food Bar has matured into the sort of warm, inviting place where customers can spot familiar faces and greet friends; many regulars come in three or four times a week.
That’s partly due to a menu of reasonably priced, everyday dishes that are prepared from scratch using fresh, and often organic ingredients. “Food is love,” as Gonzalez, trained at the French Culinary Institute, likes to say. It’s also due to a come-as-you-are vibe that reflects Harlem’s diversity as well as the proprietors’ experience creating lively LGBTQ-friendly watering holes.
“We let the neighborhood kind of turn the space into what they want it to be,” he says. “That’s worked in the past, and it’s worked here. It’s not always the same crowd.”
Inclusiveness comes naturally to Siler and Gonzalez; it’s also a sustainable business model.
What’s not sustainable is moving the bistro’s diners indoors when the weather turns cold to sit at a few widely spaced tables. “It just doesn’t work,” says Siler. As the pandemic grinds into autumn, this beloved piece of New York culture, along with restaurants and bars across the country, will need much bigger economic solutions than even the most loyal patrons can bring to bear. Watch this space.
BleuLife Media Group
In 2006 DéVon Christopher Johnson founded Bleu Magazine out of his Harlem apartment, a self-financed project “bootstrapped with friends and family and neighbors that pitched in to help,” he recalls.
Having grown up on Long Island, earning a master’s in journalism at Harvard, and working in marketing at various top record labels, Johnson had developed the conviction that people, with all their varying experiences and perspectives, are more alike than they are different. And what he wanted to do specifically was showcase the diversity and nuanced identities of black men—to celebrate images beyond that of entertainer or athlete—and to explore the intersection of black culture and LGTBQ culture.
“Most media outlets are either black or LGBTQ, and we wanted to show that there can be both,” he says. “We’re a magazine for people who are interested in the intersection of both those cultures and what their likes and desires are.”
In the beginning, the small, tight-knit Bleu team has had to educate people on the breadth and depth of its potential readership. “It’s a very hard thing to tell advertisers who’ve only seen images of rappers and athletes that we [black men] also go to the park, and, you know, I’m an Eagle Scout. I go camping with my friends. I go skiing every year.”
The world may be catching up. In 2016 Bleu launched Bombshell, a magazine that “advocates for liberated multicultural women,” and last year established BleuLife Media Group, including digital consulting and an influencer marketing agency. Bleu and Bombshell are widely read by both women and men. Readers skew young (18 to 34), and about half identify as LGBTQ.
As for the pandemic, it hasn’t been as hard on BleuLife as it has on businesses that depend on physical gathering. Though the Bleu team hasn’t been together in person since mid-March, the staff is geared up to work from home. The LISC recovery grant is helping with that.
What’s most important to Johnson, though, is the shout-out to his growing company. Its biggest barrier isn’t Covid-19 but a lack of access to financing to scale the endeavor—a problem, Johnson points out, that’s all too common among small minority-owned businesses like his.
“Small businesses have been the backbone of hiring diverse talent since the beginning of small business in the United States, and we need help, too,” he says. “It’s great for corporations to make their statements, but it’s even more important for organizations like LISC and Janelle Monáe to support small businesses that are doing this work today with very little fanfare.”