HOUSTON, Texas — Black business ownership has dropped more than 40% during the pandemic, but the challenges gave some businesses a major opportunity.
One business owner in Houston reinvented himself during the pandemic and turned his nightclub into the city’s first Black-owned grocery store.
Robert Thomas spent years building his nightclub business into a success.
“Moneybagg Yo, Megan Thee Stallion, a lot of local rappers,” said Thomas of the artists who visited his north Houston club. “The place just got popular to the community.”
Yet, COVID-19 quickly forced nightclub Thomas to face the music.
He had to shut down.
“My whole stream of income was gone. You have to make money. You have to survive, but then they tell you, you can't go outside, you're nonessential.”
But, Thomas didn’t accept that. He reinvented the club into a place that couldn’t be shut down.
The District 1960 Nightclub is now the District Market Green Grocer, but the bar is now serving fresh juices instead of drinks.
Most important to Thomas: all the vendors who sell their products here are Black-owned family businesses.
“You see the products in here, you will you support someone that's at home struggling, trying to keep themselves going,” said Thomas.
“So to me, that makes a difference.”
A difference sorely needed as a record number of Black-owned businesses closed due to COVID-19.
“They need to get a chance. I think they need the knowledge. I think they need the resources. Some type of adjustment needs to happen, and I want to be that adjustment.”
Chef Eriell Muhammad was proud to stock his baked goods on these shelves.
“The support to me, it signifies a safety net. It signifies network,” said Muhammad, who owns Nation’s Bread.
Vendors are contacting Thomas daily to be part of this store, but shoppers are also showing up to help build that network.
“I love it!” said shopper Sean Shelton.
“I was very excited when I first found out because we don't really have anything like that in Houston.”
Shelton sees money spent here is more than income, it’s inspiration.
“It's important for our children to see a lot of, see Black-owned businesses,” he said.
“Maybe the children can see it, and they won't go to the street, you know, they’ll think they do have actually have a chance now,” said Thomas.
As this example of community and camaraderie grows, so does Thomas’ hope that this space will expand.
He hopes one day, District Market Green Grocer stores will be open across the country.
“What’s down here, people will always need that, I know I’m essential right now. This is just the beginning,” he said.