We flip through the pages of the latest issue of Courier and talk fresh starts and reopening with some of the business owners, writers and photographers that made it happen – from Athens to Copenhagen. Plus, we’re in Dallas and London to dig deeper into the future of black-owned businesses.
ELIZABETH HAIGH: I think this whole pandemic and this whole closure has made me really appreciate every part, not only of what our team does, but what the customers and fanbase really provide for Mei Mei as well. We're really excited to reopen and if we can come out of this stronger, then let's bring it on.
DANNY GIACOPELLI: That's Elizabeth Haigh, founder and chef of London-based restaurant Mei Mei. Mei Mei, like all restaurants around the world, was forced to close during the pandemic. We caught up with Elizabeth on our Courier daily podcast a few months ago to see if she was pivoting the company to survive. But now things are looking a hell of a lot brighter. On the Courier Weekly today, we talk reopenings and fresh starts; we're flipping the pages of the latest issue of the magazine to talk to some of the writers and photographers that made it happen – and we're digging ever deeper into the rise of black-owned businesses.
DANNY: I'm Daniel Giacopelli and this is the new podcast from Courier. We're kicking off this week's show with Khalia Ismain who launched her company Jamii, a discount card to use at UK-based black-owned businesses years before black squares started popping up in your Instagram feed. Jamii gives cardholders discounts at black-owned brands from beauty to food and drink, and business is booming. Website traffic's up 2,000% she says, and there's been a big increase in cardholders from non-black communities as well. I caught up with Khalia to find out what's been going on.
KHALIA ISMAIN: It's been crazy, and from a Jamii perspective, just phenomenal in terms of the sheer level of support. Our website traffic has gone up 2,000%, we've had thousands of people coming on. Cardholder usage – with the Jamii card you get discounts of up to 40% at all of the black-owned businesses that we work with for a year – has shot up specifically amongst non-black communities, which is incredible. What we're seeing as well is people buying the card and then going on to make their first, second, third purchases straightaway. It's not just something which they're buying and then they're like, 'oh, great, okay, I'm gonna use it at some point', they're using it automatically.
Newsletter subscribers have gone up, Instagram followers have gone up, Twitter followers – all of that has gone up. So many of our partners have been messaging us as well to say that they've sold out of stock and have nothing left. One of our partners was like 'all I have is virtual lampshade classes, that's all I can sell at this moment in time,' which is really, really exciting.
When I first started Jamii, this was the dream: that we'd be able to facilitate really easy access to black-owned businesses and people would just be shopping like they shop anywhere else. Everything that I do with Jamii is about how we can make shopping with community-owned brands just as easy as shopping with a Tesco, Boots, Starbucks, where the level of convenience is there. I've always been very optimistic that people want to shop, that they want to make their money go further and become conscious consumers, it's just about making it as easy as possible, and the last few weeks have shown that. When people really realise why it's so important, when it's really brought to the fore, they're more than willing.
DANNY: And you did a really great post on social the other day about the five reasons why people should shop with black-owned businesses that really got to the heart of it. Could you walk us through those five reasons? I feel like a lot of people, they think this is just an activist-y thing to do, like a gut reaction, but actually there's sound business reasons both for the businesses and the communities why this makes sense. What was the first one in that list?
KHALIA: The first one was because black-owned businesses strengthen local and black communities. When you buy from any business, you're not just purchasing a product, you're investing in that business, in their ethos and everything they do; when you're buying from a black-owned business, you're supporting the wider community because they are much more likely to invest in projects and in initiatives that support the community. They're much more likely to be hiring black employees, paying them fair wages, and therefore supporting families, black families, and other business owners as well. Not only that, they are also more likely to be using black suppliers. An entire ecosystem starts to spring up, which starts to tear down some of the structural inequalities that we've got, like black lenders. It's well-known that when it comes to access to funding through banks and investors, black entrepreneurs are much more likely to be declined or just not even get through the door.
DANNY: In the US, there's a whole redlining issue, where black people have been unable to get loans because the bank manager thinks that they're in a crappy, underdeveloped community and it's produced this decade-long domino effect.
KHALIA: We're at the point now where people aren't even applying anymore. They are bypassing the banks completely, and not even really bothering with investors because of how much they just get ignored, not even just declined, but ignored.
DANNY: And here we're talking about small businesses on the high street, not biotech companies trying to get VC money from Silicon Valley. This is like, 'I want to start a shop, I'm going to the bank to get you know, £20,000’.
KHALIA: Yeah, this is barber shops, mom and pop shops, food shops. People aren't interested. I think for a long time it was because people didn't think that any business that served the black community would make money because there was this whole sense that black people don't spend money, which is crazy when you see the strength of the black pound and the black dollar is huge.
There is a real lack of trust based on the assumption that there are going to be problems and then not willing to work with them on interest rates or anything like that. There is also a lack of financial education sometimes as well, not realising that, 'okay, right. If I get this credit card and pay this off, I can build my school here and etc, etc'. Another reason why it's important to support black-owned businesses is it means more jobs. As I mentioned, their owners are much more likely to hire from the community, which counteracts a lot of the issues which are faced by black people when hiring, when applying for jobs, and then when also just being in work.
I don't know if you've seen over the last few days, but there's been so many Instagram and Twitter accounts talking about the microaggressions that black people face in work; accounts like @byninetofive talking about the difficulties once you've got the job, and how the problems don't end there. It also means, importantly, holding other companies accountable. A couple of weeks ago, we saw so many businesses posting their black squares, you know, standing in solidarity, but what are they going to be doing two, three months down the line next year?
DANNY: You just know in a few weeks tons of brands are gonna be going back to business as usual, right?
KHALIA: Yeah, literally. It was just a case of 'everyone else is posting a black square, so let's rush something out.' But that's not going to do anything. As consumers, we have a responsibility to hold these businesses to account.
DANNY: Do you think that small business owners have a really unique role to play in changing a lot of the systemic problems that black people face right now? More so than coming top-down from the government?
KHALIA: That's a really interesting question. I would say that they have a really important position, but it's not the only thing that needs to happen to see true change. It's a really, really important pillar because of the economic wealth that will be generated as a result of how quickly that can also be distributed to the community when it comes through businesses, but it's definitely not the only thing. It has to go hand in hand.
The black community isn't going to tear down the structural racism and everything that's happening simply through the wealth of black individuals. It has to be distributed. It also comes from things like petitions to reassess how we're educated in schools, so we can learn about black history and start to understand other aspects of what's going on as well, and the race and equalities commission. I strongly believe that there's not just one way to solve this, there are multiple things that need to happen.
DANNY: Because some people say, 'money talks’, you don't have to necessarily change the mind of a racist, because they'll probably always be racist, but what you can do is have them begrudgingly respect you as a successful business owner, right? Sort of like the best revenge is success, or is that wildly off base?
KHALIA: If I'm honest with you, I think if we were having this conversation a few months ago, I'd just be like, 'yeah, all we need is more success. That's all we need'. But the last few weeks have shown me it's not just about economic wealth, it's not just about politicians, it has to go much deeper into the roots of society for us to really see change. If we look at what's happening in Atlanta, that's one of the most economically successful places in the world when it comes to black people, and yet they are still having huge problems with police brutality, even in the middle of riots, black men and women are still being killed.
DANNY: How do you make sure that this translates into real change in consumer buying patterns? You know, like we said earlier, it's not just the next two months that people say 'yeah, let's rally around black-owned businesses and buy from them,' and then return to the status quo.
KHALIA: I actually do think that that is the responsibility of people like me, with Jamii. Now we've got your attention, all that I'm thinking is ‘how do we harness this’? How do we ensure that next month, Christmas, next year, we're still making it as easy as possible for you, and we're meeting you where you are? For me, it's become clear that people are willing to do it, when the conditions are right people are more than willing. So it's now the responsibility of platforms like ours to find those people, seek them out, continue to re-engage them, remind them why it's so important, and make sure that it happens.
In 2020, we are so much more conscious with our buying than ever before. There's been a huge rise in sustainable brands, and if you don't have a purpose nowadays, it's really difficult for you to get anywhere. I think we realise the responsibility and the opportunity that we have to shape the world that we want to live in, and it's just up to businesses and platforms like myself to really harness that energy and make sure that it's used.
DANNY: Do you think some of the brands on your platform, or black-owned businesses in general, mind being, not pigeonholed, but defined as a 'black- owned business', rather than an awesome shop for instance that sells clothes, and that just so happens to be owned by a black person, if you know what I mean?
KHALIA: I think that they're all very proud to be black-owned businesses, but I don't think any of them would say that that's the be-all-and-end-all of what we are. All of them create phenomenal things, the quality of their products is so high whatever industry that they're in: hair care, arts, greeting cards. I see what you mean, in terms of people just buying from them right now because they're black-owned and not because of the quality of their work.
DANNY: Yeah, I guess if you're a black business owner, and you have the coolest, sustainable beauty brand ever, and everybody's buying from it, yet you're still defined as just a black-owned beauty brand, it's almost like a 'female founder', that terminology, rather than just, a founder, if you know what I mean?
KHALIA: I see what you mean. I think it's interesting because when I first started, I actually got most apprehension from black business owners who didn't want to be known as black business owners. Whereas now, and it's not just because of the last few weeks, there has definitely been more of a change towards people being really proud of that fact. Some businesses will put it all over their branding and make it a massive part of their story; others will not hide it, but don't feel the need to put it at the forefront. I think generally, people are much more willing to make it clear. A few years ago, people were actively hiding it, which is a real shame, but it came down to what they thought customers would think of them and how their brand might be perceived. Nowadays, it's like 'no, this is who I am, take it or leave it. This is how my business is'. It's incredible.
DANNY: Khalia Ismain there from Jamii. We're heading to Dallas now to catch up with Kellen Daniel. He's one of the managers of the Dallas location of Sneaker Politics, a really cool Louisiana-based sneaker boutique launched back in 2006. They've got locations across the south of the US, but the Dallas location is where Kellen works, and it's the newest. It opened in September last year. But like most cities in the US, there were tons of protests in Dallas not long ago, and a few weeks ago, Kellen's shop was one of the unfortunate ones to get looted. I wanted to know how he felt about it as both a shop manager and a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here's Kellen.
KELLEN: I got a text from a friend of mine who was out at the protest saying that they had just looted, just broken the glass in the store, and that they had started taking things and running out. Me and the other manager, his name's Ryan Jones, we got dressed and got out here as fast as we could, but by then it was too late, which is crazy, because we only live five minutes from the store. So, between the time that I got the call to the time of us actually getting out here, I mean, everything was pretty much gone.
DANNY: What could possibly be going through your mind at that point?
KELLEN: The only reason I remember things from the time that I got that call to the time we got to the store is because Jones had to remind me of how furious I was.
DANNY: I mean, the photos are really shocking, the whole thing is literally cleared out.
KELLEN: Yeah, that was crazy. Seeing that was crazy. Seeing the pictures of him and myself in the store empty almost a year from when we opened, when we basically put everything in here ourselves, just us two, I mean you could see the shelves in the back… to see people running in and taking things that we worked hard to build over the past year, it wasn't a good feeling at all.
DANNY: You know, you wrote on your Instagram post that this is the hardest thing you've ever had to write, you're a private person, everyone showed you so much love in the city and that's why it hurt so much. How do you reconcile your support for the protest, on the one hand, if you do support the protest, and on the other hand, this is a really, really terrible outcome of what happened?
KELLEN: To receive all that love since it happened, it's been eye-opening to know that we've made somewhat of a mark on the city in the short time that we've been here. So many people reached out to us, they sent letters and cheques with no return address. The money is not the issue, I'm still looking for a way to get it back to them, but the gesture was amazing. The friends that we've made, the people we've built relationships with over the past year they showed up for us in a big way, man. We had people show up with food and flowers and drinks and just buying us lunch, just like little gestures to let us know that, 'hey, you know we support you guys'. That felt really good. I don't think that the people that ran into my store and looted it were necessarily a part of the protest, they probably were just around the protest because it was something to do, somewhere to be, taking light away from people that are actually out there doing a good work.
DANNY: What's your take on the entire world right now, or at least a lot of people in the US, rallying around black-owned businesses as a, I don't want to call it, a trend, but there's probably never been a time in recent memory where the whole world has been posting hashtags and resources in support of black-owned businesses? Do you think this is a flash in the pan thing that’ll pass in a couple weeks and people will go back to usual programming? Or can this have a lasting impact?
KELLEN: It’s been refreshingly eye-opening to see people and businesses that don't necessarily stick their necks out, in a sense, come to the forefront and say what really shouldn't even be a controversial statement: that black lives do indeed matter, and that these issues affect everyone.
DANNY: Yeah, and you have companies running the gamut from people who are posting black squares to Ben & Jerry's who are proclaiming 'Down with white supremacy!’
KELLEN: No, for sure, just the acknowledgment, man. I think the acknowledgement goes further than people realise. I feel like it's not costing you anything to admit that or to say these things, you know what I mean? I don't think so anyway, but for whatever reason, they saw it as a risk before, to where it doesn't seem like it's as much of one now. I think that the true test will be six months from now, whenever all of this has subsided. If these companies are really backing up what they're saying with the things that they're doing.
DANNY: Kellen Daniel, there from Sneaker Politics in Dallas. At Courier, we just launched the latest issue of the magazine. It's all about fresh starts as businesses and shops emerge from lockdowns and look to reopen safely and hopefully, profitably. For the issue we talked with dozens of small business owners from all over the world to hear what they've been going through; everyone from restaurant owners in Shanghai to composers in LA and dog trainers in London. One problem we ran into this issue, like all magazines out there, was photography. It was really hard to send photographers to go on shoots anywhere given there's no travelling. So in the Courier Life section, we got Athens-based photographer Marco Arguello to photograph his wife, Stefani Stoyanof who runs the jewellery brand, Swim To The Moon. Marco also photographed our cover stars for the issue, the founders of the plant store, Kopria. I caught up with Marco and Stefani to find out what's been going on.
MARCO: Everything's good. Things are back open and kind of back to life here.
STEFANI: I wouldn't say normal, but everyone's on the beaches and restaurants are back open, bars are back open. It’s kind of strange, it's like it never happened.
DANNY: Since we last caught up, weeks or probably a month ago now, back when it was proper lockdown, we were talking about your killer brand, and who's buying jewellery right now. Has that changed at all? Have you seen a lot more sales since then?
STEFANI: No, actually, I have not. I feel like, compared to last year, and I try not to look at those numbers because obviously this year's completely different, with a different set of circumstances, it's not the same. I mean, there have been orders coming in, but there’s a lot more happening. I need to be online and posting every day, and with Covid and all the events in the US, it's thrown everything off.
DANNY: Has your day-to-day changed? Obviously you guys can go outside now and walk around. I mean, you could before too, but you don't have to stay inside and be totally in lockdown.
STEFANI: Definitely. You can go out every day, we don't have to send a message to the government anymore. We can go out and eat. The casting studio is open now, so that's great for me because all of the things that I made are now in production. I'm about to release a new collection in August.
MARCO: For me, I see my other friends that I follow on Instagram, they're still shooting editorials for summer; in that sense, people are back out and spending money on their lookbooks. I thought I was kind of dead in the water, because most of my work is travel-related, but I've actually gotten a few jobs here and there since people know Greece is open, so it hasn't been too bad. I'm a little sceptical about the future, just because the rest of the world can't travel and a lot of travel magazines and people are pivoting or rethinking their strategy as they can't physically send people to places to report. But overall, it's positive here.
DANNY: Has that made you reevaluate how you work as a photographer, or in terms of how you approach magazines or newspapers when trying to get work, given that you can't quickly get on a Ryanair flight and go to Barcelona to do a shoot?
MARCO: Absolutely, I think I have made it a habit in the last year to pitch stories, and now will do so more within Greece. I'm going to try and not worry too much about when my next job is going to come, and enjoy travelling the islands with Stefani or with friends, to see where I can pitch photo essays on the different Greek islands, there's over 200 of them, and just kind of let things happen as they do. It's gonna be nice to also slow down, and keep shooting more personal content to then maybe send to magazines.
DANNY: What I love about you two, is that, Stefani, we profiled you in Courier Life this issue, and it was shot by you, Marco. Stefani, you also tipped us off to Kopria, the beautiful plant store that we ended up featuring on the cover, which Marco shot as well. So you guys are at the nexus of this issue, right?
STEFANI: Yeah, exactly.
DANNY: Those cover guys, Kopria, Marco what was that like shooting them? They're such a fantastic little store. I loved both of them, talking with them, and they were just so excited to reopen.
MARCO: It was a lot of fun. I’d been to the store before, and it's a great space. It’s small, but the plants are well-curated and it's also decorated with all these great magazines and art. It was a lot of fun actually meeting both the owners because I follow them on Instagram, and really like their aesthetic in the way they shoot stuff. It's not your mum’s plant store, which is really, really cool. They were super casual, and to be honest, I didn't expect anyone to be in the store, but when I was shooting the feature, as well as the cover, it was really busy. And again, it’s a small store, so you know we’d be chatting and then they'd be helping customers. It felt like visiting friends.
STEFANI: They've got really, really great plants, things that you can't find in any other store. I think their aesthetic is what draws everyone there.
DANNY: Yeah, I loved that they kept visiting the store during lockdown to water the plants and they said they didn't have any casualties or you know, any deaths from the plants over that period.
STEFANI: Amazing, they need to come over to our house.
MARCO: Like their children… So yeah, the cover was fun because they're really outgoing people and great to hang out with. All the bars were still closed, but most were doing takeout or delivery, so we got a drink after it wrapped. Some guy just pulled up on his Vespa and delivered a Negroni and Margarita and whatever else everyone wanted. It was a nice shoot, it felt really comfortable, and didn't feel awkward.
DANNY: And Stefani, when we caught up, you mentioned that you guys had moved from the US, that you were looking to move somewhere with a good quality of life and where you could be entrepreneurs and creatives, and Athens, given your family history was a good place to go. Now, we're seeing a lot of people leaving these big cities because of Covid; people are leaving New York City for more rural areas or second cities. Would you say Athens is a great place to move if you're leaving New York City or London or LA or something like that?
STEFANI: I think it's perfect. It's still a big city, but yet very, very small. I can't really compare it to London or New York, I mean those are massive metropolitan cities, but the great thing about Athens is that you have the best of both worlds. You have the slow lifestyle and then you have the fast city pace, cars in your face, loud noises everywhere.
MARCO: Greece is open. If you can, come visit, it's a big part of the economy. If you're still scared, there's plenty of islands where you don't have to be close to anyone. So, do your research.
STEFANI: And they take the right safety precautions travelling so it's okay. Make sure you buy from small businesses, don't ever stop doing that, because they're in dire need right now.
DANNY: To Denmark now, which was one of the first European countries to shut down restaurants and bars and shops when Covid reared its head. It was also one of the first ones to reopen. Our contributor Miriam Partington profiled a few really interesting Copenhagen businesses in the latest issue, to find out how they were reopening. Miriam's normally based in Berlin, but she was here to give us a bit of an update.
MIRIAM: They were very efficient with closing things down, so they were able to contain the [coronavirus] quite well. Lots of businesses there have been reopening slowly over the last couple of weeks, and some have even been starting from scratch, to be honest. Atelier September – which is a vegetarian cafe run by a guy called Frederick Brahe – I chatted to him for the issue. He was speaking about how he's reopened his vegetarian cafe, as well as some of his other restaurants that he owns within Copenhagen, but how lockdown was a real opportunity for him to rethink his business concept.
I think he realised that customers wouldn't necessarily be okay with being in a very intimate setting indoors; with the summer coming, he just thought instead of having a sit-down cafe, why not try and pursue this takeout model so that people can just drop in, pick up a nice vegetarian salad or some local eggs, and then go and sit by the park. So he's actually opened Atelier September as a deli and farm shop now, which is pretty cool.
DANNY: I love that so many restaurants and cafes have just become like larders and you go there to pick up eggs and spring onions and stuff. Are they ever going to go back to being a restaurant? Who knows?
MIRIAM: Yeah, exactly. I think it's quite nice because for Frederick, for example, it was really important to him to support his local producers. Actually, a lot of the restaurants and cafes in Copenhagen, when it comes to their strategy going forward, they're thinking about how to stay relevant and connected to their local community. It's been quite a dramatic shift from global to local, I suppose.
DANNY: You also interviewed Zara and Mia from Lille Bakery and those guys they're, obviously a bakery and cafe, they pivoted a bit during lockdown, too, right?
MIRIAM: Yeah, that's right. So first of all they opened up an online grocery store, and then they also started up a bike delivery service, which they managed to put into operation pretty much overnight. It's run by their friends and neighbours on a voluntary basis, which is pretty cool. They want to keep the grocery store running because I think they realised how profitable it is, but also how much people like this idea of what you were saying about turning into a larder and selling local products, but I think they want to eventually phase out the delivery model. With Lille Bakery, they aren't in the city centre, they are located in a tiny little suburb so people actually have to travel out of the city to convene there. The feedback that they've got from customers is that they actually just love travelling to the bakery and spending an afternoon chatting, working, whatever it is. Having this delivery model doesn't really match the core concept of their business, which is ultimately bringing people together in one place. I think they're looking forward to fully transitioning back to being a cafe.
DANNY: Finally this week, Elizabeth Haigh is no stranger to Courier's pages or podcasts. She's a Michelin-starred chef and the owner of new restaurant Mei Mei in London's Borough Market. She's also our latest startup diarist in the newest issue of the magazine. Mei Mei was beginning to thrive before the pandemic, but then had to shut down like everyone else. In the magazine that's out now, Elizabeth wrote about the challenges she faced during lockdown, but things have even progressed since the issue came out; namely, Mei Mei is open for business now. Elizabeth told us about what’s happened since then.
ELIZABETH: Well, I think last time we spoke we were just starting our online shop. That was going really well for about two months, then we saw a massive drop off in sales, which was a bit worrying, but I really put it down to other places opening plus a lot of places doing meal kits and switching to online e-commerce as well. There's just simply more options for everyone so they're not spending as regularly on one particular item. We've got a really good customer base, and I'm really, really thankful for our regular customers who buy our produce.
We thought that we needed to bring back Mei Mei so we did make the decision to reopen it about two weeks ago. I brought one staff member off furlough, my second in command, whose main job is basically to keep me sane, as the past few months I've been on my own. It's been tough. As everyone knows, holding a business on your own is tough. The market never really closed down. I noticed with the good weather, places began serving things for takeaway or out on the street al fresco, so we followed suit and were absolutely slammed the first two weekends. It was really nice to see our regulars, people coming up to Mei Mei and straightaway knowing exactly what they wanted to order, which was just really nice to also feel like people know what Singaporean and Malaysian food is now. So, yeah, we were really, really happy for the past weekend, and we're hoping for another big weekend, this weekend as well.
But financially, has it changed positively in any way? I think it's too early to say yet. We haven't made any significant losses or any significant gains. I think the produce sales definitely helped tide us over, and made sure that we were covered for any outstanding liabilities, so we don't owe any debt, which is a huge positive. In terms of staff coming off furlough, I think it's gonna be really hard to say whether the company's financially in a positive position. I don't think any company can really say for certain that at this point. There's a lot of silver linings in a way. We've seen an opportunity with Mei Mei to provide a really great takeaway service, as well as customer facing. I'm there every day, so I get to really communicate and give that customer experience. We've been working closely with our landlords at Borough Market, and have seized an opportunity to cater the evenings. We're going to try and provide a real dining experience that's physically distant, safe, but also just fun. Basically, everyone's missing hospitality, right? At Mei Mei, we will provide that.
Patience. I have learned to really appreciate every aspect and learn every aspect of managing a company, as well as time management. I've learned never to take for granted that extra hour or two. While there's just always something to do, don't forget about the good stuff: take a time out, take a little break every now and then, take a breather, and then re-attack it. I think I've pushed myself quite hard over the past three months, and we nearly burnt out a couple of times. We definitely needed to reassess and take a step back in order to tackle things a bit more constructively. This whole pandemic and this whole closure has made me really appreciate every part, not only of what our team does, but what the customers and fan base really provide for Mei Mei as well. We're really excited to reopen and if we can come out of this stronger, then let's bring it on.
DANNY: That's it for this week's edition of the Courier Weekly podcast. As ever, any questions or comments, just shoot me an email at [email protected]. I'm Daniel Giacopelli, Courier Weekly is back again next week.