'It shows anyone can do anything': How Linc Up Soul Food Café is driving change

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As southeast Grand Rapids faces gentrification, Linc Up Soul Food Café Manager Kassandra Lott hopes her restaurant will inspire support for businesses owned by people of color and will serve as a beacon of hope for the community.

About the authors:  

Mariah Barrera is 14 years old and attends City High Middle School. She has been interested in journalism since elementary school, where she created and ran the school newspaper. She loves playing soccer and has a large passion for photography. She is involved in a photography class at WMCAT (West MichiganCenter for Art and Technology). She has numerous awards for photography from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Cierra Barrera is 17 years old and is a junior at Innovation Central High School under the Business Academy. She is the first high school intern at Adamy Valuation and holds the title of being a regional champion at Michigan DECA 2017, the state career development conference. Cierra is involved in TRIO Upward Bound and WMCAT. She enjoys singing and making music, as well as reading and writing.
Cierra (left) & Mariah Barrera (right)
Both Mariah and Cierra are residents of the southeast community of Grand Rapids.

Madison Square has been a commercial hub since the 20th century. In the 1920s, the area was filled with merchants and business owners of all kinds. The entrepreneurial spirit that took hold of the community still roams the air today, as small businesses are finding their niche in the urban community.

Linc Up Soul Food Café is a black-owned establishment that just got off the ground three years ago. It lies on the corner of Madison and Hall. Throughout the three years, the establishment has passed through the hands of different managers. Not until this year does the current manager, Kasandra Lott, feel the business is pointed in the right direction. Under her management, things have been tightened up and a positive environment for the business has been created.

Like many small business owners/managers, Lott noticed some of the challenges that were faced upon creating the business. “People taking us seriously,” Lott says, later elaborating on the ways black stereotypes can have an effect on the way others view black-owned establishments.

“You kind of hear that [blacks] don’t stick together, that we don’t unite. But we’re showing them that we can; we can unite,” says Lott.

The café is a perfect example of this statement, with a predominantly black staff who are thriving together and creating community in the restaurant. According to Lott, many minority-owned businesses face the fear of not being taken as seriously as their white business counterparts a stigmatized idea that needs to be dismantled at the core, starting with more businesses like this beating the odds.

Although there were initial challenges for the café to get up and running, a non-profit organization headquartered in the same building as the café, Linc Up, alleviated some of the stress that comes with starting a new business. Linc Up is an organization based in southeast Grand Rapids that engages in community revitalization through partnerships and collaborations. Linc Up owns the building that houses the Soul Food Café and provides them with grants to keep their space in the building, as long as the business itself shows growth. Without these grants, Lott explains, they could potentially lose the building.

She also explains concern over the Trump administration and the threats of reduced funding to community outreach programs similar to Linc Up. She feels the extra support is crucial to the success of new businesses, especially in inner-city communities such as this one.

So, why was this community chosen to start this new business? Lott explains the community needed a shift in another direction?

Linc Soul Food Café is located on the corner of Madison Avenue and Hall Street
“This area was bad... there was a lot of drug activity, prostitution. We just had to change it,” she later continues. “It was just going further and further down. Either we had to change it or this would become a [drug] infested city, so we had to turn it around.”

Being that she is not from the community, Lott developed a passion for the well-being of it; she feels she's already made a positive impact in the area.

“This business impacts the community in many ways. The people who work here are local; they live within walking distance of the café. They have insights, experience, and knowledge on what the community is about and how to cater to it,” says Lott.

Besides providing locals in the area with jobs, the establishment is also providing residents with common ground and unity.

“It [the café] is bringing all races together; we get all races in here,” Lott commented. As for what else the establishment offers the community, the answer is a no-brainer. "Good food!" she exclaims with a laugh.

Already home to a diverse atmosphere, Lott and the other employees create a friendly, relaxed environment for customers to make sure the patrons keep coming back.

The interview with Lott drew to an end as the establishment approached the busy lunch hours of the day. The future of the business is hopeful, as they are opening a second establishment in July with a similar food style. For Lott, in the next 10 years, she sees herself with her own restaurant that will serve similar soul food dishes as the café, as well as Mexican-inspired meals. As for the future of the community, Lott expresses her concerns. “I see more businesses growing, but [there is] a shift,” she says.

She explains as attention is now brought to the area, people who have the initial money needed to start a business without any support are going to move back into the community to take advantage of it, specifically affluent white people. This is the idea of gentrification: the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, which is followed by an increase in rent and property value, a change in character and culture of a community, and displacement of individuals.

Within recent years, the third ward area of Grand Rapids has been gentrified, as rent, typically around $600 a few years ago, is now $800 to $1,000. The effects of gentrification are often seen in a negative light rather than a positive one. In some ways, it limits the people in the community to turn the neighborhood  around themselves and allows people to just come in and take advantage of the lower standard of living. Throughout this process, the people who lived here originally gain little to no benefit.

So, what is the resolution? According to Lott, more minority-owned small businesses. Specifically, more support, both financially and socially, for establishments such as the Linc Up Soul Food Café. If more people are told they have the ability to turn their entrepreneurial ideas into a reality, they will start to believe it.

“It shows anyone can do anything,” Lott remarks about the establishment, in hopes the café will inspire others in the area to turn the community around one business at a time.

The Linc Up Soul Food Café is open Monday-Thursday, 7:30 A.M to 2 P.M and Friday-Sunday 10am to 5pm and is located at 1167 Madison Ave SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49507.

This feature is made possible through a partnership with the West Michigan Center of Arts and Technology and their Teen Arts + Tech Program. The program empowers youth of the community to affect social change through applying design thinking, arts, and technology to critical thinking, inquiry and practical application in the community.

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131 and Madison Square.

On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee livability of all children.

Photography by Cierra and Mariah Barrera. 

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