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Despite Pandemic Odds, 2 Cincinnati Minority Businesses Thrive

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Ann Thompson
/
WVXU
K & J Seafood Company is now open in Clifton, Findlay Market and has plans to move into Bond Hill.

Loans are hard to come by for any small business but minority owners have an even tougher time raising capital.  The African American and Filipino owners of a Cincinnati brewery and a restaurant had to figure out funding themselves. And despite the odds during a pandemic, both are thriving.

K & J Seafood Company

For Keyona Falings - who spent time in the South cooking seafood, and her friend Joy Willis, who also loved creating dishes - starting the K & J Seafood Company was a dream come true. They opened a carryout in Clifton in March 2019, expanded to Findlay Market in September 2020 and are now in the process of opening a restaurant in Bond Hill.

Both look back and wonder how they did it. No loans were available for their first location, according to Willis. "It was extremely challenging," she says. "For months it was hard work, tireless nights. You know, up at 5 a.m. So everything came out of our own pockets and out of our own blood, sweat equity."

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Credit Keyona Falings
From left: Keyona Falings and Joy Willis, owners of K & J Seafood Company.

They give God the glory. "It really is only God's grace," says Falings. "Our first restaurant, we were on our hands and knees laying tile down ourselves." 

At Findlay Market, where they talked to WVXU, their display case was filled with fresh lobster and shrimp. A hanging menu lists their specialities including gumbo, po' boys and seafood fries.

Bond Hill wasn't on their radar to open a restaurant but The Port, which had been doing work in that neighborhood for years, recruited them. Bill Fischer is vice president of community development. "They have a great following and they needed to scale up. So it was a perfect opportunity to match up the Bond Hill community that needs restaurants with this minority entrepreneur," he says.

It's unclear when K & J Seafood Company's Bond Hill restaurant will open at 4928 Reading Road. They're still in the build-out phase.

Esoteric Brewing Company

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Last fall, Filipino-American Marvin Abrinica already had one small business - WunderFund, a startup equity crowdfunding platform - and then the former Procter & Gamble brand manager started another with his African-American partner, brewer Brian Jackson.

"The biggest challenge was just getting people to believe, not just in the brewing - you know there's a lot of brewers here in Cincinnati, almost 60 of them already - but really to believe in a Black brewer," says Abrinica.

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Credit Courtesy Esoteric Brewing Company
Marvin Abrinica, Brian Jackson and Patrick Klesmith opened Esoteric during the pandemic. Even though they have to abide by COVID restrictions they are breaking even.

Esoteric crowd-funded its business and is now breaking even, despite COVID-19.

Again, with the help of The Port, the brewery was able to afford the renovated Paramount Building in Walnut Hills, at the corner of McMillan and Gilbert avenues.

"What we were able to bring to the table was a low interest loan that we received from the Kresge Foundation, specifically to help minority small businesses, entrepreneurs get started," Fischer says. 

He likens the building to something you would find in OTR: "a really cool space but with a very reasonable tenant loan."

The Port says it's continually trying to increase minority participation and growth of minority businesses.

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Credit Esoteric Brewing Company
Esoteric is on People's Corner in Walnut Hills.