Utah becoming the new frontier for booming black-owned businesses

Story and photo by TALON CHAPPELL

Cold, conservative, culturally closed, homogenous.

For many outsiders, these are the words used to describe the state of Utah and its values. But steadily, more and more diversity has moved within Utah’s borders.

The increasing job market has given birth to a new pilgrimage to the state, one vastly different than the one Brigham Young and his Mormon followers made some generations ago. It’s bringing a new wave of African Americans and their families who have uprooted their lives from the other side of the country, and have settled down in the Salt Lake Valley, eagerly attempting to start a new life, but simultaneously maintaining their Southern roots.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the African American population in Utah is at 1.3 percent, which is up 65.9 percent from the 2000 Census that listed the African American population at 0.8 percent. A major cause of the increase was Hurricane Katrina and relocation efforts in 2005. According to ABC News, nearly 600 evacuees were brought to Salt Lake City in the wake of Katrina.

The entire state saw a 23.8 percent increase in total population, which many believe to be a sign of Utah’s economic growth in times of dismal economic decline. According to Forbes.com, the employment growth average for the state of Utah is 0.6 percent per year, which differs drastically from the national average of -0.6 percent per year. This and many other reasons led to Forbes.com listing Utah as the best state for business for the third consecutive year.

James Jackson III is the founder and executive director of ACCEL (African-Americans Advancing in Commerce Community Education & Leadership). He is a firm believer that Utah’s increasing African American population is due to the state’s growing job market. “Most of them move [to Utah] because of a job,” said Jackson about African Americans moving from the other side of the country.

Jackson and ACCEL  have helped numerous black-owned small businesses in the greater Salt Lake area by offering members greater networking resources, financial guidance and emotional support from other members. Moving companies, catering companies, physical therapists, network marketing, financial services, barbershops and restaurants have all been opened by African American citizens and are aided by ACCEL. “The ethnic community is very tight … and the businesses reflect that,” Jackson said.

Papa O's Asset for Story 1

Marcus Brinson, part owner of Papa O’s restaurant in Draper, is hard at work in the kitchen. Papa O’s is one of the newest members of ACCEL.

Take a trip down to 11483 South State St. in Draper, and you might as well have driven down to a country kitchen in southern Florida. Papa O’s soul food restaurant is a newer member of ACCEL  and has been offering authentic Southern-style comfort food to Utahns since October 2012. Marcus Brinson is part owner and manager of Papa O’s. He and his family, including four of his seven children, moved to Utah from Naples, Fla. (near Fort Myers) last September, after his sister, who also lives in Utah, said there was no diversity in the food.

“I was really hesitant,” said Brinson about moving his family from Florida to open a restaurant. Brinson said the business went through a turbulent time when sales would be booming one day and excruciatingly slow the next.

In addition, he said some of his employees were not passionate about the food, or the restaurant’s customers.

“We had some employees that put us in a bad spot,” Brinson said.  “So I made a change.”

He decided to make the restaurant a family affair. His kids clean tables and take orders, he and his sister take turns managing the restaurant, and he even has his mother making all the desserts by hand. All of the restaurant’s dishes are family-kept recipes including juicy fried chicken, smoky barbecue ribs, creamy mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, crispy fried okra, and five different kinds of cornbread.

Stanley Ellington, the executive director of the Utah Black Chamber of Commerce frequently attends UBCC meetings at Papa O’s as well as at other black-owned businesses in the greater Salt Lake area. Ellington still thinks the state has a long way to go in reaching racial equality in small business platforms.

“I have discovered there is a great divide between the haves and the have not’s,” Ellington said. “They [African Americans] don’t have the resources that are needed in order to create their business … that’s why I’m in Utah … to be a leader.”

Ellington was born in Alabama and lived in Washington, D.C., both of which are considered hubs for the national African American community. He moved to Utah in 2000 while serving in the Air Force and decided to stay after retiring in 2002. Ellington believes that the number of black-owned businesses listed in the census information is overrepresented. He also believes that several black-owned businesses in Utah have failed due to a lack of knowledge and racial tension within the state.

“People know prejudice is alive and well,” Ellington said. “We’re [UBCC] coming [up] with a solution.”

Overall, the economic future looks bright for all Utahns. As employment rates rise, so too does the state’s diversity.

A report made by the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy showed that Utah had 241,692 small businesses in 2008, accounting for almost 50 percent of private sector jobs. These numbers are expected to grow after another report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce listed Utah in its  top-10 economic “Boom States.”