When God closes one door, some say a greater one will open. This was the case for Chicago, IL-based entrepreneur Kristen Ashley Harper.
Harper is the founder of Cleo’s Southern Cuisine, a restaurant offering locals fried catfish fillet, fried chicken wings with Belgian waffles, and sides, or “unforgettables” as its website states, including butter herbed rice, “gold” muffins, and Creole crab mac and cheese, among others.
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The visibility has caused the business to see an uptick in support.
“It has just been insane,” Harper told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Tickets just pouring off the table, the lobby packed, the phones ring at both locations. It has just been amazing.”
What’s more, Harper will now be able to expand her flagship restaurant in light of a grant through the Black Kitchen Initiative. According to its website, the initiative, created by Heinz and supported by Let’s Empower Employment (LEE) Initiative and the Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice (SRRJ) coalition, is designed to remove barriers faced by Black individuals in the culinary field by providing them with resources and long-term support. Already 62 Black-owned businesses have been awarded a total of $1 million in 2023, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Harper’s initial reaction to learning she would be a recipient of a Black Kitchen Initiative grant left her “speechless,” she told the outlet. However, the journey to securing funding for her business had not been easy. In the early days, she says she faced numerous rejections from banks unwilling to provide a loan for her restaurant venture.
“I went to different banks, and they were not willing to take a chance on a young Black girl,” she said.
She continued, “It’s hard for Black and brown people to get traditional loans or any kind of help from these big banks. So, these organizations like The LEE Initiative — when they partner with a brand as big as Heinz, it gives some kind of peace of mind that, OK, somebody’s paying attention, somebody understands we need a little bit of help. We don’t need a handout; we just need a little bit of help.”
The restaurant owner now can look forward to a new larger location for her flagship, set to open in 2024. The outlet notes she already has an additional downtown location and signed a lease in the Avondale neighborhood to expand to a ghost kitchen as well.
Furthermore, because of the grant, Harper will not only be able to expand on her business vision but also give back, as she plans to allocate a portion of the investment towards awarding Christmas bonuses to her staff.