Sabrina Brockman – Guest Writer
Originally Published : June 5, 2020
GUEST COLUMNIST: SABRINA BROCKMAN
I’m pleased to share a column from Sabrina Brockman. Sabrina is the owner of two locations of Grandchamps, a community- focused restaurant serving Haitian cuisine in Bed Stuy and the Navy Yard, Brooklyn. Check them out here: http://www.grandchamps.nyc/ and please read Sabrina’s column below.
When Dana from HL called me to write something to share for the latest edition of this newsletter, we discussed the importance of this time. It’s really hard to choose what to say to a suddenly captive audience who hasn’t listened for what feels like forever – and to sift through the many important things there are to say.
We know that being an entrepreneur and a small business owner is akin to being a juggler performing on a boat in rocky waters. If you’re black, you are juggling in the middle of a tropical storm with a life vest – and you don’t know how to swim. Either way, you might make it. If you do this successfully, it means that you have a particular grit and grind that not many people have quite frankly. I’ll be the first to admit, as a black woman business owner/entrepreneur (and corporate executive, Mom of 2, wife) – I’m a superhero and total badass.
I remember taking an internship at Goldman Sachs in their Global Equity Research Department while in university. I was the only black intern and the only one that didn’t come from an Ivy League school. It didn’t take me and others long to realize that I didn’t belong. The other interns were already programmed with the language and familiarity of this environment. I would get asked “How did you get here?”, and not in a way that acknowledges the achievement but the impossibility of deserving to be there. I wasn’t looking for charity or props either – I was there to work and gain experience just like everyone else.
There are standards of business that exists here in America designed by and for a particular group of people [not black people]. The restaurant industry in NYC is no different. High-end restaurants in places like NYC, who have established the standards for the industry, have staff that know how to give service because they know what it’s like to be served.
What if you open a restaurant in a black community? Should you align with those industry standards so you can compete with the broader industry? If so, who do you hire? What lengths should you go to make the experience familiar to patrons? Who are your patrons?
These were things we had to consider when we opened Grandchamps’ first location in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in 2015. We could do the same as other businesses that were importing staff and clientele, but why? Why should I again compete with something that doesn’t even recognize me?
We signed our lease in 2013, the same year the Black Lives Matter movement was formed after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed American teen Trayvon Martin for no good reason. In 2014, two cops were killed in an ambush near Myrtle and Tompkins Aves by a man who traveled from Baltimore vowing to kill officers. This rocked the community and intensified an existing, and disturbing divide that was growing between blue and black lives. A war was brewing. It wasn’t enough to say Black Lives Matter. Our duty was to save as many black lives as possible. By getting them off the streets, they had a better chance.
In light of this, our first set of employees included a group of young men who ritually hung out on a nearby corner. Most of them had never had jobs and were not in school. They needed training, guidance and mentorship. But one outcome I didn’t expect was that community members, who were familiar with them – and not necessarily in a favorable light, saw them going to work every day and could witness them in a positive environment. Police officers would see and recognize them in our space too, having A-HA moments right before our eyes. This is how I knew we were making a difference.
We built our business on purpose and on values. We’ve created our own set of standards so we don’t have to worry about what anyone else is doing. Through Grandchamps, we committed to do our part in elevating the status of black people in society – who are portrayed and perceived as poor, lazy and inarticulate with no excuses. Our people, which include employees and the community, are crucial assets that we invest in whenever possible. Their safety and their wellbeing come first. Everyone who enters our space has our promise to be treated with dignity and respect. The benefits of doing business this way is now incredibly apparent to us. As the global pandemic gained steam, we were guided by our values. Our community that surrounded us activated with us – and not surprisingly – they were very much aligned to us. Nothing is perfect but when you serve people, you are in touch with what they need.
While building and running a business is hard enough as it is, successfully doing so puts us all in a place of privilege. I believe now, more than ever, that we must be driven by purpose and values in our decision making. When the world is turned upside down, this might be the only thing that keeps us grounded and together, focused, sane and relevant.
I hope that everyone reading this finds renewed strength to persevere through this challenging environment to be a part of this important shift for humankind.
Wishing you all safety, health and happy moments.
Thank you so much Sabrina. If anyone has any comments on Sabrina’s column, please send it here and I will share your thoughts with her. Writers love feedback so don’t be shy and please reach out.