August 30, 2021 | National Black Business Month Spotlight: The Four Way and L. May Creations |
Left:: A server at The Four Way. Center: A loyal customer making a donation to The Four Way. Right: Community members play games at a recent Juneteenth event outside of L. May Creations.
In honor of National Black Business Month, we spoke with two Black entrepreneurs in UrbanMain commercial districts: L. May Creations in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago and The Four Way in south Memphis, Tennessee. The Four Way, a soul food restaurant, has been a staple in the community for 70 years, and L. May Creations, an event space, is only a few years old. But both business owners purchased their buildings and are passionate about creating a strong community of small business owners in their corridors. Keep reading to learn more about their businesses, the impact of the past year, and the support they received from their local UrbanMain programs.
L. May Creations: Chicago, Illinois
Left: The L. May Creations space set up for a birthday party. Right: A VIP area on the second floor of L. May creations. Photos courtesy of L. May Creations.
Letrusia May, owner of L. May Creations, is a native of the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, and is passionate about making the “Soul City” corridor on Chicago Ave. a destination for the community. While Letrusia found success in the real estate world, she decided to branch out and develop her event space in 2017.
Tell us about your business and how you got started.
L. May Creations is an elegant event space for the community to come and enjoy. We host birthday parties, baby showers, prom send-offs, and even weddings. I wanted a special place in the community, where people could come and see beauty and enjoy themselves. I purchased the building in 2017, and it was completely dilapidated at the time. I’m a licensed general contractor, so I did a complete gut rehab of the first and second floors.
Can you describe the process of purchasing the space?
Letrusia May: I own multiple residential buildings in the community, but the L. May space was my first commercial property. I purchased it at the urgings of a member of The Austin African American Business Networking Association (AABNA). Through the AABNA, I learned about a grant offered by the City of Chicago—the Retail Thrive Zone Grant. Through that grant, I received $180,000 to assist me in doing upgrades and beautifying the space.
It is more rewarding to be both the building owner and small business owner. It gives you a chance to worry more about being successful in the business and not worry about paying rental fees. Expenses are much higher, but it’s given me the opportunity to think of ways to grow the business and be more successful. If you know you want to make a purchase, it’s about sacrifice. If I can do it, anybody can do it.
How did you make the leap from real estate agent to small business owner and real estate developer?
Letrusia May: One of the Board Members for the AABNA Shirley Fields, asked me “What are you doing for your community?” She convinced me to start rehabbing properties, get commercial space, and to join the AABNA to help rebuild our community.
How has the AABNA assisted you and other small business owners?
Letrusia May: AABNA does so much for community and works to rebuild the Chicago Ave. corridor. Being able to fellowship with other businesses and all get together and talk about how to stay strong and patronize each other has been very rewarding. I became a board member for the AABNA because I saw that they’re a great organization that really cares about the community. We talk to people who want to become small businesses and assist them in getting off the ground. For me as a small business owner, I obtained a grant to purchase my building for my business, so I can speak to other small businesses and advise them on how to complete applications. Whenever the city rolls out grants, the AABNA holds meetings and makes sure we’re available to help small business owners with applying. They also incorporate small businesses in local events, like Kwanzaa celebrations and a 5K.
What advice would you give to other small business owners?
Letrusia May: If you never give it a try, if you never apply, then you’ll never be approved. I would tell them to look for an organization like the AABNA, who has meetings with small business owners to talk about grant applications and guide them through the process. I took a workshop like that, which really helped with my grant application.
Can you describe the small business environment in the corridor today?
Letrusia May: I love the Chicago Ave. corridor. All of the businesses—we’re like a family. We support each other; we’re there for each other; and we’re continuing to grow. People want to come out to the corridor. For Juneteenth this year, we wanted to give back to the community. So we did a pop-up shop for all the small businesses who wanted to come and sell their products and didn’t have a brick-and-mortar location. All the businesses form the corridor came out and supported the vendors. It was a great feeling to be supportive of those businesses.
What are your hopes for the Soul City corridor?
Letrusia May: The corridor is looking up. We have multiple restaurants opening, and other small businesses opening. Things are going in a positive direction, and I’m excited. I purchased a lot next door to L. May that will have a restaurant, and it should be up and running after a rehab in the summer of next year. I told myself, “You’re going to rebuild this community one property at a time,” and that’s what we’re trying to do.
The Four Way: Memphis, Tennessee
Left: Four Way staff provide meals to first responders. Right: The Four Way delivered meals to seniors during the pandemic. Photos courtesy of The Four Way.
For more than 70 years, The Four Way has been a soul food institution in South Memphis. The restaurant was a fixture during the Civil Rights era and was visited by prominent figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, as well as well-known musicians who visited from nearby Stax records. The Bates family purchased the building and the restaurant 20 years ago. Read our conversation with owner Patrice Bates Thompson below.
Tell us about your history with The Four Way.
Patrice Bates Thompson: I’m the current owner, and my family has owned the restaurant for 20 years. I’ve been the head person in charge since March of 2016 when my father became ill. I’m the bookkeeper, do administrative work, and run the daily operations. I have two children—a daughter who is 23 and my son who is 26. One day they will be partners in the restaurant.
My dad grew up in the neighborhood, and when he saw that the area was getting gentrified and things were starting to get knocked down, he had the opportunity to purchase the building. He bought it and reopened the restaurant. I worked at the restaurant for years and took things over from my dad. I’ve learned to embrace the business and enjoy running it now.
What is The Four Way’s role in the community?
Patrice Bates Thompson: The restaurant has been a staple in the community. People look forward to coming to the restaurant to hear about and see history. It’s a source of employment in the community and keeps people in the community uplifted. It’s not just a restaurant, but it’s a meeting place. People come here for meetings, to retreat into comfort, and know they’re getting food made with love from people who live in south Memphis. We try to be a beacon of light in community and an example of the rich history of the area.
Can you describe your relationship with your local UrbanMain program?
Patrice Bates Thompson: The Works allowed us to get out of our silo and view successes from other parts of the country with similar opportunities. It gave us the necessary push to take the lead for our own future. The Works exposed individuals who have their own agendas that aren't aligned with our particular needs and issues, which was great. It helped us find likeminded groups that we could can use to help us grow.
What challenges is your business facing?
Patrice Bates Thompson: Staffing is the biggest challenge right now. We’re trying hard to get new employees to come back in since some of our old employees didn’t return. We’d like to run six days per week, but we can only work three to four days per week due to staffing. Getting quality and consistent product is another issue. We don’t want to raise prices on our customers, but it’s difficult. We’re not able to get the same items we could usually get easily, and the items are not the same quality we’re used to.
How have you pivoted during the pandemic?
Patrice Bates Thompson: We’ve never stopped wearing masks, but a lot of customers don’t want to wear masks. So we’ve adjusted and have curbside service and preordering available online, which we never had before. We purchased a new phone, since we’re getting more calls about orders, and we can text and let people know their order is ready. We’re proud that we’ve done these things to adapt and help continue doing business safely. Because we are short-staffed we’re limited in our dine-in capabilities. Because we’re historic, we get a lot of customers from out of town and visiting for first time. But it can be hard to get in due to capacity restrictions.
What advice do you have for other small business owners during these difficult times?
Patrice Bates Thompson: Continue on and remain patient. Just try new ways and new strategies of doing your business. Remember your goals and never give up.
What’s next for The Four Way?
Patrice Bates Thompson: Before the pandemic started, we were working on purchasing other properties. We were fortunate that we were able to purchase a building next door to the restaurant. We’re calling it the Four Way Legacy Plus; it’s an event center that can host any type of event you could want. We’re hosting a birthday party soon and we already have a wedding and retirement party booked. It will also serve as a part-time to-go center for the restaurant since we get so many orders on the weekends. We received a $40,000 grant from American Express to enhance the outdoor space of the restaurant and put in a patio there, as well. We have a lot in store.