Funding sources were not exactly tripping over themselves to finance Aniceto Charles’ vision for an authentic Jamaican restaurant in Waco.
The Houston native and his mother, Vivia Charles, who was born in Jamaica, moved to the area two years ago from Virginia. His business travels, even to London, England, put him in contact with Waco folks. That interaction — and his mother’s fondness for Chip and Joanna Gaines’ “Fixer Upper” TV show that showcased the city’s lifestyle — made Waco the choice when the family relocated from the East Coast after the death of Aniceto Charles’ father.
While his Tru Jamaica restaurant at 937 Taylor St. is off to a strong start, even navigating the hardships of COVID-19, getting the project off the ground presented challenges that required him to clear out retirement savings, Charles said.
Charles’ story is his own, but his experience seeking early funding is common among business people of color, said John Bible, president of the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce.
Bible said the biggest obstacle is lack of access to capital, whether to start a business, prepare and implement a marketing plan, achieve good accounting practices or to utilize the latest technology.
“These are things with very limited availability to black-owned business, which is why we do what we do to minimize that gap,” he said.
Charles said he has no regrets about making Waco his home. Tru Jamaica is making its place serving dishes such as curry goat, oxtail, jerk chicken and jerk shrimp, the latter priced at $12.99 and featuring jerk-spiced shrimp on a bed of coconut rice with peas, steamed cabbage, carrots, green peppers with onions and fried plantains.
It is mildly spicy, unless a customer prefers more bite, which is available.
Vivia Charles is the head chef. She is colorful, energetic and master of the zinger, the “soundbite queen,” her son said. He manages the place while also working as a data analyst with Ernst & Young, a professional services firm.
He said he has a good credit history, but finding funding for his 2,100-square-foot building on Taylor Street was tough.
“I’m now with a local bank, TFNB Your Bank For Life, and I do all my business through them. But securing the property and the land required my cashing out my 401(k),” Charles said, indicating he did not want to get specific about how much his investment in East Waco cost him.
He said he bought and still owns a lot in the 500 block of Elm Avenue, and first planned to build a restaurant there, joining revitalization efforts on the historical street seeing restored storefronts, infrastructure upgrades, other new restaurants and construction of three new hotels and apartments.
“Building a building is more expensive,” Charles said in explaining his decision to buy existing space somewhat removed from Elm Avenue’s potential bustle.
Like other businesses, Tru Jamaica has seen COVID-19 and the seating restrictions that accompanied it take a bite out of business. But Charles said he is surviving and even thriving after the tough road to opening shortly after Christmas last year.
He said securing a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, meant to help smaller businesses endure the pandemic, did prove beneficial. It kept his staff of 11 intact and allowed him to keep pace with utility bills.
Bible said the local chamber also has created the Cen-Tex Minority Business Equity Fund to provide short-term support to minority-owned small businesses facing unexpected disruptions, including hardship caused by COVID-19. The goal is to raise $100,000, pledges so far are running well past $20,000, and Bible said program sponsors hope to start accepting funding requests by the end of the month.
He said efforts to bring relief to small businesses hurt by COVID-19 remain in play, and are important, but the equity fund is perpetual.
Any McLennan County-based, minority-owned small business with 10 employees or fewer is eligible to apply for assistance, including grants or loans up to $2,500.
To people of color hoping to launch a business, Charles offered this advice.
“First you have to pray,” he said with all seriousness. “Do your research, have a plan for your plan. A lot of people have great ideas, but they don’t know where to go with them. The number one failed business in the world is a restaurant. We had a restaurant in Virginia, which we sold when my father got sick. Some people open restaurants and they literally do not know how to cook. Know your market and know the business you’re getting into.”
View others as resources, not competitors.
“Obviously there is a learning curve, and a good amount of knowledge to pursue,” he said. “Do not be afraid to talk to people.”