Rodney Lewis said, to his knowledge, he was the first Black restaurant owner in downtown Waterloo in 2017 when he opened Rodney’s Kitchen and Catering — which serves a variety of foods, including seafood and soul food.
A former culinary student turned head chef, Lewis said he once sold food from steam tables outside a city consignment store and laundromat. In 2015, he opened a precursor to Rodney’s Kitchen, providing walk-up counter food service.
Though Lewis said he had developed a following by the time he opened his downtown location, a loan from Denver Savings Bank was crucial for him in getting his business off the ground.
“That was real important that they gave me my first shot, my first loan, because if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would’ve been open because I didn’t have the capital to continue to run the business,” he recalled.
Now, Lewis said, he has for years headed successful community programs out of his restaurant. Under one program, he gives less-fortunate students free sack lunches during their spring and summer breaks — feeding more than 7,000 students over the 2019 summer.
Another program entails a free Thanksgiving dinner and clothes drive for the local homeless population.
“I said to myself, once everything got going with me and my business, I was going to try my best to continue good things in my neighborhood,” Lewis said.
Minority entrepreneurs, and their ideas waiting to be realized, represent “a real opportunity for economic growth,” said Jayne Armstrong, district director for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Iowa District Office, which operates out of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
Armstrong’s office has targeted outreach programs to help Black entrepreneurs realize their goals — a demographic she said has seen comparatively less business activity compared to Hispanic and Asian Americans.
“There are so many resources out there to help Black entrepreneurs start their businesses and grow them, but we just have to connect the dots,” said Armstrong, citing a real or perceived lack of access to capital as a key issue. “It’s important for us to make those connections as to how the businesses can get off the ground and how we can support them for what their needs are.”
In recent years, the SBA has awarded annual Top Lender awards to institutions that have supported minority-owned businesses. Armstrong said her office also has sought to connect the “hidden economy” of home-based businesses to community resources.
A minority entrepreneur might start a successful day care center, barber or beauty shop at home but might feel isolated, not knowing there’s a “vast network of resources” available, she said.
“The worst thing is when you see somebody that gives up when they never should’ve given up ... just because they have the wrong information,” Armstrong said. “They might have a very viable idea, and they just need to get somebody behind them and connected to the right resources so they can really get their business off on the right foot.”