February 14, 2023
From a jazz club to a speakeasy, more Black-owned businesses are coming to the Seaport
For the longest time, there were only two Black-owned businesses in Boston’s newest neighborhood: Seaport Barbers and Larry J’s BBQ Cafe.
Then last year two more opened up in the Seaport District. Over the summer, Tambo Barrow, who owns gourmet burger joint Bred, set up a takeout place at the Design Center, and in December, Andrew Alicea, the barbershop owner, expanded to a second location.
Turns out that may just be the beginning of a wave of Black entrepreneurship in a district that a Globe Spotlight series once dubbed “a brand new Boston, even whiter than the old.”
In the coming weeks, restaurateur Nia Grace in partnership with entertainment group Big Night will be opening “Grace by Nia,” a modern-day supper club in a former movie theater space. Gavin Moseley, who operates five bars in New York City, will bring his speakeasy concept, Borrachito Taqueria & Spirits, to the area as well. Meanwhile, Olrie Roberts, chef-owner of ZaZ in Hyde Park, is planning to open a bar.
Alicea, Grace, Moseley, and Roberts have all been working with WS Development, which owns and manages 20 blocks of retail space in the heart of the Seaport.
“It has always been a dream to come home,” said Moseley, who grew up in Jamaica Plain and left to study hospitality at Cornell University in upstate New York. “It didn’t make sense until now.”
Moseley, cofounder and president of the Garret Group, has been looking for space for several years and began negotiations with WS before the pandemic. He always thought he would open his first Boston location in the Back Bay or Downtown Crossing, but the Seaport neighborhood is a better fit, emerging in recent years as a hot spot for young professionals.
“Obviously, when I was growing up there, the Seaport was not a thing,” said Moseley.
He didn’t want a traditional landlord-tenant relationship but rather more of a partnership. In WS, Mosley said, he found that.
“I had heard reports that they were difficult to deal with . . . you sign the lease and then they forget about you,” he said. “That has not been our experience at all.”
Two years ago, I wrote about Whipped Urban Dessert Lab as a cautionary tale of a Black-owned business that got away after its owner had a frustrating experience dealing with WS. Instead of opening up in the Seaport, Whipped Urban went to New York City to set up its first storefront. There the innovative oat-milk ice cream concept developed a cult following, garnering accolades and even a mention on the Cooking Channel’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Next up for the company: a new store in West Hollywood, Calif., this spring.
WS has said it did everything it could to help Whipped Urban succeed. The developer’s approach these days seems to be yielding better results in recruiting Black tenants.
“Every deal is bespoke and must make sense both for the operator and for us,” said Ariel Foxman, WS’s general manager of Boston Seaport, in a statement. “We work hard to understand the intricacies of our partners’ businesses and what’s important to them based on where they are in their lifecycle, so that we can structure something that’s mutually beneficial and positions them for growth.”
Alicea opened Seaport Barbers on WS property in 2017 on Northern Avenue. Not long after, he knew he wanted a second location and began scouting out sites under construction. In the spring of 2021, WS showed him a space in a retail section it is calling “The Superette” on Pier 4 Boulevard. He knew instantly that it was the right spot for his new salon, Hair Seaport.
He co-owns the business with his 27-year-old son, Andrew Alicea Jr., who managed the construction, design, and financing of the project.
“I wanted to get into generational wealth,” said the elder Alicea. “I want my kids to do well as my mother saw me do well.”
There haven’t been many Black entrepreneurs in the Seaport, but it’s not for lack of interest. The rent alone can be triple the cost of other neighborhoods, and small business owners of color ― who usually aren’t as well-funded as white entrepreneurs ― have to weigh whether it’s worth the risk. At the same time, the Seaport is where entrepreneurs of color would like to be because that’s where people with disposable income are shopping and eating.
“I’ve been offered Mattapan, other places in Dorchester,” said Bred owner Barrow, whose restaurant is in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester. “We would like to spread out . . . we want to be able to be in areas where we can make money.”
Last summer, Barrow signed a one-year lease to operate a take-out-only location of Bred at the Design Center on Drydock Avenue to gain a foothold in the market, as he continues his years-long search for a permanent location in the Seaport.
“We should be in those spaces. We’ve done what we have needed to do,” said Barrow. “We should be able to expand and get the love in different places.”
Segun Idowu, the city’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, gives credit to WS, one of the Seaport’s major landowners, for bringing change to a neighborhood.
“We’ve seen our past not informing the future,” Idowu said. “Black businesses have wanted to be all across the city, not just where they were told they had to be. But I think what we have is a new era of intentionality on the part of WS.”
Grace, the owner of Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen and The Underground Cafe & Lounge, has been eyeing opportunities beyond her Roxbury/South End neighborhood. Her latest venture grew out of a friendship with Ed Kane, co-owner of Big Night, which already operates two restaurants and a nightlife venue in the Seaport.
Grace, who is one of the organizers of the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition, said she got to know Kane during the pandemic as they worked to help the hospitality industry recover from the economic shutdown. They discovered they had a lot in common and decided to join forces to create a jazz club.
Entrepreneurs of color tend to cluster in certain neighborhoods, but Grace said it shouldn’t be that way. They need to feel welcome not just in the Seaport but all over Boston, especially in busy areas like Newbury Street in the Back Bay and downtown by Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
“These kinds of areas are supposed to celebrate our diversity that we have,” said Grace. “This is supposed to be the norm.”
By Shirley Leung
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