Despite the odds, Black-owned restaurant thrives because of COVID and gentrification

Posted at 3:00 PM, Jun 22, 2020

CINCINNATI — With the devastation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the various challenges gentrification has created in the downtown Cincinnati area, some Black-owned businesses have struggled to stay open and hold their ground in a quickly changing community.

However, Ollie’s Trolley, the West End restaurant serving up some of the most celebrated burgers in town, is prospering because of the pandemic, as well as the nearby construction of the FC Cincinnati stadium and the new demographics moving into Over-the-Rhine.

“We're actually doing more business now with the virus,” Ollie’s Trolley owner Marvin Smith said. “I'm not proud to say that, but it's just the reality.”

Smith said he does not have to clock his financial accounts like he used to.

“I don’t even have a look at that anymore," Smith said. "There's enough money to pay all the bills...and that's because of the influx of the people in the neighborhood, the influx of the construction workers here, and then the influx of the gentrification is taking place, you have a different clientele that wants a little bit more than just a burger and fries.”

Many of the competing restaurants in the area had to close down because of the quarantine and social distancing guidelines brought on by the pandemic. That meant patrons couldn’t get their hands on their savory, filling meals from their favorite food spots. But Smith was able to cash in on the moment by doubling down on his $9 plate specials in addition to his other fast-food items. Locals looking for some affordable grub could get an added touch of comfort with his homemade recipes he’s been perfecting since he was a child.

“I'm not a white businessman or a Black businessman,” Smith said. “I'm a businessman and I understand how to change to make that work.

“Good food and good service will win every time.”

Smith credits his success to being able to please the various kinds of customers that have become loyal supporters of his business. Over the years, he has mastered how to meet the soul-food cravings of the mostly Black customers who have been ordering from his trolley for almost 30 years. But gentrification, especially in the West End and Over-the-Rhine, has forced him to be more fluid and open-minded in how he caters to his diners.

“Currently we have, I would say, the majority of my customers are white,” Smith said. “For whatever reason, construction workers, new people to move into the neighborhood want something that's hip, modern, popular to do.”

Martin P. Doria, a Cincinnati native, has a habit of bringing over his colleagues with him from one of the nearby development sites to enjoy lunch outdoors.

“I’ve been coming to Ollie’s Trolley since I was a kid," Doria said. "My grandpa used to take me here and we enjoyed the cheeseburgers. ”

Belle Barrett, originally from Texas, has a soft spot for the plate specials.

“It's kind of like a family feel like coming down here," Barrett said. "I love the salmon croquettes, I love the mac and cheese, and the fish. Usually I get the tilapia or the whiting.”

Smith said he has been presented with a few large offers for his property as a result of the development in the area. He initially was eager to jump at one but has since decided to wait and mull over the decision whether or not to sell, and examine how he could maximize his profit with the equity he has earned on the property.

Smith once worked in real estate long before entering the food business, something he said is his unfair advantage that would keep him from leaving money on the table if he takes an offer. The restaurant owner wants to wait and see how things progress with the stadium being built and more activity being generated in the area.

Smith is in an enviable position; another soul food spot, Just Cookin, was forced to move from its original location in West End over to Bond Hill because of the construction of the FC Cincinnati stadium.

“That part of the West End didn’t have a lot of businesses,” said Eric Kearney, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce. “But the business opportunities have been pushed out because the cost of getting space there is going to be so high.”

Furthermore, the Black community was hit disproportionately hard by the COVID-19 pandemic in cases and the financial losses. Higher rates of African Americans were contracting the virus and losing work because of economic strains brought on by COVID. Simultaneously, the Urban League reports that 95% of Black businesses throughout the U.S. did not receive relief from the CARES Act. These frustrations appeared to make calls to support Black-owned businesses amid the additional unrest over racial injustice even louder and more urgent.

In response to these issues, the city of Cincinnati will invest $1 million into a new program with the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio to help infuse money into predominantly Black-owned businesses in the city’s proposed 2021 budget. Another project, called the "15 Percent Pledge," is asking corporations to purchase at least 15% of their inventory from Black suppliers.

Smith is aware of the struggles faced by his fellow Black business owners. He said he is caught between the prospect of taking an offer to sell his business that would bring wealth and options to him and his family. But he also doesn’t want to desert the place that has made him so successful, and wants to see Black-owned businesses maintain a presence in the area.

Besides, his customers don’t want him to go.

“Some customers got real fiery and angry with me, and said ‘You’re a sellout; you're gonna let them people come in here and buy your property and we're not gonna have no place to go. We don't have no place of our own anymore.’ I heard all that from my customers. I gotta listen to all that, because it means a lot to me, what people think about Ollie’s Trolley," Smith said. "It means a lot to me.”

Even with his personal dilemma, Smith supports the development in the area. He said he does not stand behind displacing people for the sake of gentrification. But he says the long-needed improvements that are being made to his neighborhood are only coming about because of the stadium that is being built. He has some advice to the people who are opposed to the gentrification and to FC Cincinnati making its new home in West End:

“It's already there, it's already approved, they already spent money. So don't spend the next four or five years crying and protesting against it. Find out how you can make some money off of it.”

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.