Baltimore cafe owner ‘will carry on’ despite COVID hurdles
The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on black businesses, exacerbating the barriers people of color already face. Black homeownership rates fell the most of any racial group — 41% between February and April 2020, according to a report by the House Committee on Small Business. According to the report, small black-owned businesses experienced more financial hardship during the mandatory closures; are concentrated in major cities where COVID-19 rates tend to be higher; and had more hurdles accessing Federal Paycheck Protection Program loans. And while some black-owned businesses are recovering, others are still trying to hold on.
This is the case of Terence Dickson, owner of the Terra Cafe in Baltimore. When we last spoke with him in November 2020, he had just secured a PPP loan after being rejected earlier that year, receiving just over half of the $65,000 he requested. After more than a year, the Terra Cafe and Dickson have seen almost it all – from COVID restrictions and omicron surges to supply chain issues and inflated merchandise prices. But Dickson remains hopeful and believes his restaurant needs to stay strong through the turmoil.
“Marketplace” host Amy Scott sits down with Terence Dickson to discuss how his business has stayed afloat over the past year. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Amy Scott: So how’s business?
Terence Dickson: Business is great. Well, you know, when I say “awesome”, guess what? The lights are always on, okay? We still have morale. We get a win every once in a while. But we definitely take a few pieces here.
Scott: Trying to stay positive though, it seems.
Dickson: Hey, you must be. You must be.
Scott: So the last time we spoke – oh, it’s been over a year – and I don’t think anyone thought we’d still be here with the pandemic, you know, keeping people home, mask mandates still in place in many cities. How did you adapt?
Dickson: I tell you what, it was very difficult. One of the things is, you know, we started with the garden of jerks [selling jerk chicken]. You opened up with me about this last time. And it was phenomenal. I mean, we had jazz every Monday night. It was a place where people could really release that COVID-related fatigue, which I think is plaguing everyone right now. I think everyone is fed up. But, with everything going on with the weather, it was 86-ed very fast. You know, we started getting these 10s and these frosts, and you just couldn’t make it outside. So I had to bring him back inside.
Scott: I want to ask you about inflation, because everyone who, you know, buys food knows that prices have gone up. How does this affect your business? And how are you adapting?
Dickson: Well, I’ll tell you, as Fat Joe says, “yesterday’s prices certainly aren’t today’s prices”. You know what I mean? Let me give you a small 1, 2, 3: labor costs have certainly almost doubled. We had to come up with completely new concepts on how to pay people. Tipping will no longer suffice. Even with the tip, there’s a lot of downtime. You know, you can’t have someone come hang out with you all day and walk away with $10. It just doesn’t work. And then our food costs are just ridiculous. Because of the shipping and stuff and the scam, you know, a case of chicken wings that was $42 last year is now $190. A case of cups that costs $30 costs $85. And it’s not just that the prices are high. Because of the shortage, if you have any, you have no choice. You don’t have to take the hit once; you better have two cases, because you don’t know when you’re gonna give them another chance.
Scott: Or if prices will go up further.
Dickson: Yes, it really empowered a lot of people but still crushed some communities. You know, if you’re here in Baltimore, you know the diversity. For some reason you see how small businesses are closing left and right. And one of the things that I’ve noticed right now is that not only small businesses, but you have, like Subways, you have 7-Elevens – they’re closing. So when you have big franchises that, you know, just [have] a bunch of controls here to make them awesome and they close, it’s really kind of like a bulletin of what’s going on here in the city right now.
Scott: Have you ever thought you might have to close?
Dickson: Never never. If I have to reduce and sell a sub a day, we will continue. Because, you see, it’s bigger than a restaurant here at Terra Cafe. You know, it’s just not McDonald’s. We don’t pass burgers over the counter. What we represent here is “Black awesome”. And understand, Terra Cafe isn’t there just by being a star. We have been here for over 12 years now because of the scars. You know, we took licks, and we got back up, and we stayed strong.
Scott: Before I let you go, I have to ask you: what’s on the menu today?
Dickson: Ah, I knew you were going to. You know what we really pushed? You know, we have the most impressive underwater fish in the world. It’s a swai that’s seasoned and fried to perfection – 100% canola oil. Very well? Zero trans fat, okay? And with a special chipotle mayo on a toasted ciabatta bun with fresh spring mix and sliced fresh tomatoes and sautéed onions. Delicious. He’s the hitter of the day.