After several rejections, woman who started Chicago’s most talked about soul food restaurant receives grant to expand

Abu Mubarik December 12, 2023
Photo: Linkedin/Kristen Ashley Harper

Meet Kristen Ashley Harper; she is the founder and owner of Cleo’s Southern Cuisine, a restaurant that offers a wide variety of meals including chicken and waffles, the Hot Honey chicken sandwich, and the Fly Over, which features Creole-friend catfish filets and chicken wings topped with Creole-butter lump crab and house-made remoulade sauce, according to Chicago.Suntimes.

Before launching her restaurant in 2019, Harper was a basketball player turned sports journalist. However, she drifted towards her late grandmother’s soul food dishes, leading to the start of Cleo’s Southern Cuisine. “Everything that I do, or everything that I make, it’s always like she’s working through me,” Harper said. 

Starting the restaurant business took work for the entrepreneur. According to her, she went to different banks for funding support but no one was willing to take chances on a young black girl. 

“I went to different banks, and they were not willing to take a chance on a young Black girl,” she said. “It’s hard for Black and Brown people to get traditional loans or any kind of help from these big banks.”

Recently, her restaurant caught the attention of TikToker Keith Lee and was included in a Google advertisement featuring Keke Palmer surrounding Black-owned businesses, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “It has just been insane,” Harper said. 

“Tickets just pouring off the table, the lobby packed, the phones ring at both locations. It has just been amazing.” She eventually landed a grant from the Black Kitchen Initiative, which has awarded $1 million in total to 62 Black food business owners this year alone. 

She reportedly received a $15,000 grant. Black Kitchen Initiative was designed to remove barriers Black individuals face in the culinary field by providing them with resources and long-term support. It was created by Heinz and supported by the Let’s Empower Employment (LEE) Initiative and the Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice (SRRJ) coalition.

Harper, who also has a location in the Loop, was left “speechless” when she became a recipient of the Black Kitchen Initiative. The money will help her move her flagship Bronzeville restaurant to a bigger location. What is more, she just signed a lease for a space in a ghost kitchen in Avondale.

According to a report cited by the Chicago Sun-Times, 37 percent of Black small business owners find it difficult to access new capital and financing — 14 percentage points higher than nonBlack entrepreneurs

“So, these organizations like the LEE Initiative — when they partner with a brand as big as Heinz, it gives some kind of peace of mind that, OK, somebody’s paying attention, somebody understands we need a little bit of help. We don’t need a handout; we just need a little bit of help,” Harper said.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 12, 2023

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