Only 2% of Wisconsin restaurants are Black-owned, this couple is changing that with an ingenious idea

Abu Mubarik May 23, 2024
Emerald Mills-Williams and Jervel Williams stand for a photo. Photo courtesy Emerald Mills-Williams

According to data from the National Restaurant Association, only 2 percent of restaurants in Wisconsin are owned by Black entrepreneurs. Black businesses in general have a challenge starting a business, with the most obvious being financial barriers.

In the food industry in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a Black business owner with perfect credit still finds it very hard to raise funds because most banks won’t fund a restaurant that’s less than eight years old, Emerald Mills-Williams told WPR.

Mills-Williams is behind a Milwaukee incubator called Turning Tables, which supports future Black restaurant owners. She owns the business with her husband.

“Most people that are African American—and other minorities in a lot of cases—aren’t financing businesses through traditional financing, meaning they’re bootstrapping. They’re using their own personal resources, as did we, even though we did have some funding,” Mills-Williams said.

“In addition to that, if you have access to capital, you can’t hire the people with the skill level that you need in all areas. You may operate a business and not have an accountant right away. You may operate a business and not have an HR team or person right away. You may not have an events coordinator in your restaurant. You may be doing all those positions yourself.”

Mills-Williams’ startup restaurant, Turning Tables, calls itself a “food incubator” that serves as a working kitchen for unlicensed chefs and potential food entrepreneurs. According to the food entrepreneur, Turning Tables came about as a combination of different things. “Most importantly,” she told WPR, “when I became aware that only 9 percent of restaurant owners are African American and in Wisconsin, it’s only 2 percent.”

After two years of operating in downtown Turner Hall, Turning Tables recently moved to a new space to recommit to its model as a learning kitchen.

“To be completely honest, the move was a little bit unexpected, Mills-Williams told WPR. “There were a lot of (financial) projections given to us. Turner Hall is a great space, but it probably wouldn’t have been ideal for a startup restaurant.”

“We realized really early on that we probably won’t get anywhere near those projections unless we abandon our mission and just become focused on being the restaurant. And even with doing that, it seemed like we may need some additional help from some sort of miracle.”

On what the new location has to offer, Mills-Williams said there were some barriers around licensing and having hot food vendors in the old location. She noted that the law is written in such a way that food entrepreneurs would have to already be licensed to be able to sell food at all.

“The way that we are set up now will be more or less like a market. We will have different rotating hot food vendors on various different days of the week. People can experience the vendors and we won’t be the ones that have to bend and produce food every day as we did in that space.

“People will be able to get a taste of the local up-and-coming vendors or vendors that have businesses but don’t have brick and mortars — maybe operate a food truck and can only do it during a good season or maybe are just caterers and don’t have a place to sell their food when they’re not catering,” she said.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: May 23, 2024


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