Black Entrepreneur State Fair a success in its second year

MSR Goddess Dillard-Saunders, owner of Bees,
Bullets and Recycling

This week marks the second annual Black Entrepreneur State Fair, an event aimed at supporting local Black-owned businesses. The Fair runs through Aug. 28 and is located in South Minneapolis on Chicago Avenue and Lake Street, just outside the Midtown Global Market.

It kicked off this past Sunday with a festive atmosphere. The fairgrounds took up nearly an entire block, which was packed with vendors selling a variety of goods ranging from jerk chicken and stuffed turkey legs to plants and handmade goods.

Upon walking into the Fair, after paying a $5 entrance fee and receiving a wristband, the first thing visitors will notice to their left is the kids’ section that includes bounce houses, ice cream trucks, and face painting. Not far from where the kids can romp is the main stage where a DJ works diligently to keep the atmosphere upbeat with a mix of hip hop and R&B songs.

The rest of the Fair is filled with dozens of vendors.

MSR Destinee Shelby

Fair’s origins

The Fair is the brainchild of Destinee Shelby, a Minneapolis-based serial food entrepreneur who has organized many events dedicated to highlighting Black businesses around the cities. She’s been on the food business scene since 2016 after launching Baked Brand, a custom cake and catering business that now serves as an umbrella for her other ventures.

Shelby was inspired to create the Fair following the civil unrest in the Twin Cities last year that was sparked by the police murder of George Floyd. Many BIPOC-owned businesses were severely damaged in the weeks following Floyd’s death and coupled with the closures brought on by the pandemic, these businesses found themselves in a vulnerable position.

According to the Lake Street Council, over 100 minority and immigrant-owned businesses sustained damage along Lake Street, totaling nearly $250 million in destruction. Many businesses remain boarded up or have closed indefinitely.

According to the Fair’s creator, promoting the work of underinvested businesses influenced her decision to create the event. Though last year was a bit difficult due to the COVID-19 related restrictions, there were still 50 vendors that took part in the Fair, according to Shelby. This year there are 77 vendors, including six community resource organizations such as Unidos and Minneapolis Public Schools.

Midtown Global Market was so impressed with Shelby’s work at last year’s “Black State Fair” that they reached out to partner with her on other events over the past year. That partnership made it possible for the Fair to take place once again just outside of the market’s building

A self-proclaimed “Lake Street baby” Shelby was born and raised in Minneapolis’ South Side and wanted to do her part in rebuilding her neighborhood. Her decision to host the Fair on Lake Street was intentional. “The decision that I made to use Lake Street was to kind of bring that healing energy that the event had after all the civil unrest that happened,” she said.

Shelby is also working with Midtown Global Market to launch her first restaurant in September. The Kitchen by Baked Brand will be housed inside the Market and offer a variety of foods and include a juice and cereal bar.

According to Fair officials, approximately 2,000 people attended on the first day. They pointed out that the large numbers allowed most of the vendors to recoup their fees for their booths. Many of the food vendors had reported to Shelby that they sold out before the day ended on Sunday and Monday.

Newton Williams and Bettie Knazzie-Williams, owners of ELLA’S Smoke Til Ya Choke (ribs, steak and wings)

Vendors pleased

“It was amazing. There’s no way I can’t go back,” said Jasmine Greene, the owner of Roots of Ruth, a source of organic body butters and scrubs. Greene said this was her second year and did not want to miss out on this year’s event.

Greene said most of her customers on Sunday were Black and she was encouraged by the enthusiastic support from the community. “It’s amazing to see people that look like me supporting me. I think there’s this stereotype that Black people don’t support or whatever, but they came out today.”

Kotiareen Taylor of K’s Revolutionary Catering also has a booth at the Fair where she is selling her Stay Well Tonic, a naturally sweetened turmeric and ginger drink. “We’re so honored and blessed to be a part of it,” said Taylor. She shared that although entrepreneurship isn’t new to the Black community, the exposure of this event was helpful to gain notoriety. “We’ve always known how to make ends meet one way or another. It’s just wonderful that we can be highlighted at this time.”

“I think it’s a beautiful thing to see everybody supporting everybody,” said Na’Dasia Johnson, who came to the Fair in support of her family’s food business, Everybody Must Eat.

Zayuoya Tinsley is a recent Twin Cities arrival and said she figured that attending the Fair was the best way to get to know the community. “I like that they had a woman and a man selling books that were all authored and illustrated by People of Color,” she said of Crown and Writer owned by Crown Shepard.

Tinsley found some items to be a bit pricey but figured that investing in her community was more than worth it. “It’s hard to start from the bottom with no support. That’s why I choose to support Black-owned businesses,” she said.

MSR Christina Jones, owner of True Queens Boutique

Shelby noted that the Fair has scaled a lot since the first time it was held and plans to continue making improvements. Things have become a lot more expensive to put together, however, she says she doesn’t want to overcharge vendors for their participation.

Minority-owned businesses in Minnesota have lagged behind their White counterparts for years despite making recent strides. In 2017, 11.1% of businesses were owned by People of Color, with 58,000 businesses out of the 522,144 in Minnesota, according to a report from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. That’s nearly double from the 6.3 percent that they owned 10 years prior.

The pandemic made things more difficult economically, with more than 40% of Black-owned businesses closing between February and April of last year according to a federal report. 

However, despite these challenges, Black businesses are showing no signs of slowing down in their goals of achieving financial independence and Black women are leading the charge.

A young fairgoer shows off his ride

Open to all

Last year’s fair received some backlash from some Minnesotans who saw the nature of the event as discriminatory and unfair due to the closing of the annual State Fair due to COVID.

Shelby stated that she wanted to be clear that although the event supports Black entrepreneurs, it welcomes all races. “I feel like a lot of people are not open-minded to really see what it’s about,” she said. “We’re not saying Blacks only, you can’t come if you’re not Black. That’s not our energy at all.”

Black State Fair runs August 22-28, from 11 am to 8 pm. The Fair is located at 920 East Lake Street in South Minneapolis. For more on the Black Entrepreneur State Fair, go to blackentrepreneurstatefair.org.

About Abdi Mohamed

Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at amohamed@spokesman-recorder.com.

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