City’s minority contracting initiatives are working, but only for some

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Chef Gary Williams moved to Memphis from New Orleans to sprinkle his trademark Creole seasoning all over the Mid-South.

“Been here 14 years. Became a part of the fabric of this city," Williams said.

His restaurant DeJAVU quickly endeared the minds and stomachs of many Memphians. He started at a small location on Florida Street and eventually moved downtown to Main Street in 2013.

“It gave us a little more space here. We moved the whole operation here,” he said.

He said business was booming, at first.

But in 2017, his recipe for success started to fail.

“I didn’t pay attention to a lot of things, assumed things going way supposed to go. Business fell off. Downtown, I'm not blaming downtown, but downtown died off,” Williams said. “You’re dealing with taxes, paying staff, keeping lights on, making sure things are afloat. Those are tough when you’re a small business person. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.”

Williams is not alone. Many business owners, especially minorities and women, struggle to get their footing in a competitive marketplace where more established businesses can engage customers who want experience. The city offers resources though through the Office of Business Diversity and Compliance.

“Today I’m proud to say we have 430 small minority and women owned businesses registered with the city of Memphis,” said Joann Massey, director of the Memphis office of business diversity and compliance.

Massey said registering with the city includes perks like coaching, access to micro-loans and being part of the city’s searchable database for vendors.

Carlos Fifer’s contracting company is working on jobs including Memphis Fire station improvements and the National Civil Rights Museum.

Fifer and Associates have only been around 13 years. They are registered with the city’s Office of Business Diversity and Compliance.

“The city is putting initiative together for smaller contract opportunities to take advantage that normally we wouldn’t have a seat at the table. So we’ve been able to secure project with the city so we’ve been grateful for the opportunity," Fifer said.

“We’re able to provide an analysis and consultation to direct business owners to these resources and help them grow capacity to provide funding opportunities,” Massey said.

Massey said the city tried to get many restaurants including DeJAVU registered. Williams said it’s not the right way for the city to go about helping businesses like his.

“I had all the paperwork that I needed but it’s something that fell by the wayside. I was busy," he said.

He soon faced a tough choice for his beloved Main Street establishment; he decided to close DeJAVU in December.

“It’s always funding with African Americans. Unless you have deep pockets or deep pockets funding you, it’s really hard,” Williams said.

And though his food is full of flavor and spice, the experience left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“I haven’t seen any of that stuff. I haven’t served a chicken wing in City Hall. I haven’t done any catering even when we were floating and going downtown. I never catered anything at City Hall,” he said.

To be clear, Massey said he could have still catered at City Hall even though he wasn't registered with the office of business diversity. She does think registering could’ve helped him get access to funding and resources.

“Whether or not it would’ve been something that saved DeJAVU, I can’t say. But I can say the resources are here. If he is interested in going back into business, then the city is here to help him,” Massey said.

Williams thinks city officials talk a big talk, but he knows others who’ve tried to get connected with minority businesses and can’t get anyone to call back.

WREG also searched the city database using the keyword “food” and only one restaurant, Wrapzody Gourmet Wraps, came up in results. The results also showed four catering companies, one bakery two other results that were not food related.

Despite his experience, Williams is staying positive.

“I’m not putting my head in the sand. There’s no blame game. I’m grateful. Folks have reached out to me and this city is a great city,” he said.

Williams said he’s hoping for a new beginning. He’s working with a business partner to reopen at his original location on Florida Street. He wants that person to handle the money so he can just focus on the food.