For Black entrepreneurs, a fresh start at Tropicana Field as pandemic recedes

·12 min read

As the sun rose high over Tropicana Field Saturday morning, the parking lot below filled with tents heralding a new kind of weekend market, one that highlights Black-owned small businesses.

Tables filled with fashion accessories and homemade skin care lines. Food vendors heated up grills, raring to sell hushpuppies, lobster bites and dishes loaded with secret recipe “Smackin’ Garlic Butter.”

There were bucket hats and snow cones, waist trainers that promised a Coke-bottle figure and soy candles decorated with glitter. Sea moss, the health food of the moment, found its way into smoothies, elixirs and soaps.

After a brutal year, when COVID-19 struck communities of color hardest, many were still reeling from the effects of the pandemic yet eager to take part in an event that brought people together.

“I just am really excited about it being mostly African-American vendors — the unity in it all,” said Andria Young, a shopper visiting the market with her 5-year-old daughter, who was on the lookout for the bounce house. “It’s a great way to bring everybody out.”

At the market, you could find 13-year-old Jayden Morrison, excited to become an entrepreneur selling his spice blends for the first time. There was Maurice Allen, dishing up deep-fried crab legs and trying to move beyond life in the streets. And Sister Nayyirah and Brother David, whose family coaching services and health products helped many of their neighbors weather the uncertainty and loss of the last year.

Carla Bristol, a community activist who runs the St. Pete Urban Youth Farm and Gallerie 909, made the rounds as vendors set up, offering tips to fledgling business owners.

At Nisa Carballo’s stand, A&M Apparel, Bristol suggested pushing the racks filled with summery dresses and green leopard-print leggings under the canopy instead of out front, to create an inviting display.

“Think of it this way — I’m the shopper and you are leaving me out in the heat,” Bristol said as she helped Carballo rearrange.

The informal advice was part of a grassroots partnership with the city to support small minority-run businesses that often face barriers to getting into the major street markets that have grown in popularity in St. Petersburg.

The idea all started with a rejection.

A few months earlier, Renee Edwards, who runs the skin care line Skin Kandii and Tampa Bay Launderers — in addition to her full-time job at a clinical research center — got fed up hearing “no” from other markets.

One told her they already had enough skin care sellers. Another said she missed the deadline. A third simply declared that her products “weren’t a good fit.”

“I think it’s racial discrimination, why else?’ Edwards said.

Edwards did not name any specific markets, but many have a steep list of requirements, including prior vending experience, submitting pictures of a polished display, and fees that stretch above $1,000. The extra hoops mean businesses without access to investment capital — a common challenge for early-stage minority entrepreneurs — have little hope of participating.

Yet market exposure can be crucial for creating momentum, Edwards said.

“What if you don’t have a website yet? Or a picture of you vending before because it’s your very first time?” she said. “Somebody has to be willing to give the small guy an opportunity.”

Her husband always reminded her to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. One day, the idea hit her: Why not start her own market?

Soon, the Saturday Morning Shoppe emerged.

The first two markets were held in the parking lot of Bethel Community Baptist Church and news spread through word of mouth. Registration cost $65 and held no requirements, so anyone could participate. The enthusiasm from neighbors overwhelmed Edwards. She expected 20 or 30 registrations for the first market in April, and got 65. The second event drew 90.

Some of the vendors had been around for years and were looking for a bigger platform. Others had sprung up during the pandemic, or even a few weeks before.

The Shoppe’s success caught the eye of City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders. Later, as she drove past Tropicana Field, she thought: “I see nothing but asphalt, nothing going on that is really benefiting the community right here — nothing but open opportunity.”

With Edwards, she approached the Tampa Bay Rays and the team agreed to allow the market to operate in Lot 4 on the first Saturday of every month. The city would provide resources and business development services through One Community and the City’s Greenhouse. Saturday’s launch brought out more than 130 vendors.

New research indicates a boom in new businesses popping up in Black neighborhoods during the pandemic. In St. Petersburg, business registration increased 26 percent in majority Black zip codes in 2020, according to data collected by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Though minority-owned businesses have struggled to access pandemic assistance programs, the infusion of federal stimulus cash may have motivated some people to take their first entrepreneurial steps.

That was the story for Latocia Brown, who presided over a table piled high with handmade soaps and lotions in scents like Endless Summer and Cotton Candy. Her 17-year-old daughter, Leah helped bag the products for an enthusiastic line of customers.

When schools shut down last year, Brown took leave of her job as a clerk for the federal Women, Infants and Children program to watch over her eight kids.

Expanded unemployment benefits during the pandemic cushioned the strain. To keep busy, she began making her own soaps. She soon realized the handmade products really worked — her son, who suffered from psoriasis, no longer looked like a ghost after he showered.

So she decided to launch her own business, Pretty Lips Co, and the stimulus propelled her forward. The extra cash allowed her to spend about $2,000 for essential oils, lye and other startup fees for registering her company.

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I hate to say this, I wouldn’t have been able to start my business,” Brown said. “It would have took longer if I didn’t have that stimulus.”

Like many early-stage ventures, it remains to be seen if Pretty Lips Co can become more than a passion project. A year later, Brown just about breaks even, she said. She and her partner, Paul Humphrey, a chef, continue with their day jobs.

She sees participating in more markets as key to reaching her dream: becoming a household name in Tampa and one day displaying in Whole Foods Market and Armature Works. “It’s really hard to get in,” she said. “It seems like it depends on who you know.”

At the Saturday Morning Shoppe, she did brisk business. By late afternoon, her table almost ran out of $15 lotion bottles.

Around the corner, Jayden Morrison made his very first moves as a registered business owner, selling homemade island and jerk seasoning blends for $7 each.

Tall and lanky, people always told Jayden he would make a great basketball player. His mother, Lorisha Biddines, wanted her son to think broader.

When Jayden was 11, he faced chemotherapy for an inoperable brain tumor. To keep him focused on the future, Biddines encouraged him to come up with business ideas. He excels at math and science at Thurgood Marshall Middle School and also loves cooking shows, so he decided to create “Jay’s Spice Palette.” Two years later, with his cancer in remission, he planned to contribute some of the proceeds from his first pop-up to tumor research.

In his first hours at the market, Jayden had already learned a few lessons. Running a business “can be very hard,” he said. You had to get the measurements right each time. At the stand, he needed to be “interactive and busy” to get customers interested.

“If you sit back here, you won’t get anybody,” his mother said. “You have to stand out and draw them in.”

Next time, they would re-print their signs so the price was more visible. And they would definitely bring a portable fan.

Across from Jayden’s stand, Imhotep Tyler — aka DJ Doggybone — watched the crowd. Seeing how people moved helped him decide the next song. If they grooved to Michael Jackson, he’d follow up with Bruno Mars. If he noticed an older crowd, he might slow the music down and play Al Green,

At 12:30, he geared up to play the song for the Jerusalema challenge –– a dance routine from Africa that went viral on social media.

Nine-year-old Aubrie Hall dashed to the front, ready to perform with her dance teacher, Tihlea Flournoy.

As the music came on, Flournoy led the crowd through the moves, twisting her hips and launching into jump-runs. Aubrie’s long braids swayed as she perfectly executed the moves. Vendors shimmied along to the music behind their booths.

Aubrie’s father, Adam Hall, looked on proudly, bouncing his baby on his shoulder.

Cooped up at home during the pandemic, his daughter kept busy with Tik Tok dance videos, he said. A favorite was Charli D’Amelio. As vaccines became widespread and businesses opened up, she signed up for dance classes at Take Flight, a new studio recently opened by Flournoy and her partner Tiara Jones on 62nd Avenue.

“Ever since she started, she’s more focused, her grades are something she works on,” he said. He felt happy to see Aubrie off her phone and running up to people at the Shoppe with curiosity and a friendly smile.

At the back of the market, Richard Earl Walker held a container of barbecue chicken and soaked up the activity swirling around him. “This is really ... nice,” he said slowly, a satisfied smile spreading across his face

Only a few weeks ago he attended the Collard Green Festival, held at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. Here was another event connecting his community.

Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Walker said the history of Tropicana Field — a Black neighborhood paved over and turned into a baseball stadium in the 1980s— loomed large. As the city considers redeveloping the land for community benefit, the vibrancy of the Black entrepreneurship on display felt like a step in the right direction.

“This is what our people have been doing all through COVID,” he said. “They’ve got food trucks, they’ve started businesses.”

Many business owners said they were excited about the move from Bethel Community Baptist Church to the Tropicana lot, which attracted more foot-traffic and families. Parking was easier and the tents could be balanced better on the asphalt ground instead of the church’s gravel lot.

But not everyone was sure that the new location was good for them.

By 1:30 p.m., Brittney Smith had only sold eight of her raspberry-almond and rum-soaked cupcakes. She worried she would take home far less than the last Shoppe event, where she earned about $200. Now the heat wilted her young daughters, who lounged in a wagon, slurping a pineapple-strawberry icy treat and watching Youtube videos on the phone.

Maybe the expanded field of vendors created too much competition, she thought. Or was it a different crowd? It seemed like more people just walked around instead of stopping to shop, she said.

Her aunt, Michele Smith, also struggled to draw attention to her wares — religious books for children.

“I’m giving away a free pillow, all you gotta do is sign your name!” she called to two young women, who disappeared around the corner before she could finish her sentence.

“At the other location, I was selling stuff constantly — I sold out,” Smith said, shrugging. “Here, the crowd is a lot younger. They see the word ‘God’ and they are like ‘no, no, no!’”

For Tara Shinn, who runs Tara’s Kitchen, it was a very good day.

Inside her sweltering food truck, she swept a growing wad of receipts into a pile and turned back to the deep-fryer.

“That’s some good money right there!” her daughter, Chiquita Dixon, called.

The lunchtime rush for her burgers, fish sandwiches and chicken wings with special sweet-tangy sauce was intense and Shinn did her best to keep up.

At least her voice had returned in full force. It had been shot to a rasp since she and Dixon, a school bus driver, both came down with COVID-19 and spent nearly two weeks in the hospital over Christmas and New Year’s. Then, her father died. Healing came slowly.

Shinn had just bought the truck a few months before she fell ill, thinking she could take her home catering business to a bigger audience. Emergency funding, provided by the county through the CARES Act, helped her bridge the gap while she couldn’t work. But she still needed to offset some major repairs on the truck. So far, none of her applications for Payment Protection Program or Small Business Administration loans had come through.

Still, she remained determined to keep moving. The food truck represented her family’s best hope for long-term stability. All three of her daughters and her eldest granddaughter participated. At big events like these, they could net more than $1,000 in just a few hours.

She hoped to buy another truck by the end of the year. Her son was due home soon, after 12 years in prison, and she badly wanted to be able to tell him: “Your mama’s got you — you will come and fry chicken and fish.”

By 4 p.m, the market started winding down. People wiped the sweat from their brows, grateful that rainclouds had never come, but sapped from the heat.

Jayden Morrison collected his spice bottles. Talking nonstop with customers left him exhausted but pleased with the turnout for his first effort. Once home, he would collapse into a long nap.

Yamono Dunbar began to pack away his mix of household and fashion products — air fresheners, face masks, hand sanitizer and flags — and responded to one last customer asking for a “Mono Cup,” an Italian ice “with a kick,” as he described it.

The pandemic had been good for business, he said. With shops closed, people needed him more than ever. Now, he had even more connections in his community.

He planned to be back at the Shoppe next month.

“I like this,” he said. “It’s neighbors spending on each other.”

The Saturday Morning Shoppe will be held in Lot 4 of Tropicana Field the first Saturday of every month. Vendors can keep track of future events and register here:

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.