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A woman in tshirt that says Bread and Butter is at a counter mixing fresh ingredients in a bowl
Valour Cobbins recently received a Coalition to Back Black Businesses grant of $5,000 to help her maintain her business, the Bread and Butter Shoppe, a brick-and-mortar restaurant she opened in Greenwood, Miss., in 2021 that serves sandwiches, salads, wraps, smoothies and more savory items every day. Photo courtesy Valour Cobbins

Eight Delta Black Businesses Receive Back Black Business Grants and Mentorship

One day, Bread and Butter Shoppe owner Valour Cobbins stumbled across an ad for the Coalition to Back Black Business grant while scrolling through Facebook. Though she identifies as someone who is “not a social-media person,” Cobbins decided to apply for the grant after seeing it in her feed multiple times. The process felt quick and easy compared to other applications she had filled out in the past, she said.

The entrepreneur opened the Bread and Butter Shoppe in Greenwood, Miss., in 2021 during the height of the pandemic, though its foundation started in 2015 as an e-commerce gourmet-food line. The business serves freshly made sandwiches, salads, wraps, smoothies and other wellness products and aspires to redefine soul food.

“We define soul food as good food that satisfies both the body and the soul,” the business owner said. “Right now, we are primarily a lunch spot, but we do offer dinner a couple days of the week.”

The Mississippi native was familiar with Greenwood because her former husband lived and worked there for many years. She lived in Little Rock, Ark., for seven years before moving to Greenwood herself. As a winemaker, she remembered a building in Greenwood that used to be a winery, so when she discovered that it was for sale, she bought it.

“I came initially to reopen that winery, and that’s kind of how the Bread and Butter Shoppe was born,” Cobbins explained. “We were looking for a way to generate revenue until we could get wine going and ready for sale. But it just took on a life of its own. And instead of fermenting wine, we ferment something called kombucha, which is a fermented black tea.”

Bread and Butter Shoppe owner and grant recipient Valour Cobbins would not still be in operation had Cobbins not received grant money from Coalition to Back Black Businesses, financial assistance that went toward paying her lease. Photo courtesy Optimum

Cobbins went about her business until she received an email inviting her to attend a call for all of the grant recipients. She had missed the first email that organizers had sent out a few days earlier, congratulating her on being selected for the Coalition to Back Black Businesses grant. The business owner joined the call with dozens of other recipients from across the country. During the call, Optimum, one of the grant’s creators, explained how winners would receive money as well as coaching opportunities associated with the grant.

“Up until I think the money was actually deposited in my account, I just didn’t believe that this was real,” she emphasized. “I can’t even begin to tell you how it came at the right time. It literally kept us in business. We would’ve closed without that grant money.”

Cobbins said she used the $5,000 grant to pay for the restaurant’s lease, as she had fallen behind. Optimum and Altice USA partnered with the Coalition to Back Black Businesses in 2020 to help provide resources and funding for businesses that the pandemic affected, Optimum Local Market Engagement Manager George King told the Mississippi Free Press.

The companies awarded grants to eight businesses in Mississippi: five in Greenville, two in Greenwood and one in Indianola—all in rural places in the Mississippi Delta, an often-overlooked and under-resourced region in the state.

“Just to hear Valour say how the $5,000 helped, it really warms my heart to know what we’re doing out here supporting our community,” King said.

‘The Shark Tank’

Upscale Properties is a boutique real-estate firm in Greenville, Miss., whose primary purpose is providing affordable, quality housing for those in the area. The firm also works with nonprofit agencies to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness, for veterans and for individuals facing lifelong illnesses.

“When COVID actually hit, it became more of a struggle for people to maintain housing,” Upscale Properties owner Tonya Franklin told the Mississippi Free Press. “Although they put some measures in place during COVID to help people stay in affordable housing, once those measures were lifted, it placed another burden on people to either catch up on rent or find other options available to them.”

One of the biggest issues the real-estate firm faced was accessing capital. When tenants were unable to pay and did not use the resources available to them, Upscale Properties had difficulties recouping benefits as well. The firm also struggled with maintaining a full staff during that time.

Just like Valour Cobbins, Franklin found out about the Coalition to Back Black Businesses through Facebook. She continued to see the grant program promoted on her timeline, so she went ahead and applied on her phone.

“When I got (the grant), I was shocked. I said, ‘So this is a real thing. And I was selected.’” Franklin recalled. “I’m hopeful, but you don’t usually get selected out of a wide range of people that applied. When I looked at it … people were selected from at least 42 to 50 states. So to be in that pool of people who were selected, I was very, very excited.”

Upscale Properties owner and grant recipient Tonya Franklin used her $5,000 grant to hire back an employee that she previously had to let go due to financial constraints the pandemic imposed. Photo courtesy Optimum

The grant allowed Franklin to bring a staff member back whom the business previously had to let go during the pandemic, giving Upscale Properties a complete team once again. The owner said keeping a business afloat can be difficult when you do not have enough help and when the business is spreading itself thin.

“To bring a staff person back on board and have the financial resources to pay them, that was big and helps move the business forward,” she said.

Franklin has been impressed with the mentorship she has received thus far alongside the grant and said that if she had access to resources and information such as she received sooner, she could have grown Upscale Properties even faster than she had. She compares her experience to the show “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs present their ideas to industry titans who can provide feedback and choose to invest in them.

“Everybody don’t get on ‘Shark Tank,’” Franklin said. “What these businesses like Optimum and the other partners have done, they’ve provided that to us, and they’re giving us knowledge that I think we would not otherwise have access to.”

Tonya Franklin stands next to the sign for Franklin Arms Apartments
Tonya Franklin stands next to Franklin Arms Apartments, one of the properties her company Upscale Properties owns in Greenville, Miss. Photo courtesy Altice USA

The one-on-one guidance, wherein someone guides and advises entrepreneurs on strategies that work and do not work as well, has been more valuable than the money, Franklin said.

Valour Cobbins participated in a 12-week incubator program shortly before she received news that she won the grant and coaching that Optimum and other organizers provided. While the program offered insights, Cobbins said she felt she acquired more from the coaching she earned alongside this grant in one night than she did during those 12 weeks.

Coaches have helped her tighten her pitch, with which she was struggling, and she has better identified her customer base for the Bread and Butter Shoppe, she said.

“They have the most hands-on approach,” Cobbins praised. “One of my coaches now is helping me redo my logo, and she’s like, ‘I’m gonna come up with some draft and some things for you over the weekend.’ They are just as invested in helping us, and that feels so good because most days I feel like I’m on an island by myself.”

‘Be A Presence’

Tonya Franklin said that obtaining this grant, especially as an owner of a business in a rural area, means so much because small businesses in the communities like hers were hit the hardest during the pandemic.

“To have these companies rally together and come in and help us survive, that was big to me because most of these brands sometimes focus on larger businesses or smaller businesses in larger areas,” the entrepreneur said.

Feeling that Greenwood can seem forgotten at times, Valour Cobbins said she is happy to represent a community in which she has planted roots and calls home.

“There are people who really want to help us,” Cobbins said. “A couple of weeks ago, we were on another call showing businesses that have benefited from the program and from the grant funds, and they introduced additional grants to us. I found a grant that benefits two other minority-owned businesses on the street that I’m on.”

(From left): Councilman Charles McCoy, Optimum’s Lillian Ramsey, Mayor Carolyn McAdams, Coalition to Back Black Business Grant Recipient Valour Cobbins of Bread and Butter Shoppe, Optimum’s Penny Wagoner, Councilman Ronnie Stevenson and Optimum’s Ed Abreu celebrate Cobbins at an event at Optimum’s Greenwood retail store on March 1, 2023. Photo courtesy Optimum

Through its collaboration with Altice USA and the Coalition to Back Black Businesses, Optimum was able to help 52 businesses across the country. The other six Mississippi grant recipients this year include Level-Up Learning Center; Edmond Risk & Compliance Services; Kaye Jayy’s Dispatch Service, LLC; Tripten Logistics, LLC; MedEd Services and Busy Bees Business Solutions, LLC. Recipients are also eligible for a $25,000 enhancement grant the following summer.

After the grant program concludes, Tonya Franklin would like to have more concrete ideas on how she can better market her business—as she realized that she was not aware of the Mississippi recipients’ businesses before coming together as winners, and vice versa. She also hopes to have better access to capital and more long-term relationships with other advisers and professionals outside the program.

“I’m hoping that our business is financially stable and that we’re fully staffed because we have a ton of projects that we want to do in the community,” Bread and Butter Shoppe owner Cobbins said.

“I think we’re definitely laying the right foundation,” she added. “We are out in the community working. We are offering our services as often as we can. We just want to be a presence here and we want to have an impact.”

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