Profiles in Black entrepreneurship: Dreaming of being a chef leads to a business
Photos by Kenney Ellison
As a new high school graduate in 1983, Angelynn Howell really wanted to be a chef. But, when the reality of just how much training and how many years as a sous chef it would take set in—she changed her plans and got a 9-5 job. Howell spent years working for an organization that catered meals regularly for work lunches and other events. Seeing the poorly cooked food her colleagues would eat, Howell knew she could do a better job and was inspired to get back to what she loved: cooking. In 1997, she opened a catering business before opening a restaurant location in 2011, Anna’s BLD Bistro. Now, she’s participating in a black entrepreneurship program to level up her business and grow even more.
Anna’s BLD Bistro, Howell’s restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas, is named after her both her paternal grandmother Anna Jean and maternal great grandmother Annabelle. Before it became Anna’s, the building her restaurant is housed in used to be a liquor store. With a number of large businesses and three shifts of workers in the nearby Fairfax Industrial District, Howell saw great opportunity. While the business started by serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she pivoted after a few years to focus exclusively on lunch service.
Howell says the first few years were challenging and she often had second thoughts, asking herself if she should instead get a job driving trucks for one of the nearby companies. Over time Anna’s BLD Bistro grew through word of mouth and grassroots marketing letting the local companies know they were there. And, Howell says the last three to four years have been the best years of her business.
“People will stop here and say, ‘I’ve been passing by here and heard so many good things so I decided to stop in,’” said Howell. These customers turn into repeat customers and tell others. She gained a recent customer whose friend brought him carryout from Anna’s while he was in the hospital. Once he got out, he began coming every other day.
The road to entrepreneurship
Before she got her start as a small business owner, Howell worked for Project Choice, the dropout prevention program at the Kauffman Foundation. She was responsible for managing accounting for the program. That position came with tuition reimbursement benefits, which Howell decided to take advantage of to bring her dream to life. She enrolled in classes at Johnson County Community College—not looking to complete a full program but wanting to take the classes that would help her build skills relevant to starting her catering business. Then with those skills, she left Kauffman and launched her business full time.
These days, Howell is taking advantage of another opportunity to grow her skills as a business owner through the Making Black Businesses Better, a black entrepreneurship program that’s offered through a partnership between the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and H&R Block. The partnership provides Black-owned businesses with free one-on-one coaching and counsel to foster equitable, thriving communities. While a majority of small businesses have expressed a need for personalized help, Black-owned businesses have faced disproportionate impacts due to the pandemic, in addition to a legacy of systemic racist policies creating barriers to networking and access to financial capital. Through the program, Block Advisors small business certified tax pros and ULKC coaches conduct personalized coaching designed to improve financial management skills and business owners’ confidence when they try to gain access to capital.
Howell likes that the program is flexible and lets business owners focus on their areas of interest. She has plans to produce a video cookbook and start a YouTube channel, teaching others basic cooking skills like how to cut up a chicken. “People just don’t cook anymore but they need to,” said Howell.
Beyond that, she’s excited about the opportunity the program has given her to feed the community and grow connections. Howell participated in Feed KC Forward, a program that matches restaurants with nonprofit organizations in need of food. She’s provided food for local organizations like Safehome, which offers services and shelter for survivors of domestic violence and partner abuse, as well as El Centro, a community organization providing services to the LatinX community.
In addition to expanding her network and marketing her business, Howell is looking for help opening her catering kitchen back up. She plans to save on costs by sharing the space with another business, who will only access it a few days a week. And, despite being impacted by a global pandemic that dried up catering orders, she’s looking forward to expanding.
Although she never shut down during the pandemic, thanks to customers continuing to come in and call in orders, she now faces a new challenge—rising food costs that could lead to higher meal prices.
“We have working people, we have neighborhood people, and $15 a meal is just too much. I want it to be affordable.”Angelynn Howell, owner of Anna’s BLD Bistro
For now, she’s trying to keep prices steady, and will continue providing fresh, good food to the neighborhood while she looks to grow.
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