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From owner to employee and feeling ‘blessed’

by Jerome Wright — 

James Cook, 36, did not start his professional career expecting to be an entrepreneur.

Thanks to a friend and a desire to change careers, however, he became proprietor and partner with KC Eatery, which operated Runway 901 Bar & Grill and Lenny’s Grill and Subs at Memphis International Airport (MIA).

Both businesses are now shuttered, victims of a steep drop in the number of passengers arriving and leaving the airport, and a related reshuffling of airport employees’ work schedules, resulting from safer-at-home and shelter-in-place orders to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

James Cook works alongside Angela Henley, the manager of Lenny’s Sub Shop on Poplar near Humes. Henley once worked for Cook, who has had two close both of his businesses at Memphis International Airport. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

MIA President and Chief Executive Officer Scott A. Brockman said Tuesday that systemwide the number of passengers and employees passing through airports’ checkpoints are down 93 to 95 percent and that is mirrored in Memphis. MIA, he said, worked with its restaurants and gift shop vendors to have them shut down, if they can’t make it financially, and to help them prepare to restart when things return to normal.

With Cook closing Lenny’s last Friday, there is only one restaurant opened in the airport.

Businesses, especially small businesses, have been hit extremely hard as safer-at-home mandates cut revenues, forcing businesses to lay off or furlough thousands of employees.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., some 700,000 initial unemployment claims had been filed during a single week on record, according to data from the Department of Labor. During the week ending March 28, 6.8 million Americans filed initial claims.

The impact has been particularly devastating to African-American-owned businesses.

Mark Yates, president and CEO of the Black Business Association of Memphis, recently penned a letter to U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. President/CEO Ron Busby Sr. and USBC board of directors Chairman Charles O’Neal.

“While performing a back-of-the-envelope analysis – precipitated by COVID-19 – we quickly got to the potential negative economic impact COVID-19 will have on Black Businesses in the Memphis MSA.,” Yates wrote. “Based on our analysis, we calculated the negative impact to be anywhere between $205 million and upwards of $1.25 billion.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, realizing that small businesses were being hit extremely hard, on Monday announced the creation of two City of Memphis micro-loan programs.

Meanwhile, with his airport businesses closed, Cook now is working for a Lenny’s franchisee that his company has partnered with. He said he is “blessed” not to be missing a paycheck.

He graduated from Bishop Byrne High School in 2001 and then enrolled at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he double majored in criminology and psychology, with a minor in theater.

He said all his Memphis friends, who were attending college in Tallahassee, were at Florida A&M University, including one who led him in the restaurant business.

The friend is James Kelly, whose mother is Edith Kelly-Green, a former FedEx executive who made national business headlines when she became the largest multi-unit franchise owner of Lenny’s Sub Shop. She was able get her son, who was working at ServiceMaster, into the business as an owner, Cook said.

Cook was working for AT&T, doing a lot of business-related travel, of which he was growing tired. James Kelly asked him to come work with him and he gladly accepted.

“I came on as an employee for the first year. Then we opened in the airport and developed a good relationship them,” Cook said.

When Delta Air Lines officially decommissioned Memphis International Airport as one of its hubs in late 2013, passenger flights in and out of Memphis nosedived. And, so did business customers. “We had to pull out of the airport,” Cook said.

He went to work at a Lenny’s in Whitehaven before airport officials approached them about coming back when another company, which operated about six food stations, pulled out.

“They asked for me by name,” he said because of the way his earlier business operated.

So, he left Whitehaven for the airport. By that time, he was a partner in the firm.

The company opened Runway901, the Lenny’s and a Wimpy’s Burgers and Fries. The Wimpy’s eventually closed.

Cook, who has operated businesses at the airport for about 10 years, is anticipating reopening his airport businesses.

While working at the Lenny’s on Poplar, this week, Cook was asked what was most fulfilling about his career as a restaurateur.

“Developing the business and people,” he said.

“I’m looking at a young woman right now, who is the manager (of this store). She started as a front-line worker seven years ago and now she is manager of her own store,” Cook said.

Three other women who once worked for him as front-line workers are now managers.

(Jerome Wright is deputy editor for The New Tri-State Defender. Email: jwright@tsdmemphis.com)

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