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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

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Want to change the dynamic for mom & pop shops? Try a community development financial institution

by Jacqueline Johnson —

My business could have gone under during the COVID pandemic – not due to the pandemic, but because many small, locally-owned businesses in underserved areas typically have a tough time getting equal access to funding.

But River City Capital, a community development financial institution (CDFI), stepped in at just the right time to keep Fresh Gulf Shrimp in business.

Being from Mobile, Alabama, I know good shrimp. I came to Memphis in 2009 for a career in education, but I saw a need and I couldn’t let it go.

People love shrimp.

The industry had a ton of opportunities and no one else was doing it right, as I understood shrimp to be done.

The local vendors were overcharging, and I knew that I had better connections. To this day, I get my shrimp from Bayou La Batre, Alabama and New Orleans and Texas ⸺ Gulf shrimp at its best.

I started selling shrimp on the side of the road in 2012 and moved up to a food truck in 2013.

The first event I facilitated was Memphis in May 2013. When I opened my window and saw those people lining up for po’boys, I knew I wasn’t going back to teaching.

The year 2023 will be our 10th Memphis in May.

COVID nearly put a stop to all of that in 2020, but River City Capital came through with a grant. They reached out to all the small vendors in Memphis that weren’t supported, and they kept us going.

I could’ve gone out of business, but that funding sustained us through the pandemic.

Traditional banks wouldn’t help us because we weren’t “underserved” enough. For one of the only female seafood owners in Memphis in a male-dominated industry, that grant money was huge.

Banks have an under-valued obligation to support female business owners.

So, when I wanted a loan to expand in 2022, there wasn’t a question. I went with the same local CDFI. The other banks wanted my business too, but they weren’t there when it mattered.

River City Capital knows my story and respects my story. They care about the concept and the business and the people. Local CDFIs are key to the Memphis economy because they work with local businesses instead of bringing in new ones.

Local CDFIs are an impactful resource because they provide access to capital for minority and women-owned businesses in underserved communities. They have more flexible lending policies than traditional banks, more reasonable interest rates and less risk for the borrower.

Most important, they know their clients, they understand their struggles and know the depths of their integrity.

In October, we used our loan to help cater a Big City Steel health event and served 3,000 meals in a two-day weekend. They had only pre-paid for 1,000, but because I had the funds for the inventory, when they needed an additional 2,000 servings, we were able to take on the project.

We’ve also used the capital to open a corporate office, start an intern program with Memphis-Shelby County Schools, hire more staff, and potentially sell my REMOULAUDE901 Sauce and Everything Seasoning in stores.

We’re on track to sell over 100,000 pounds of shrimp this year because River City Capital propelled me to expand the business the way I needed to.

My advice to other small business owners is to deal with companies that respect and believe in what you’re doing.

Many people and places will discourage your vision. Don’t listen to them.

Start where you are. Local CDFIs have the capability to take your business to the next level.

They should get more recognition for the work they’ve done keeping Memphis local businesses on track through the pandemic. The support provided by River City Capital is nothing outside of amazing. It’s life-changing, really.

(Jacqueline Johnson is the owner of Fresh Gulf Shrimp. For more information about River City Capital go to https://www.rivercitycapital.org/.)

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