“We’re a 501c3 here based in Pittsfield. Our offices are at 33 Dunham Mall, and we’re here to aid and advocate, Berkshire counties, black businesses and entrepreneurs,” said President A.J. Enchill, a Pittsfield native.
The $700,000 awarded to the BBEC through Pittsfield’s ARPA grant program is believed to be the largest single direct investment in Black businesses in county history.
“That makes us even more proud of the work that we’re doing right now,” Enchill told WAMC.
Enchill says the money has been transformative for the nascent organization.
“That’s allowed us to do a lot,” he said. “I mean, the capacity building efforts of the organization were essential to take us and our vision from a dream into a reality. So, we’ve now been able to hire our executive assistant, our communications coordinator, and our enrichment navigator, and that’s of extraordinary benefit to the entrepreneurs who need technical assistance, coupled with finding resources to lift Black entrepreneurs out of the socio-economic burdens that they face, in their personal lives and as entrepreneurs.”
The pressure is on for the council to show it’s used the public money wisely and efficiently.
“If you’re wondering how is the money being spent, and what is the real impact, well, you’re going to see,” Enchill told WAMC. “Just hang tight. And I can understand the urgency, right, because we were awarded a large grant, but you will see our efficacy in time.”
Enchill says the ARPA funding has helped eliminate some of the most basic roadblocks preventing more Black businesses from opening in Pittsfield.
“Our goal is to level the playing field, and one of the largest hurdles for Black entrepreneurs is gaining access to capital,” he explained. “I mean, historically, Black entrepreneurs have been disenfranchised, not getting access to grants not getting access to loan opportunities, whether it’s for commercial or residential, for that matter. And what are we doing? Well, we’re using our partnerships and relationships to bridge the gap and to act as a conduit to organizations that have the capital or the resources that can uplift an entrepreneur and their families. So, if we can stabilize an entrepreneur through homeownership, that’s what we’re going to do. If we can develop a capital access to a grant program, that’s what we’re going to do. And it’s working thus far.”
The council’s headquarters sit kitty-corner to city hall in the heart of downtown Pittsfield, just off of North Street. As the main urban corridor of Berkshire County’s largest community, North Street’s condition is often used as a metric to measure the city’s vitality. For years, concerns about its empty storefronts – worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic – have dominated the conversation in municipal politics. Just a year and a half after Pittsfield distributed ARPA funds to the BBEC, Enchill says it’s already made major inroads to repopulating those storefronts with Black businesses.
“We have just awarded our four grantees from Vibe North Street, our storefront recruitment grant program,” he told WAMC. “So now we have BB’s Hot Spot moving in across the street from Dottie’s in the former Lantern space, we have Guelce Collaborative Marketing moving into right of the Soda Chef, and we have Brazzucas, a Brazilian grocery store that will now fill the former general store on 75 North Street, and Dolc’e Rose beauty supply store, which will sell hair and beauty supply products for minorities as well as the general public who are in need of wigs and hair products. So yeah, it feels extraordinary to know that we have these big wins.”
While elected officials fretted over how to address North Street’s vacancies, Enchill says the council knew that Pittsfield’s Black entrepreneurs were an untapped resource waiting to be activated.
“That’s what we do,” he said. “We identify the problem, and we quickly get to developing solutions. So, it isn’t about lip service. We’ve got a lot of eyes on us right now, and a lot of community members are wanting to know, how is BBEC impacting its community. And that’s how. We’re bringing business and life back into our downtown. Because COVID hurt a lot of our businesses, a lot of our businesses were forced to close. So, with just this opportunity, we quickly have bolstered our downtown by bringing four new Black businesses to our community.”
Repopulating North Street isn’t all the BBEC is up to.
“We also ran a grant program for youth artists, ages seven to 22,” said Enchill. “And in January, we’re looking to host these artists so they can present their works at Williams College in their ‘62 Art Center so we can boost their awareness of their talents too. And a lot of these youth have applied for materials and equipment to develop their work, such as graphic design or music or fashion. And that’s really exciting too, because not only have we been able to, in this short year, activate our goals around the private sector development, but we’ve been able to support the cultural economy as well for the artists and artisans.”
It’s work that keeps Enchill up at night.
“I don’t sleep a lot,” he laughed. “And I don’t sleep a lot for two reasons: We have a two-year-old, almost three now, and so that keeps us up. But also, I’m working throughout the night to find and secure funds to keep our organization steady and operational. Because yeah, the money will run out, and it’s not forever. So, we have to use the time that we have right now to keep pushing the organization forward so we’re able to be sustainable, long term.”
The work of the BBEC to support Black entrepreneurs is dovetailing with a recent explosion of Black restaurants.
“I mean, we have House of Seasoning, we have BB’s Hot Spot, we have Smokey Divas, we have Rem Roc’s, we have – I mean, not in Pittsfield – but we have Momma Lo’s and we have Madjacks,” said Enchill. “I mean, you can go on and on about the yummy spots that there are throughout the county. And Pittsfield is no short of good places to eat- But to know that there’s even more businesses on the rise and Black entrepreneurs are able to continue to keep serving the community through catering and pop-ups like D’s Island Food Truck that makes its way throughout the community. It’s just so awesome to see our culture in our community, and foods that I grew up with at home, not just a delight to have at home, but it’s celebrated, and people can go out and actually buy these meals and get the feeling of being home, but at a formerly rundown, dilapidated building? No, it’s House of Seasoning now. It’s got character, it’s got color, it’s got riches, right? It looks and feels like a place that we can be proud of. And so, all of these businesses, and all of these entrepreneurs should be celebrated. And I’m proud of them. And we are as BBEC.”
The restauranteurs Enchill and the BBEC are backing are also proud.
Rem Roc’s is located on Fenn Street, opposite city hall and not far from the council’s offices.
“Obviously, I have fried chicken, as Rem Roc’s Fried Chicken is the name of the restaurant,” said Roc. “I have fried chicken, we have tenders, we have baked mac and cheese, we have collard greens, a lot of comfort foods like candied yams, I said the collard greens, we have white rice, we have yellow rice, we have Jamaican style coconut rice and peas. I do things like, I do a stuffed chicken and waffle, which is basically a chicken and waffle, but the waffles actually stuffed with fried tender breast meat. So, you get like, an overload of chicken, you know what I mean? I also have what I call rempanadas. It’s like self-marketing- They’re really empanadas, but since my name is Rem, I threw the Rem in front of it.”
Roc says he saw an unfilled niche in Pittsfield’s culinary scene.
“I like it because it’s different, or it’s familiar with a twist that I do,” he told WAMC. “I just wanted more things out here in the city opposed to just pizza shops and Chinese food. Because, you know, it gets kind of redundant after a while. It kind of feels good now that in the last year to three years, there’s other places that eat outside of myself, because I like to eat. I have a dad bod- So, you know how that goes. I’ve got to get some food!”
Originally from Harlem, a visit to Pittsfield around the turn of the century made a big impact on Roc.
“Being from where I’m from in New York, it’s like everything was like, even though it’s not segregated, it’s segregated,” he explained. “New York City, how neighborhoods and blocks are, if you’re in one neighborhood, the neighborhood could be predominantly Black, maybe with a sprinkle of Spanish. So, when I came up here, everybody’s mixing in the melting pot. Not to sound weird, but my first time coming here was the first time outside of having teachers or policemen or firemen who were Caucasian speak to me. Coming up here showed me, you know what, everybody’s cool. You get my drift- Everybody’s cool. So being up here, I like it up here. So, when I came back, I came back about 2010 because I have kids now, so I’m like, you know what, I remember this place called Pittsfield. I want to go back, and I want to just raise a family there. And I’ve been here ever since, and I like it.”
The business’s origins are as homegrown as it gets.
“I started out maybe about 10 years ago as a bet between me and my brother, because I used to always cook at home and he would ask me like, bro, that food looks delicious,” said Roc. “You should post it online and try to sell it. I’m like, bro, stop it. But as time went on, I took his advice and I started catering out of my house before my daughter was born. She’ll be 10 this year. So yeah, about 10 years ago, I started cooking out the house, catering chicken, small things. And from there, it just built and built and built until I was like, I’m ready to open a restaurant.”
Roc says that after years of working at Pittsfield’s Price Rite, he bet on himself once the business closed and invested his savings into his own restaurant.
“When I first found out about the BBEC, I didn’t know anything about getting grants or anything,” he told WAMC. “But them guys over there, they helped me out and they pointed me in the right directions. And I got the funding that I needed, because after a while, it’s a lot of hard work, running a restaurant. You’ve got to get your inventory, you got to get your bills, your lights, your gas, you know, it’s a lot. But they really helped me out and they made it- I went to a couple of their meetings and and I got the ARPA through them. And everything, it just worked out so great. Like, they made it so simple that I could understand how to do it, because you know, it’s hard when you’re looking at paperwork, and it’s like, oh man, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can mess it up, but they made it very black and white for me. I can do what I do.”
The $10,000 of ARPA funding Roc received from the BBEC went to everything in the business: payroll, bills, inventory, and more.
“With them helping me, it helped me out a lot, because at some point, it was like, oh, man, I’ve got to cover this, and I’ve got to do this,” said Roc. “And I didn’t mind doing it out of pocket, but it’s like the long- How do I explain it? When I first got into business, somebody told me, your first two or three years, it’s not going to be profitable. I’m like, what do you mean? He said, because you will be putting up so much work that you’re going to live there, and you’re basically going to be putting everything back into it, you’re not going to see it. But if you can make it past that third-year hump, everything should start to even itself back out. And which, by December this year, I’ll be there for three years. So, I’ve just got my fingers crossed.”
Roc sees his story as moving from a self-made businessman to a member of a community of fellow entrepreneurs.
“Since the council came around, I’ve actually made connected with people in downtown Pittsfield, so it’s like, they actually helped me link those barriers when it came between people I need to know in the city or in downtown or city hall,” said the restaurateur.
He tells WAMC that it’s a good time to be a Black business owner in the Berkshires, especially in the increasingly diverse food scene.
“I’m proud of everybody, man,” said Roc. “There’s enough out here for everybody to get to it and to share because with food, food is made with love, and you can taste it when you order the food from places that you love to get your food from. And also, there’s enough talent out here that everybody can expand his market. I want to see which I got next for me to eat.”
Roc’s own goals are to expand the kitchen from a takeout spot to a full sit-down dining experience. He offered advice to the next generation of Black Berkshire businesspeople.
“I want you guys to go for your dreams, because nobody is going to push you to where you push you,” Roc said. “To start a business is a beautiful thing, and for you guys to just take the shot- You may not always win, but know that you didn’t say ‘no’ and the next thing you put it on your chalk board, ‘I did it.’ Nobody can ever take that from you.”
Further up Pittsfield’s downtown, another Black-owned restaurant is preparing to open inside one of North Street’s most identifiable facades — the former home of the Lantern, a beloved institution that closed in 2017. An attempt to revive it in 2019 under new ownership only lasted until last year.
“My name is Ronny Brizan, and I live in Pittsfield,” Brizan told WAMC. “Originally, I’m from Grenada”
13 years ago, Brizan moved to the Berkshires to work in the region’s hospitality industry, a vital field for a county reliant on a seasonal tourism economy.
“It was pretty challenging at first,” he said. “I started to work at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, that’s where I started first because there’s guys used to work from Grenada seasonal. So, I get the opportunity to work there. And then after, COVID changed everything. So, I spent at least 10 years working at the Red Lion Inn and then I moved up and started my own business because of COVID.”
“Well, it’s Caribbean and American cuisine,” said Brizan. “So, I do things like the curry goat, curry chicken, jerk chicken, oxtail, and these are accompanied with rice and beans, cabbage, collard greens as sides. Mac and cheese, which is one of the favorite people like a lot. So, that’s what it’s all about: Caribbean cuisines. And then I do local drinks, like sorrel and ginger beer.”
Over the summer, Brizan moved his operations to Hancock Shaker Village to avoid dangerous heat levels in the small kitchen at the Columbus Avenue location. While the collaboration proved fruitful, it included an example of the racism Brizan has experienced as a Black business owner in the Berkshires.
“While I was at the Shaker Village, on the menu board, someone stick up the N-word on it, but it didn’t bother me,” he told WAMC. “Because if I got to let these things bother me, I will go nowhere. So I just stay strong, keep my head up, and do what I got to do.”
The move to North Street – right next to the city’s theatres, bars, and other restaurants – is a major opportunity for Brizan and BB’s Hot Spot, and one that the BBEC has supported with $25,000 of ARPA funding.
“The grand dream is to bring people together, that can have a place they can go and enjoy a great atmosphere,” he said. “I want to keep it real mellow. People can come and have a good time, no fighting, no violence, and to revive North Street, to see North Street a better place. So that’s my whole dream of doing this here, and then I can offer different cuisine to the people, food with good quality, and make sure that you know, everybody’s happy.”
WAMC asked Brizan if he’s found what he was searching for when he left Grenada for the United States all those years ago.
“Absolutely,” he responded. “With all my kids grown up, it’s great. My son now who is in college, it’s his last, final year. My daughter is preparing to get to college. She’s in high school, she’s doing great. And I’m doing business and starting all these- It’s great. I thank God and I thank- I’m happy to be in America.”
Brizan hopes that the refurbished BB’s Hot Spot at the Lantern will open in January.
He says the support of the BBEC has been transformative to his business.
“I love it,” said Brizan. “I love it. And I mean, I wish you could see more take the challenge. And I mean, fear keep a lot of people back from trying, but it’s better you try and failed than you fail to try, one of the things I always said when I started. So, without trying, I would have never been a success. So, that helped me and then now, I’m going to the next level, whereby is to expand and to offer better, more service. For instance, I’ll be starting a food canteen truck, whereby I can go around to the different sites where there’s volume of people. That’s one of the things through the pipeline, looking to come out soon with that, and yeah, open the Lantern restaurant and make it happen.”
Brizan says the message from the council’s efforts to organize and connect Black businesses in the Berkshires is about keeping community at the heart of the conversation.
“If people can team together and pull together and work together to achieve our goals, it makes it easy,” he said. “So, we should, as Black businesses – and not only as Black business, any business – try to be good neighbors, try to look out for one another, try to help one another. Don’t be selfish. Don’t think that, I’m the only person that’s trying to make the most money. It’s not about money. It’s creating that community, it’s creating that togetherness, love, the harmony, and do business together so we can make the city, the country a better place.”
Down the street from the Lantern, another BBEC backed Black business is setting up shop in one of North Street’s empty storefronts.
GLORIA SAUNDERS: Gloria Saunders, the mom. The mom. [laughs]
DESTINY SAUNDERS: The cofounder, too.
GLORIA SAUNDERS: Of the cofounder of Dolc’e Rose.
DESTINY SAUNDERS: So, Dolc’e Rose comes from- We know that dolce means sweet, and rose comes from, we are spiritual, so it comes from Jesus. He’s considered the Rose of Sharon in the Bible. So, sweet rose, Sweet Jesus.
Like Roc and Brizan, the mother-daughter team are capitalizing on an untapped market: the beauty needs of Pittsfield’s Black residents.
“So, what it all come from- My mom and I, we used to take – I’m going to say 2021 – we used to take trips, always, every weekend to Albany to buy hair products, to buy shampoo, buy wigs, buy extensions,” said Destiny. “And we had like an aha moment when we was in a beauty supply store in Albany on Central Ave. And we said, why do we continue to travel down here if we know that is a need in Pittsfield? So, we say, you know what? We’re going to open a storefront in Pittsfield, Massachusetts so everybody can stop traveling to either Albany, Springfield, New York City to just buy hair products.”
“It started off with a pop-up shop,” Gloria told WAMC. “That’s where we began, just having once a month pop-up shops just to see how things would work. And it did very well. So, we just took it from there.”
Destiny says Enchill and the BBEC have been behind their efforts since the start.
“When we started our first pop-up shop in June 2021, then I believe I reached out to AJ then because I heard about the BBEC agency,” she said. “And ever since then, that he’s been supporting us, working with us and encouraging us that we should definitely open up a storefront. So, when the Vibe North Street grant opportunity came about, he said Destiny, you guys have to apply for this. So, I’m happy that we did.”
She says the council’s work is vital for Berkshire County’s Black community.
“It’s very hard for men and women of color to get a business in Pittsfield because they have money that’s out there, but when it gets to us, we are the last people to know that there is money out there,” said Destiny. “And when we find out and we go to it, it’s too late. Or, try to open up a loan, right? We can’t open up a loan because we are still in debt for college. By time we try to apply for it, it’s like, ah, you can’t, you’re not approved. So, I’m- It’s just a blessing just to have BBEC to definitely support black businesses so we can flourish.”
Dolc’e Rose received around $7,500 from the BBEC’s Vibe North Street grant. Destiny says she’s confident that the business, with the support made possible by the ARPA funding and Pittsfield’s investment in the BBEC, will fill an obvious void for the Black community.
“Say for example, if we have to buy men and women of color hair products- If you go to Walmart, it’s just a little section for us,” she said. “It’s not like a whole huge section. We have Sally’s Beauty. However, they cater more to Caucasians, and we have a little section. You go to Target- There’s nothing wrong with Target or Walmart. However, they don’t cater to the African American community. So, what it’s like to just walk into a store that you feel comfortable, that you feel like is your home, is your very own? Yes, we will be catering to all, African American and Caucasian. However, this is definitely a Black owned business, and men and women of color can feel like, okay, I can be able to go to a store and I don’t have to wonder if they have something of mine.”
Gloria says that over her 25 years in Pittsfield, she hasn’t seen a business like Dolc’e Rose.
“This is the first, but I’m glad I have an opportunity to see this now,” she told WAMC. “Because before, there wasn’t really Black owned businesses around. So, it’s exciting.”
She never imagined being a business owner in Pittsfield.
“It’s nerve wracking, but it’s good,” Gloria laughed. “It’s nerve wracking, but it’s good. I’m excited. I’m excited.”
Destiny says that the opportunity is just as surprising to her.
“We moved from the Bronx, New York, where everything, life is happening,” she told WAMC. “So, you had beauty supply stores, you had fashion shops, you have everything. And when I moved up here when I was 16, we did have maybe one beauty supply store here, but they wound up leaving. And, I’m a fashion designer and I’m a fashion stylist. So, my goal was always to open a boutique shop with clothes. And that really didn’t go too well. And then, I never imagined opening a beauty supply store. I always thought it was going to be a boutique shop. So, but this is needed in the community.”
Gloria is less surprised about Destiny helming Dolc’e Rose than her daughter is herself.
“It was just like, Destiny herself from starting from Pittsfield High with makeup and hair- That’s where it all stemmed from,” Gloria said. “So, when she was talking about fashions and doing clothes, I was like, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. And it came right back to what I thought she was going to do in the beginning- Beauty shop. So yeah, I’m kind of excited, but she drives me crazy.”
Both Gloria and Destiny have grand ambitions for their business.
“My plan is downstairs,” said Gloria. “It’s beautiful. I’m trying to do a kid spa. for birthday parties. We have a spa for them with the nails done toes done makeup, not makeup, but not love fancy clothes pictures, just so they can have a personal birthday party. That’s my plan. That’s my goal. I’m being talking about it for years.
“That’s her goal. She’s been talking about it for years,” echoed Destiny. “Our plan right now is making Dolc’e Rose a one-stop shop. Not only you can buy beauty products or hair products, but you will be able to walk in to get your makeup done, you will be able to get your nail salon, I mean, your nails done. You’ll also be able to get your lashes done, and also hair braiding and your hair done. So, just a one-stop shop, so as you’re buying the products- Because sometimes you go shopping for something, and you’re like, oh, do you know somebody around here who can braid hair? Yes, we actually have somebody right here in the back. Boom. Do you know somebody that could do nails? Yes, we actually have someone that be doing nails and doing lashes. So, it’s just a one-stop shop.”
Gloria and Destiny anticipate Dolc’e Rose will hold its grand opening on January 6th. For Gloria, the reality of opening a business she co-owns with her daughter marks the culmination of that decision to relocate to the Berkshires all those years ago.
GLORIA: This was my goal to make, let them make something out of itself. And I knew in the Bronx, with rowdy crazy people, kids, it wasn’t going to happen. So, I’m so proud when I moved them up here. They all went to college, graduated from college, and that’s one thing that I’m really proud of. But I don’t think- I don’t know, it might have, but I don’t think it would have happened if we were still in the Bronx.
WAMC: Does this feel like part of that dream?
GLORIA: Yes, yes, yes, it does. Because I see something being accomplished. You’re not just sitting still because I graduated from college, I’m working, I’m doing nothing. But you keep going on, you keep moving on. And that’s an accomplishment that I’m really proud of. Yeah.