Most Sunday mornings, the patio at Zanzibar Soul Fusion on Shaker Square is empty. The restaurant usually doesn’t start getting busy until after 1 p.m.

Before 11 a.m. this past Sunday, the patio was packed. On this sunny, late-summer day, patrons were there for the Hip-hop Trivia Brunch. The music was pumping, but in an unobtrusive way. The lively crowd, competing in teams, answered questions in honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. They brunched from a menu that included chicken and waffles and shrimp and grits.

Everyone appeared to be having a good time, but this event was about more than just having fun. From the patio at Zanzibar, one can see Atlas Cinemas at Shaker Square. There, the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival (GCUFF), which focuses on films about African Americans and by Black filmmakers, ends Sept. 22. The brunch was held in connection with the film festival in an effort to support local Black businesses. 

It’s important to me personally, and to us as a Black film festival, to support other Black businesses. It’s important for us to support each other.”

Felicia Haney, creative director of Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival

The goal was to create economic spin off, no matter how modest, by linking GCUFF attendees and other supporters with Black businesses during the nine-day festival, which includes in-person screenings and online viewing. Sometimes this was done through GCUFF events, such as a film screening Tuesday at GlenVillage on criminal justice issues, which was sponsored by The Marshall Project. The Glenville business incubator, which provides a place for “aspiring entrepreneurs to test their business ideas and build their entrepreneurial acumen,” includes restaurants and shops.

Support was also shown by affairs such as the brunch, which weren’t official GCUFF events but were held in connection with the film festival.

Felicia Haney is GCUFF’s creative director. She also owns BeechStreet Publicity, which sponsored the brunch along with Nerve DJs, The Ohio Collective and CL Snacks. Haney said the film festival had supported Black businesses in the past, but this time doing so was more intentional. Though such efforts were small, Haney is looking at them as a test-run for expanded efforts in the future.

She said it is important for GCUFF to consciously support Black businesses. Haney said people attending cultural, sporting and other events spend money beyond ticket prices, including for food and the occasional serendipitous purchase. 

“Oftentimes Black businesses don’t get those dollars, or maybe they only get a little bit of those dollars,” she said. “It’s important to me personally, and to us as a Black film festival, to support other Black businesses. It’s important for us to support each other.” 

Felicia Haney, the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival's creative director, poses in front of hip-hop memorabilia on the patio of Zanzibar Soul Fusion restaurant. She also owns BeechStreet Publicity, one of the sponsors the Hip-hop Trivia Brunch during GCUFF.
Felicia Haney, the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival’s creative director, stands in front of hip-hop memorabilia on the patio of Zanzibar Soul Fusion restaurant in Shaker Square. She owns BeechStreet Publicity, one of the sponsors of the Hip-hop Trivia Brunch held during GCUFF. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp

Black businesses often face obstacles

Black businesses, like many businesses of color, often have a tougher time than their white counterparts, research shows. For example, the Federal Reserve System’s 2023 Report on Startup Firms Owned by People of Color, which included Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland research, points to the disparity.

“Compared to white-owned startups, startups owned by people of color are often smaller and in weaker financial condition,” the report states. “But even among startups deemed a low credit risk based on self-reported credit scores, entrepreneurs of color were more likely to be denied at least some of the financing they sought.”

The pandemic was difficult for many small businesses, but especially for Black businesses and those owned by other entrepreneurs of color. A Federal Reserve Bank of New York report found that nationally “only 20% of eligible firms in states with the highest densities of Black-owned firms” received Paycheck Protection Program loans, a major source of pandemic-era relief for small businesses.

Another New York Fed report found that early in the pandemic in 2020, 41% of Black-owned businesses closed. The following year data released by Robert Fairlie, a researcher and professor at the University of California Santa Cruz showed that things were improving. His analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data found a 38% increase nationally in new Black-owned businesses.

The patio of the Zanzibar Soul Fusion on Shaker Square during the Sept. 17 Hip-hop Trivia Brunch. It was one of several events, which were linked to the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival, designed to support Black businesses.
The patio of the Zanzibar Soul Fusion on Shaker Square during the Sept. 17 Hip-hop Trivia Brunch. It was one of several events, which were linked to the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival, designed to support Black businesses. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp

Black businesses welcome the support

Amir Foster, Zanzibar’s co-owner, said the restaurant was able to weather the pandemic by being adaptable. When its dine-in business was hard hit, Zanzibar pivoted to focusing on takeout orders. Takeout continues to be a niche.

Foster said he and the other co-owners always welcome the opportunity to expand their clientele. They appreciate how the brunch not only brought diners but also potential repeat customers. He also likes how a Black organization is seeking to support a Black-owned restaurant.

“Anything we can do to support each other is a net positive,” he said. “Anything we can do to bring visibility or traffic (to the restaurant) is a net positive.” 

He said Zanzibar has seen more customers during GCUFF, as some attendees have ventured from the film festival across Shaker Square to the restaurant. Foster said he looks forward to building a stronger connection next year between the film festival and the restaurant, in hopes that it will be beneficial to both. He said there wasn’t time to do it this year because he has only been a co-owner for four months.

“We definitely want to be more intentional about creating some type of partnership,”  he said.

Most people passing by Zanzibar Sunday would have sensed how everyone was enjoying themselves. Less obvious was how the crowd was making an economic statement by deliberately choosing to patronize a Black business.  

There was friendly competition among the teams as they answered hip-hop trivia questions, including those about artists with connections to Cleveland.

“Some people didn’t know that the artist DaBaby was born in Cleveland,” Haney said, recalling some of the questions.

But everybody knew about Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Haney was among those who lobbied to have East 99th Street off St. Clair Avenue in Glenville also named Bone Thugs-N-Harmony Way.

A few of the street signs decorated the patio, but they were replicas. The actual street signs were stolen shortly after they were installed this summer. All three have since been replaced, Haney said. She believes the sign theft isn’t necessarily by fans but by those who believe Bone Thugs-N-Harmony “don’t deserve to have a street sign.”

Juan Goodwin lobbied with Haney to get the street signs. His 9-year-old daughter, Lily Jade Goodwin, also known as DJ Lily Jade, deejayed at the brunch. She has deejayed throughout Northeast Ohio, hosts her weekly The Lily Jade Show on WOVU 95.9 FM, and also made Forbes magazine’s Cleveland Under 30 list.

Goodwin appreciates how the brunch was a show of support for Black entrepreneurs. But for him, having his daughter participate had greater meaning. He said in kindergarten Lily told him  that she wanted to be white because she saw the white Barbie doll as a standard of beauty.  Goodwin said this motivated him and his wife to focus on giving Lily and her sister experiences that would build their confidence as Black girls.

 “Things like GCUFF and other culturally competent organizations are important to us because we have two daughters,” he said. “I think it is important for them to see Black women in charge.”

Both Haney and Donna Dabbs, GCUFF’s executive director, are Black.

Ben Smith also provided entertainment at the brunch. He runs the Splice Cream Truck, a recording studio on wheels. Brunch attendees had the opportunity to record raps or anything else they desired. The truck is a nonprofit venture, funded out of Smith’s pocket as well as through grants. 

“It’s wonderful knowing that other organizations actually care about what I am doing,” he said. “It helps me to push on.”

Ben Smith, owner of the the Splice Cream Truck. The truck, a recording studio on wheels, provided entertainment during the Sept. 17 Hip-hop Trivia Brunch at Zanzibar Soul Fusion on Shaker Square. The event, one of several held during the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival, was designed to support Black businesses.
Ben Smith at his Splice Cream Truck Sept. 17 during the Hip-hop Trivia Brunch at Zanzibar Soul Fusion on Shaker Square. The truck is a recording studio on wheels. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp

Concerted effort necessary

The outdoor film screening at GlenVillage was intended to support Black businesses as well as provide free entertainment for families, Haney said.

“The idea is to not only have patrons visit GCUFF at the theater but for GCUFF to come into and give back to the community,” she wrote in an email. “This was an opportunity for those who may not ordinarily afford to take their whole families to the theater to get that same experience right in their backyards free of charge.”

Having the film screening at GlenVillage showed support for the startup businesses in the incubator, said John Anoliefo, executive director of Famicos Foundation. The nonprofit community development corporation, whose focus includes business development in Glenville, Hough and part of St. Clair-Superior, provides technical and other services to the GlenVillage entrepreneurs. Most of the incubator’s startups are Black businesses.

“Programs like the GlenVillage business incubator are needed in Black neighborhoods here and around the country,” he said. “Black businesses are often under-resourced. Black neighborhoods often don’t have a lot of viable retail. There are a lot of us [Black people] who have ideas for their own business, but they don’t have the resources. They don’t have the resources to go and find a place or they don’t even know how to begin.” 

Anoliefo said residents as well as organizations need to make a concerted effort to support these fledgling entrepreneurs.

“When we have meetings there, we buy food from the businesses to provide extra support,” he said of Famicos.

He said the GCUFF filming screening at GlenVillage served the same purpose.

“It was helpful because people came in, they watched the film, and hopefully before they left they bought something,” he said. “Even if it was just a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, that is support. That person may have a reason to come back next time, and maybe this time for lunch.” 

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Economics Reporter (she/her)
Olivera, an award-winning journalist, covered labor, employment and workforce issues for several years at The Plain Dealer. She broke the story in 2013 of a food drive held for Walmart workers who made too little to afford Thanksgiving dinner. Olivera has received state and national awards for her coverage, including those from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW). She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Olivera believes the sweet spot of high-impact journalism is combining strong storytelling with data analysis.