Just as one call ends, the phone rings again. Huddled in the small kitchen area inside Carpenter’s Cafe & Catering, all four staffers take turns answering calls for orders in between preparing meals. There’s no time to lose.
The “open” signboard hasn’t been staged yet, and restaurant owner Katrina Carpenter already knows it will be a busy day – a stark contrast from a year ago when the restaurant first opened its door in the Medical District in Near Southside.
“When we very first started, I was apprehensive. We are in an area where we were truly the minority, looking around (at) businesses and where we’re positioned.” Carpenter said. “So it was very apprehensive, and it does feel like a lonely island.”
Katrina and her husband Travis Carpenter were aware and prepared for the unique challenges of being a Black-owned business. But, the duo could not account for a global pandemic that severely impacted the service and food industry.
After acquiring the space in late 2019, the Carpenters had planned to hold a grand opening in March 2020. The celebration never transpired as COVID-19 gripped the city. Zero customers showed up on many days before and after lockdowns of last spring.
“It was pretty devastating,” Katrina Carpenter said. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?”
The business community, especially the Black community, soon came to their rescue, knocking on the restaurant’s door for pickups and curbside deliveries. The catering business also took off at a great pace.
A year later, the light is still on and the aroma of fresh homestyle cooking lingers on in Carpenter’s Cafe.
Before the brick-and-mortar location, The Carpenter’s Cafe operated out of an airstream trailer in the SoMa District.
Kenya Crawford became a regular patron when the restaurant was all outdoors, no matter the weather, she said. Its specialty chicken salad, the smokey chick, attracted Crawford to the storefront location as well.
“I support Black business, small business. So coming here is part of that dedication,” Crawford said about Carpenter’s Cafe.
Since the pandemic shut down Carpenter’s Cafe within weeks from its soft launch, it could not market or attract new customers as easily.
On the day of its soft launch in February of last year, 132 customers visited the restaurant. Most of them had pre-built relationships with the Carpenters, longtime residents of the Como neighborhood in West Fort Worth, which historically has a large Black population.
From February to April 2020, a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found, 41% of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. closed – the most impacted group during the period. Furthermore, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce poll, 66% of minority small businesses reported having concerns about permanent closure.
“When you put pressure on coal, a diamond comes out,” said Crawford. “These businesses that have been able to succeed and stay afloat – to even begin from to exist at this moment – the future is bright for them.”
Most of the marketing since the soft launch has been through word-of-mouth within the community. And words about the food at Carpenter’s Cafe have spread far and wide.
The restaurant currently averages at least 10 to 15 dine-in groups a day, welcoming up to 50 walk-in orders some days. Opening hours are only 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Carpenter’s Cafe receives about 10 large catering orders per week that each consists of about 100 lunch boxes, Katrina Carpenter said.
“It was not easy, at all,” she said. “But, yeah, we managed. We got through with the help of our community.”
And, the Carpenters have given back to the community as well.
The Carpenters volunteered to provide food to the painters of the End Racism Now mural on Main Street last summer. For Thanksgiving, they partnered with a racial injustice advocacy community group, Heart Work, to deliver free meals to families in the Lake Como neighborhood.
When the winter storm hit in February, Carpenter’s Cafe marked its first anniversary. The restaurant teamed up with Funk Town Fridge to provide hot meals and boxes of groceries to families in need. With the help of former NFL player Michael Huff, the Carpenter’s Cafe remained open during the winter storm and gave away 200 free meals.
“They were accessible for the need to be able to help people,” Crawford said. “They were closed for everybody, but not to the need of the community.”
Recognizing the struggle
The pandemic caused an upheaval in Fort Worth’s business community not experienced since the Great Recession.
While some thrived, the majority of businesses struggled in the last year, said Carlo Capua, president of Rotary Club of Fort Worth. The 108-year-old club and its members, composed of local business leaders, work to serve and promote the local economy.
This year, the Rotary Club is hosting the first-ever Minority Business Awards.
“Our community is so divided politically that the last thing we need is that ‘us versus them’ mentality,” Capua said about the award. “It’s how can we bring people together to help understand each other, for the benefit of the community and for the benefit of the people in it.”
Carpenter’s Cafe is one of the finalists to win the award.
A panel of judges who aren’t a member of the Rotary Club have selected five minority-owned businesses out of an initial pool of 29 applicants.
“There are some businesses that historically just have been less set up to succeed,” Capua said. “And those are the businesses that we want to focus on first and foremost. So, I mean it’s really important.”
All five businesses will be recognized, and the top business will be awarded during a luncheon April 30 at the Fort Worth Club.
“This whole movement with people supporting minorities in general, and then minorities in business, it helps us a whole lot,” Katrina Carpenter said. “To be honest with you, I don’t like to be sought out just because I’m a minority. I like to be sought out because there’s a product that I provide that you love or like, and you want to support because I put out a great product.”
However, there are inequalities in present society, Katrina Carpenter added, so it’s important for the wider community to uplift and share resources.
“I make salads. So you seek out a place that serves outstanding salads,” she said. “So I just hope that as a community, as a city, we can get to where that’s the case. And that the minority is no longer the minority.”