Celia and Joe Ward-Wallace, co-founders of South LA Cafe.
Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace, owners of South LA Cafe and winners of the U.S. Chamber’s 2020 Emerging Business Achievement Award at the Dream Big Awards. — South LA Cafe

When you invest in your community, your community will invest in your business. That’s the lesson Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace, founders of South LA Cafe, learned as they navigated the challenges of being in the restaurant industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the pandemic hit, South LA Cafe — a Black-owned community coffee shop, market and cultural center located in the heart of Los Angeles — had only been in business for a few months. The cafe originally opened in December 2019 and attained astounding success in a short period of time, with revenue growing by 10% each month.

Shutdowns forced the cafe to rely solely on takeout orders rather than dine-ins and other face-to-face experiences. Suddenly, revenue dropped by 70% and most of the staff were furloughed.

The husband-and-wife team said the key to their survival and success was the support they received from their community.

“[The community] rallied behind us, and over 500 community members sent us financial contributions on a monthly basis to help us stay open,” they said.

[Read more: 5 Restaurant Industry Pandemic Pivots]

With the backing of its local community, South LA Cafe was able to pivot immediately, delivering meals to seniors, launching an advance-ordering app with curbside pickup and providing prepared South LA Grocery Boxes, which were available for purchase and to “sponsor” to neighbors in need.

“We also launched our South LA Grocery Giveaway, which has fed over 46,000 people in the past 46 weeks,” said Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace.

Embracing and giving back to the community

Because South LA Cafe’s mission is to serve its community, fight racial and economic inequality and provide equal access to food, members of the community recognized and communicated the company’s value to others.

This attracted even more loyal customers — especially amidst the fight for equal justice, when more consumers were looking to support Black-owned businesses that were fighting to make their mark.

Find a cause that you believe in, and build a business around that.

Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace, founders, South LA Cafe

“When George Floyd was killed, and the world had a racial reckoning, our community used us as an example of what type of businesses they want to provide equity and opportunity to our underserved community,” they told CO—. “Because they invested in us, we were able to invest in hiring more local folks, and growing our community service efforts.”

[Read more: Building Your Reputation in the Community? 3 Tips for Getting Involved]

Staying true to your mission, vision and calling

For new and aspiring business owners trying to make it in this current climate, the Ward-Wallaces have some solid advice: “Find a cause that you believe in, and build a business around that.”

They added that pursuing a mission-led business will allow you to wake up each morning and keep fighting, knowing you are making a difference in this world.

“We learned that no matter what life sends our way, we have what it takes to be resilient and be of service to others,” they said. “Our mission, vision and calling became even more abundantly clear, and all of our life experience prepared us to rise to the occasion and step fully into our legacy.”

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