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Like many of us who welcomed the start of the new decade, Risë Jones, owner of TeaLee’s Teahouse and Bookstore, saw 2020 as a year of progression. Her two-year-old Five Points business had received both local and national attention; it won Westword’s Best Teahouse in 2019 and was featured on the PBS program Start Up in January. With reservations booked out until May and a full calendar of planned events to match, the teahouse was continuing on the road of success—until COVID-19 swept the nation. Knowing that takeout was not the shop’s forte coupled with the fear of getting sick, Jones decided to close the doors on March 17, the day after Gov. Polis gave the order for Colorado restaurants to close for dine-in service.
That wasn’t the first time Jones faced a setback. After surviving a rare form of leukemia in 2011, her husband Louis Freeman asked her what she wanted for the future. Jones answered, in so many words, “I want a teahouse.” After she locked down the name TeaLee’s in 2012—her grandmother’s nickname—and secured a lease on 22nd Street in Five Points in 2015, Jones was unable to open for another three years due to construction inside and outside of the century-old building. While in limbo, the couple had to set up a GoFundMe page just to get to the starting line. But they persevered, with enough funds to open up the shop in February 2018.
Hoping to create a hub for the Five Points community, Jones describes TeaLee’s Teahouse and Bookstore as a place “where people who were from this community who were Black [could] see themselves and have a place from the very beginning.” Inside, high tea and conversation took place among paintings, textiles, and jewelry from various Black artists. In the lower level of the shop, a bookstore curated by Freeman held a range of works written by African American and female authors and doubled as an event space that regularly hosted book clubs, health and wellness talks, and even a wedding. On Sundays, hungry Denverites could stop in for shrimp or crab grits for brunch alongside vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free treats. Lacking in Wi-Fi, the shop encouraged hectic minds to unplug and get into the rhythm of tea.
But when COVID-19 shuttered the teashop, Jones began researching her options, specifically, the Payment Protection Program (PPP). She applied but was quickly disqualified, as it was just her and her husband running the shop. “Last year we didn’t have employees,” Jones says. “That loan, essentially, was built on retaining employees.”
Additionally, banks’ definitions for what qualifies as small business varied drastically, leaving mom and pop shops out of the equation. “Small business can mean [that] you make millions of dollars and have up to 500 employees. That’s who the banks gave the money to,” Jones says. She looked into other grants but turned up empty handed. “There have been probably a half dozen other kinds of grants that we have looked at, but you are competing with people from all over the nation or all over the state.”
Jones wasn’t the only Black-owned business that was left out of the PPP. According to the New York Times, just 12 percent of Black and Latino business owners who applied for PPP aid reported receiving funds. For many, it was their first time applying for a loan. “It’s part of a systematic problem in terms of how African American businesses start up. In a large part, they start up with your own funding,” Jones says. “How that gets viewed by banks and investors is not favorable. So it makes your access to capital different… and it takes capital to open back up.”
Even when applying for loans to start a business, people of color are often shut out. According to the nonprofit advocacy group the Center for Responsible Lending, about 46 percent of white-owned businesses were able to get credit from a bank over the past five years compared to 23 percent of Black-owned businesses. “When you’re a start-up and you’re using every penny that you have, you’re not sitting on a reserve. And even if you were sitting on a reserve, three months later, your reserve is pretty much eaten up because the expenses continue,” says Jones.
Though the governor announced that restaurants could reopen on May 27 with restrictions attached, Jones decided to push off TeaLee’s opening until July 1, citing fears of coronavirus spikes due to the recent protests across the state. While the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked sweeping change on local and national levels, the conversation has now morphed into how to support the Black community in the long-term. Jones hopes that the movement will help encourage a fairer system so that she and others like her can create their own successes.
“There are people who reach out to you because they want to help, but the word ‘help’ in and of itself can also be crippling,” says Jones. “How do you make the systems work so that I can help myself?
“If things are level in the way they should be, then you come to me because you see me as a business that you want to go to, that you want to eat at, [and] you become a customer because I provide a good service, instead of just helping every once in a while because you think that I’m in distress.”