(Photo by Holly Quinn)
This article appears in a 12-part series on minority entrepreneurship and is underwritten by the Wilmington Alliance. It was independently reported and not reviewed by Wilmington Alliance before publication.
When Jason Aviles first imagined Wilmington Green Box, the community-focused healthy goods company he founded with partner John Naughton in 2016, he had big plans.
“The original plan, the entire concept of Wilmington Green Box, came from when I traveled to South Africa and visited a place called 27 Boxes, an indoor and outdoor experience that provides affordable retail solutions for small business owners,” he said. “Imagine these 40-foot and 20-foot shipping containers turned into retail shops, boutiques, cafes and a patio mall experience.”
When he returned home after spending a month traveling in South Africa, he realized that Wilmington could benefit from such a space, too.
“I realized that, one, there was no grocery store,” he said. “Even to this day there isn’t a grocery store downtown. And, two, we had to find a different, innovative way to train our youth and give them employment, have then understand entrepreneurship through direct experience. We originally came up with the concept to take a shipping container and find a space and to operate out of, selling fresh produce, healthy meals and cold press juices, entirely run by the team that we employed.”
Getting funding for the idea, however, was an uphill climb.
“That entire idea got downgraded into a push cart that was built from an old ice box that we found in a Victorian home in West Center City,” said Aviles. “We had this idea and this grand vision. It didn’t work out. We were given a microgrant of less than $400 from [Buccini/Pollin Group] to repurpose the push cart. We started with that and our own savings to float payroll for our first employee, Emmanuel [Knox, now Green Box’s teen supervisor] and buy inventory.”
With its mission to serve the community and employ and educate teens, the company received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which came with its own set of challenges.
“If you’re a new nonprofit in a state that is heavily saturated with nonprofits, you have to have data metrics and a proof of concept before you receive any assistance,” Aviles said. “When we started in 2016, there was no real grassroots-level assistance for startup nonprofits. We went to [Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement], we went to these players that we were told had the access and information. But what we found is that they really didn’t. And in order to find the money, you had to dig deep.”
It took two years to build a proof of concept, gain access to the funding ecosystem and develop relationships needed to finally start receiving some assistance.
“John and I went two-and-a-half years of working at Wilmington Green Box without being paid a dollar,” Aviles said. “It was all sweat equity. We stuck to it because as long as we could provide the community with direct access to these healthy goods and employ these teens, we were fine. We could figure out how to create side hustles to make ends meet.”
Giving up on Wilmington Green Box, he says, wasn’t an option.
The access disconnect
During that slow process of building the proof of concept, Aviles and Naughton learned some eye-opening lessons.
“There are so many people like us in this position that we almost accept it as if it’s normal,” Aviles said. “When you don’t have the privilege of having access or relationships or wealth, you’re conditioned to believe that perseverance and commitment and back-against-the-wall is normal. You’re trained to think that the obstacles and the hurdles are normal. In your mind you’re kind of approaching all of this as if this is what I have to do, this is what’s regular.
“But then when you step outside of it and you finally start to rub shoulders and shake hands with the people who are in positions of authority and political influence and social capital with resources, you realize that there’s a large group of people operating from an entirely different perspective and understanding about how to approach business,” he said. “And that’s when you start to realize that there’s a disconnect.”
For Aviles, it wasn’t an easy realization.
“You start to feel this resentment toward the process,” he said. “Most of these people who are ‘successful’ do it with incentives, they do it with the pen and paper approach versus the bootstrap approach. They understand grants, they understand how to write proposals, and they know the people on the boards who manage the funds and opportunities. There’s a bigger picture that most entrepreneurs, especially Black entrepreneurs, are unaware of.”
The closer you look, he says, the more you start to understand that it’s partly by design.
“Not all of it, but some of that is by design, because if you follow the money, every year you see it go to the same players,” he said. “And that’s not by accident.”
In 2017, Wilmington Green Box got its first location, in a once-empty green space on Market Street. The team would convert it to a seasonal kiosk with open air seating surrounded by murals a few steps down from The Queen.
They did all of the work, right down to building the wooden kiosk through a partnership with NextFab. When it came to using the privately owned space, all they had to do was ask.
“We went directly to the owner with the idea and concept to turn the space into an outlet for community, something that was alive versus dormant,” Aviles said. “And for him it made sense, because it had been neglected and he knew that we would come in and revamp it and give it good vibes and offer value to the community. When you look at the landscape of Wilmington, there are so many more [spaces] like that that could come about if the people who own them were open to unique opportunities like that. All he had to do was say yes.”
An essential partnership
The kiosk space was missing one component vital to the mission, however: a kitchen where they could make their specialty cold press juices. In 2018, Wilmington Green Box would make one of its most impactful connections yet when they partnered with (now closed) café Harvest House through Angela Wagner, who is now Green Box’s third partner.
“[Harvest House] purely happened because of the relationship I built with Angela, and that’s it, that’s all it was,” said Aviles. “Angela was being contracted out from Big Fish to take on Harvest House, and they wanted to sell cold press juices. She found us, we sat down and had a conversation, and she advocated for us. That’s how it happened — she opened a door and we ran right into it. Us working with Harvest House was the perfect example of how we can do so many other things in this city so much more effectively.”
What made Wagner so valuable to Wilmington Green Box from the start was that she was willing to bring in an established local company instead of trying to compete with them.
“She said, ‘I want to sell cold press juices, I’m not about to invest all of this money into a juicer and learn this whole art and craft. Let me just partner with someone who’s already doing it and make a positive impact in our community,'” Aviles said. “It’s just like a no brainer. I always feel like when situations like that don’t happen, it’s because of our inability to truly see opportunity in collaboration. It takes a special mind to acknowledge and accept the value in that.”
A strong start
By early 2019, they were starting renovations on their Fourth and Market streets location, Green Box Kitchen, which opened in October 2019. The corner property, which is owned by the same landlord as the Wilmington Green Box green space less than a block away, had been vacant for over 10 years, and had no plumbing — just subfloors and concrete walls. With the help of matching grant from True Access Capital, they were able to recreate the space into a commercial kitchen with a small seating area featuring murals and art from local artists.
“People told us that we should not open up a vegan restaurant downtown,” Aviles said. “People said the city wasn’t ready for it, it was too niche. But Wilmington Green Box has always been plant-based, and Green Box Kitchen is an extension of that. We stood our ground. I can honestly say it has been the best decision we could have possibly made. It worked.”
Up until March 23, when Delaware went into COVID-19 lockdown, Green Box Kitchen was seeing a 20 to 23% increase in bottom line revenue every month since October, the cofounder said.
They applied for the Payroll Protection Program, but haven’t gotten any funds yet, though Aviles says they received news that it had finally gone through for a yet-unknown amount.
“To be honest we’re scared to death of spending that money when it comes in, because the policy on how to go about using it has changed weekly,” he said about the Small Business Administration’s ever-changing guidelines. “You need it, but at the same time you don’t want to put yourself in a jam, where now it doesn’t become forgiven and it becomes a loan, which adds more debt on top of everything else.”
The bigger conversation
COVID-19 isn’t the only thing to impact Green Box in 2020. On the night of Saturday, May 30, unrest came to Market Street as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd.
Some businesses were damaged. Green Box Kitchen was spared.
“The reason it wasn’t damaged, I think, was because we there there, me and John, and other people who came with us to the front line and told people this is something that serves and belongs to the community,” Aviles said. “That was uncomfortable because it was very real out there. It was so real that it was unbelievable. It felt like you were in a movie. We were out there until almost midnight, and seeing everything that had taken place that day, even to this very moment I’m still processing, because it speaks to so much, so many layers required to understand before you can truly get the whole picture.
“On one level, as a business owner, of course you don’t want your business being destroyed — no one does. And then at the same time you have to take in consideration to the reason why it’s even happening in the first place, you can’t just say one and not be mindful of the other, because they’re all interconnected. I think at first, people were just reacting to the surface-level understanding of what was taking place. But now we’re at a place where I think people are starting to understand that there’s a deeper level of awareness that’s necessary to comprehend what’s actually happening in America right now.”
Is there an answer?
“We can no longer afford to not be inclusive,” Aviles said. “That’s really the only sustainable approach. That’s why now, more than ever, those conversations are happening. When you look at it from that perspective, you have to ask yourself: Would we be having this conversation if that didn’t happen on Market Street that Saturday?”
“No, we wouldn’t. That’s a very difficult pill for the mainstream to swallow, because it doesn’t have a relationship with the struggle. That’s the disconnect.”
Improving things, he says, will be a challenge.
“Do we really care about the problem enough where we’re willing to be uncomfortable and do the work that’s required to fix it?” he said. “That’s really going to be up to those frontline stakeholders. I can do what I can do with Green Box, but if we really care about the entire climate and culture of the city, we need people who have political influence, social capital and resources to be just as vigilant as we are. Until that happens, this is going to be a slow and long process.”
Green Box Kitchen has reopened with a limited menu and limited schedule, with a focus on ordering online and curbside pickup. With a small seating area that is going unused for the foreseeable future, its partners are considering turning it into a second kitchen devoted to delivery to the downtown area via tribikes — but, of course, it would require more funding for that to become a reality.
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