Milk & Honey, the West Side Wilmington cafe and gallery, is closed on Thursdays. It’s an unusual schedule quirk, but one that keeps the business, which launched in October 2019, open.
“I’m a leadership advisor. I still have clients in New York and Washington,” said owner Quincy Watkins. “I do problem solving, organizational development, things like that. That’s what actually pays my bills right now; what I can do in three hours would be [income] for the whole week.”
Watkins is a pastor and former business executive originally from the South Side of Chicago. He came to the East Coast for college — first Temple University, then The Wharton School. In the years before coming to Wilmington, he worked for McKinsey & Company and taught spiritual formation at Princeton University.
But what he really wanted to do, he said, was to open up a coffee house in a vibrant, diverse community. That opportunity came when another pastor in Wilmington invited him to share space at 807 Union St., a location now called The Neighborhood Church.
“I believe in hard work, but I believe in prayer, too — that’s my secret sauce, as I call it,” he said. “Wilmington really resonated with me.”
The church is at the back of the building, which they shared for a while, until the other pastor decided to leave. Watkins chose to stay in the space.
At the front of the building, there’s a storefront (once home to Levitea) — the perfect spot for a cafe. Especially since the West Side, he’d noticed, didn’t have a neighborhood coffee house like Brew Ha Ha in Trolley Square or De La Ceour (now Ciro) in Forty Acres. (“I don’t want to be a snob or anything, but I don’t consider Dunkin Donuts and Wawa coffee houses,” he quipped.)
The vision of Milk & Honey was more than serving fancy coffee, although it does serve serve the good stuff — high quality, affordably priced, single origin. It’s also serving the community through art, with four to five local artists on display at any given time, and it aims to bring together West Side businesses and help them thrive together.
“We consider ourselves the ‘Cheers‘ of coffee houses,” he said. “I wanted to be a place where everybody knows your name. Ten to 12 blocks each way, that’s our target. We don’t mind people coming from other areas, of course, but we want people [on the West Side] to say, ‘This is my coffee house.'”
"I wasn't sure if we were going to reopen, honestly. What encouraged me was the commitment of West Side Grows Together to really help minority business."
Revitalization org West Side Grows Together was instrumental in helping Milk & Honey come together, and is one of Watkin’s biggest supporters. Cornerstone West CDC President and CEO Sara Lester and Economic Development Manager Gabrielle Lantieri, along with others, “have worked their vision for the West Side and we want to be one of the foundational businesses here,” Watkins said.
Still, making Milk & Honey a reality was a challenge: “It was a huge investment for us,” including the space’s necessary renovations, he said. “A lot of it was from using my personal finances.”
Perhaps an even bigger challenge is the commercial rental cost on the Union Street corridor.
“People are seeing that on Union Street, the rent doesn’t really match the current situation,” he said. “It becomes discouraging to businesses that I’ve talked to. The rent is just too high. Right now, unfortunately, that’s my situation, too. We’re trying to rebuild this great area, hoping there can be some flexibility with some of these landlords. They almost prefer to keep the buildings empty as opposed to working out some kind of partnership.”
As one might imagine, the COVID-19 lockdown hitting just a few months after the cafe opened has had a huge impact on Milk & Honey.
“It was devastating,” Watkins said. “I wasn’t sure if we were going to reopen, honestly. I wasn’t making any money, I wasn’t generating salary. What encouraged me was the commitment of West Side Grows Together to really help minority business. That really impressed me, because it wasn’t just talk, it was action. In the many emails I received, they were like, ‘Hey we’re hoping you pull through this, you’ve been great.'”
Since the business had been open for less than a year, Milk & Honey didn’t qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program loan to support rent and paychecks for Watkins’ one full-time and two part-time employees. “We did get some economic injury funds,” he said. “Not remotely as much as we needed, but we still had to draw from resources. We did apply for the Wilmington Strong fund, and we did get approved for that, and West Side had a fund, too.” Those smaller funds provided about $1,500.
When Milk & Honey reopened in June with the launch of Phase 2 of Delaware’s economic reopening, the very first order it received was catering for 90 people over two days from West Side Grows Together.
“The first week [back] was slow, the second week was slow, and then the third week we just kind of exploded,” he said.
Customers are able to enter Milk & Honey (under strict social distancing rules), which is helping the business feel the way it’s meant to — like a community space.
“We have temperature checks, we make sure people are six feet apart and everyone wears masks,” he said. “We sanitize the complete place every 15 minutes. I don’t have all the plastic and glass and all that, because it’s a coffee house. Once I lose the social distance-appropriate interaction we cease to be who we are. People can come in, we can take orders, they can make a reservation, we can do curbside — but also we’ve had people sit in and it’s been great. It still feels like a coffee house.”
"I do believe there is a renaissance that's going to happen next two to three years. I think Wilmington is going to be one of the hottest places to be."
While Watkins says his Wilmington experience so far has been extraordinarily positive, he still sees the challenges for minority-owned businesses in the city.
“First of all, the health department, the Office of Food and Protection — I respect them, I honor their work, but it just takes too long to get an inspection. It takes four months to get an inspection,” he said. “So it was an arduous experience, paying rent for four months, but we can’t open.”
And, echoing what we’ve heard from other entrepreneurs: “Access to capital is a big one. That was a challenge. We had to use a lot of our own funds” — something that many Black and brown business owners just don’t have. “We need access to larger grants, too. You have some very strategic businesses, where if they had a little more capital injection they could really flourish.”
Another issue, he said, is that minority-owned businesses are sometimes unable to draw a diverse customer base.
“I remember that was one of the complaints Merengue House had at one of our [community] meetings,” Watkins said of the Union Street Dominican restaurant. “They felt like they were being isolated. Only a certain demographic was coming and they wanted to broaden it. That’s been part of the conversation.
“We’ve been encouraged that we’ve seen a lot of diversity [at Milk & Honey]. Yes, I am Black, but it’s a coffee house for everyone. We want that to continue.”
Despite its struggles, Watkins sees Wilmington as a place with great potential.
“People have to work together in order to make the city better for everybody,” he said. “I do believe there is a renaissance that’s going to happen next two to three years. I think Wilmington is going to be one of the hottest places to be, if all goes well. I did a project once with Philadelphia mayor [Ed] Rendell when they were doing the Avenue of the Arts on Broad Street, and I saw [change] happen. I see Wilmington being a powerful, hot spot between New York and D.C.”
In the meantime, even with the ongoing pandemic, Milk & Honey is growing. Soon, the popular LOMA Coffee location on Lower Market Street downtown will be Milk & Honey LOMA, after the opportunity to expand in the space was offered via Sycamore Hill Church, which ran the now-closed LOMA Coffee. “It just made sense for us to do it, so we’re planning on that and working through everything with the health department.”
The original location, which will be officially called Milk & Honey West Side, will continue its focus on the neighborhood and Union Street business and arts community, with “Small Business Saturday” events in the parking lot every week through the month of August. As an art gallery that participates in Wilmington’s Art Loop — with low traffic due to not being downtown or on the Riverfront — Watkins is also spearheading the West Side Saturday taking place the Saturday after First Friday from 5 to 8 p.m., with live music, food and featured artists. West Side Saturday will kick off on Sept. 12 at Milk & Honey, and there are plans to repeat the event every month, hopefully growing as more West Side businesses get involved.
“I’m really big on community,” Watkins said. “We’re going to do an opera at the end of September outside in the parking lot. We’re going to have our tuxedos on, we’re going to put the lighting up.” Other plans for the fall include a pig roast on Union Street in October. “Yes, I want to make money, but I’m here for the people. That’s why I’m here. Our nation’s heart is bleeding, but also, even in the midst of a hopeless mess, there’s hope. Wilmington could be a very powerful example of that.”