Photos courtesy of Fresh Start Cleaning CT.
By Sarah Thompson
DShaun Williams is following in his father’s footsteps, literally.
Born and raised in Hartford, his dad showed him from an early age what hard work and perseverance looked like. Almost every weekend, he would tag along to his father’s second job in commercial cleaning, a job that his dad is still doing 17 years later.
“I was raised solely by my Dad,” shared Williams. “His way of parenting was strict, but now, as a grown man looking back to when he took me to his cleaning accounts on Saturdays when I would rather be outside playing, I’m glad all that took place. He would bring me with him, and I would help out and see what he was doing.”
His father encouraged him along the way, explaining that cleaning businesses can be lucrative.
“That inspired me to go ahead and press go,” said Williams.
Williams met his business partner, Christopher Cho, whom he also refers to as his friend and brother, at a corporate job a few years ago.
“We were working a corporate job together and I was his boss, so it just so happened that we shared an office together,” he explained. “So, we grew close and it worked. I would throw out these crazy ideas and he would go with it and make it work.”
From there, Williams learned organization skills and lived by the mantra “whatever you have to do to make it work, make it work,” earning recognition and achievement awards along the way. "We are so confident in our abilities as a company, we offer our customers the first week of cleaning absolutely free of charge,” he explained.
Soon after, Fresh Start Cleaning CT was launched, in June of 2020. The business, with a team of eight employees, now provides commercial cleaning including dusting, window cleaning, floor buffing and carpet shampooing for large property management companies, medical offices and other facilities.
"All throughout my life I’ve been able to push right through [adversity] and to be honest, we couldn’t have picked a better time to start this endeavor."
“We can handle any aspect of any facility,” explained Williams. “The biggest challenge is the pandemic. People want to work from home, so to be able to provide a very clean and disinfected [work or office] environment is the utmost importance so we all, as a society, can eventually get back to some kind of normalcy.”
Despite COVID, Williams and Cho have seen a steady growth in businesses since their launch just seven months ago.
“When I look back on my life and my upbringing, for me, I like a challenge,” shared Williams. “That’s how I like it to be done. Everybody’s freaking out and people don’t want to come outside but in the turmoil we will rise. Like a phoenix.”
Launching a business isn’t the only new chapter Williams took on last year. He also has a new son who he affectionately named Phoenix.
“All throughout my life I’ve been able to push right through [adversity] and to be honest, we couldn’t have picked a better time to start this endeavor,” he shared.
Just as his father was dedicated to him, he is dedicated to his customers. And it shows.
“My customers know that they can expect from me that if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and we’ve got to get something done, we’ll jump out of bed and get it done,” explained Williams. “I sent an email at 2 o’clock in the morning recently and we got a response by 9 o’clock that morning asking for a quote. So, just staying on it, not giving up, constantly pushing the limit, that’s my style and it works.”
Fresh Start looks forward to giving back to the community soon, too. “We must give back. It is a requirement,” he explained. “We have to show people that through adversity like the pandemic, they can still reach their goals and push forward towards their dreams.”
As for Williams, he’s always been interested in politics and changing the outlook of places like Hartford.
“One thing I learned coming up as a Black man is to always be ten times better. You have to be,” he shared. “Sometimes there’s this trustworthy factor—like hey, can I trust this guy? Or for a lot of people, their first scope into really having personal or business relationships with a Black person is through the lens that they saw on television. When I deal with people, it’s straight professionalism. I don’t subscribe to what they may have seen. It’s about being better than every other business and providing better service.”
At first glance, Williams and Cho might seem an unlikely pair.
“If you look at Chris and I, it’s what the country needs right now,” shared Williams. “We’re two people from totally different aspects of life, different upbringing, coming together to make something happen. I put a lot of faith in him, he puts a lot of faith in me and we make it work. With everything that’s going on right now, with the pandemic, with the whole cry for social justice, I feel like our story is very important for people to see.”
With each new opportunity to engage with a new or potential client, Fresh Start is inspiring others with their representation of unity.
Williams summed it up: “We represent what America can be…and clean!”
Fresh Start Cleaning CT is located at 304 West Main Street in Avon, with services available throughout Connecticut and New York. Click here to learn more.
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By Sarah Thompson
Once Richard Mercer took a Bikram yoga class, he was hooked.
“I was a former Division 1A football player, I frequently experienced tight and sore muscles, and I wasn’t flexible. I knew right away that this yoga would heal me and keep me healthy into old age,” he shared. “After leaving corporate, I went out to Bikram Yoga Teacher Training to learn from Bikram himself and knew that I needed to bring this healing practice to my community.”
And, for 11 years, he’s been offering yoga classes to help provide mental clarity, peace, strength, balance and fitness for hundreds of people.
“We are an inclusive, supportive community welcoming to all, regardless of ability, age or background,” he shared. “We inspire curiosity and innovation while helping people on their path to better, more sustainable physical, mental and spiritual wellness. Your quality of life will be improved with our holistic approach to wellness.”
Tucked away on a side road in the Weatogue section of Simsbury sits Mercer’s yoga studio, which he runs with his wife, Laurie.
“We have a partnership and each work to our strengths to support the common goal,” shared Mercer. “Having a partner you can implicitly trust is priceless, and we work together to make sure the studio is always offering our community the best possible experience.”
The duo offer several different yoga classes, including Bikram, Hot High Intensity, Low Impact Interval Training (HIIT), Flow Yoga and Yin Yoga—each offering their own benefits and styles.
“Our daily lives can lead to a lot of body stress and disconnection. A Bikram Yoga class offsets the external negative influences we regularly encounter. You leave feeling free and grounded,” he explained. “This set sequence class of scientifically designed yoga poses is excellent for beginners and experienced yogis alike. You can easily moderate the intensity level to suit your needs and the exactness of the instruction always offers new learning experiences and opportunities for meditation. The hot room provides a detoxifying effect and allows the muscles and joints to relax for a deeper benefit.”
"I am happy that I get to have a job that brings healing to our community every day and allows me to spend my days doing something that I know will sincerely help people.”
HIIT, on the other hand, is set to music in a fun, fast-paced class. Participants build strength in all muscle groups, including upper and lower core, and partake in in cardio fitness.
“It is for all levels of fitness and ability and you will see results very quickly,” explained Mercer.
Flow Yoga is fast-paced and is a series of yoga postures set to music that helps participants lose weight, gain strength and see results quickly.
“It is generally an athletic class done to music that gives you everything you need in a workout: strength, flexibility, and peace,” he said.
Yin Yoga is a beginner’s class held in a warm room, not as hot as Bikram heat, for all levels. It’s a slow-paced style of yoga, incorporating principles of traditional Chinese medicine, with postures that are held for longer periods of time than other styles.
“Yin Yoga poses apply moderate stress to the connective tissues of the body—the tendons, fasciae, and ligaments—with the aim of increasing circulation in the joints and improving flexibility,” shared Mercer. “Yin is a very restorative, healing, and peaceful style of yoga.”
When COVID forced Mercer to close his business on March 17, 2020, he quickly pivoted to provide live streamed classes and offered members access to his extensive library of taped Bikram, HIIT and Yin classes.
But, from day one, Mercer planned to have top-notch cleanliness and health in his studio, including NeoFloor carpet, which is antimicrobial, antiviral and antibacterial; radiant heating in the floor; an AtmosAir system that kills bacteria and removes odor; concrete floors in the lobby and bathrooms that prevent bacteria from being absorbed; and a large practice space, now marked with spots at least six feet apart.
“We’ve also added treatment of all surfaces with SD 90, an industrial-grade natural cleaner,” shared Mercer. “And we’re continuously running our diffusers with our Immunity Blend and our Cold, Flu, Allergy, Virus Blend.”
In addition to offering a variety of yoga classes, Simsbury Bikram Yoga offers treats like incense, healthy snacks, organic essential oils and yoga mats.
“Because of our holistic, natural approach, we work to locate effective products that don’t do any harm—no toxic ingredients, no sugars, no harmful chemicals,” shared Mercer. “We always try things on ourselves first, long before we put them on the shelf for sale. Why come in here to get yourself healthy physically, and then go out and put unhealthy things on and in you? We want to expose our community to excellent, healthy, safe alternatives to all the junk that is out there.”
Mercer also hopes that people of all walks of life try yoga.
“The majority of yoga communities are white women. The truth is that being Black and male, I believe we have exposed more men and people of color to yoga than most studios,” he shared. “The opportunity is to make sure that more men and communities of color know that this is a welcoming, diverse place for them to be and feel safe.
Bikram Yoga Simsbury is open 7 days a week for limited hours. Their full schedule can be found at www.bikramyogasimsbury.com where they have their full class schedule listed. New members are offered a special deal of $49 for 21 days of unlimited Yoga/HIIT. Simsbury Bikram Yoga can also be reached at (860) 217-1663 and their studio address is 7 Deer Park Rd, Weatogue, CT, 06089.
“I am very grateful to have found this yoga. We’ve been open 11 years now and plan to be here for the long haul, pandemic or not. I am happy that I get to have a job that brings healing to our community every day and allows me to spend my days doing something that I know will sincerely help people.”
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By Sarah Thompson
Felicia Edwards is a creative. She always had her heart set on becoming a psychologist, but knowing she wanted to go beyond the four walls of a traditional clinical setting and, quite literally, get up and moving while helping people, she began forging her own path during her undergraduate years.
“I knew that I wanted to help people in some capacity that had to do with mental health, but I also knew that my passion was in media,” she shared. “So, I created a curriculum that would incorporate mental health, writing, media, communication sciences and I put it all together as one.”
At the time, telehealth wasn’t as popular as it is now, yet Edwards was ahead of the curve, pursuing a degree that would help break down barriers for people to address their mental health concerns, whether transportation, money or something else, and providing virtual mental health services.
“I wanted to help people through media in the mental health sphere, through helpful videos and publications,” she said.
So, she loaded up her toolbox of knowledge in communications and pursue her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy to become a psychotherapist. She began creating videos while still working in the clinical field, eventually finding herself in a master’s course called action methods in Marital and family counseling—one that would spark a whole new approach for her.
“They used acting as a therapeutic means to unravel whatever is going on with you,” she shared. “And I thought—this is what I’m going to do!”
The thought of not being bound by some of the rules other practices had, Edwards took steps to open her own practice in Avon in July 2020, backed with certifications in various therapies.
“In other practices I would have to conduct therapy in a certain kind of way,” she explained. “But within my own practice and with the people I bring on, I can say to them that they’re free to do whatever feels comfortable to them, but my main focus is creativity and doing therapy in a non-traditional way.”
Edwards focuses on helping people who are transitioning—whether to a new job, in and out of school or otherwise—and tends to gravitate toward college students and young adults. Edwards moved to the United States from Jamaica when she was a little girl, first living in Florida, then New York and finally settling in Connecticut, so transitions are one she can understand and relate to her clients about.
“I find those transitions hardest because they are life-changing,” she shared. “Sometimes when people are transitioning to ‘the real world’ from college, they have limiting beliefs, like I live this way, or my name sounds like this, and so I’m really afraid to get this job. So, it’s from a cultural perspective. They also have deeply rooted family beliefs that they’ve internalized and subconsciously they’re taking it with them.”
Edwards works to unpack these complexities, to help empower her clients to reframe their believed experiences and create a new narrative so, in her words, they “don’t click away from those job opportunities because they believe a person might turn them down because of who they think they are or what their name sounds like.”
These experiences are ones that Edwards has dealt with, too.
“Therapy is meant to edify you. Recognize it as self-care.
“In the workplace, I have experienced people thinking I’m incompetent or I’ve been in situations where I have received hits at me because I was the only one in my office that looked a certain way,” she shared. “There have been times when I’ve spoken to someone and they said something, but I know they weren’t intentional about it but it’s because they assumed something about me. They might assume I’m a single mother, so some people assume I need assistance.”
Edwards has reached beyond therapy to create a card game that helps people debunk biases based on assumptions on looks.
“I think it’s really important to understand that on a subconscious level that we automatically think something about someone as soon as we see them,” she explained. “The way we see them, until it’s debunked, we carry that bias around with us. I want us to be aware of those things, so we don’t lead the conversation a certain way or make a person feel unintentionally uncomfortable.”
Her game, called Assumptions, was originally created to use during her sessions with clients, but she’s working to re-roll it out in both physical and online versions.
She also likes to specifically work with communities where there are higher instances of stigma attached to mental health care.
“I have a handful of Muslim clients who say I’m getting therapy although this is highly frowned upon,” she shared. “A lot of the time people look to religion, which is fine, but I find that they’re still feeling stuck and they’re not getting the help that they need and that’s why I really wanted to help. It is becoming destigmatized a lot more, but there is still that belief that ‘only crazy people go to therapy.’”
At the top of Edwards’ list is helping encourage people to take the step to get help.
“Therapy doesn’t have to be scary or boring. A lot of times people think therapy is this big, scary ordeal or they should come with only bad news,” she shared. “Therapy is meant to edify you. Recognize it as self-care. You can speak to someone who is unbiased, someone who can give you what you need when you need it. I always say, if you ever have the thought that OK, maybe I should get help, act on it and don’t talk yourself out of it, because that’s what people do. There is no shame in getting help. It just means you need support, and everybody needs support.”
Assurgent Healing is based in Avon and offers online therapy for couples, young adults and women across Connecticut. Find Assurgent Healing, and information on Edwards’ Assumptions game online here. Felicia Edwards is also a creative business coach and owns AchievHer Perfection, helping business owners transform their “boring content marketing strategies into new income generating creative techniques.” Learn more about receiving free creative training for businesses by clicking here.
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By Sarah Thompson
Bet on yourself. Invest in yourself. Go all in on yourself. You are your best investment. These are words that Double or Nothing Apparel co-founders and cousins Mike Forrester and Drew Bailey live by, and now they’re sharing this motivation with others through their unisex all-purpose clothing brand.
Their self-described “stylish yet comfortable” brand is popping up all over Connecticut, and even into the New York, Boston and DMV areas. The creators' apparel has reached Florida, Georgia, California, and even internationally in Toronto and Africa. From hats to hoodies, sweat suits and tons in between, the duo is on a mission to spread positivity wherever they—and their brand—goes.
“Our brand represents hard work ethic, dedication and constant elevation, resembling tactics for success,” Forrester explained. “I want someone to put on our apparel and feel proud behind it, what it stands for, what they stand for. We want to unite everyone as one. It’s bigger than just a t-shirt or hat. We want to spread positive energy around the world and try to uplift with any encounter.”
"We want to put out apparel that not only appeals to people, but also inspires them when they put it on. Our brand symbolizes being a go-getter—going after and obtaining your goals with persistence and consistency."
They want to inspire others to go after their goals and dreams.
“Don’t feel like you’re locked into something if you have something [else] you’re passionate about,” said Bailey. “Double down and go all in on what truly inspires you, because you can achieve anything when you focus and put your all into it.”
“No matter who you are—any walk of life, any color, speak your goals into existence,” added Forrester.
The pair took their own advice, and with added encouragement from family and friends, launched Double or Nothing Apparel last June, despite the country being in the middle of a pandemic.
“We believed in ourselves, set benchmarks and focused on staying consistent,” shared Forrester. “It started with a vision, dedication and constant progression.”
Having grown up together in Hartford, Forrester and Bailey always spent time together. In their words, they’ve been “around each other since the sandbox.” And in fact, many of their designs have sentimental significance from their youth.
“With our soccer jerseys, that was my high school number,” shared Forrester. “So, it’s bigger than jerseys – it’s coming from memories. I won the championship with that [jersey] number, so reliving it and seeing the reaction from everyone is just a blessing.”
Their mission to counter negativity takes energy and intentionality, but it’s paying off. Their warm, welcoming family-vibe is putting smiles on many faces.
“Customers tell us they love our energy,” shared Bailey. “They tell us, I was feeling bad today but your positive vibe just switched my whole mood up.”
“Our customers’ feedback means a lot to us,” added Forrester. “It feels like we are growing together.”
They’re also committed to giving back to the community they grew up in and encouraging the next generation. Not too long ago, they were involved in a youth event hosted by the Hartford Lions Soccer Club, an organization they stand by.
“We love to support our community,” shared Forrester, “so it’s a big deal to give back.”
During the first months after they launched their family business they did experience some delays with manufacturing due to COVID-19, but in Double or Nothing style, the pair says they’ve “strived towards our goals,” and sales have continued to grow.
“We believe in our brand,” shared Forrester. “Hard work turns into equity.”
Keeping their designs timeless, they pride themselves on offering a unique variety of colors and unisex styles for men and women, all with excellent quality.
“We focus on having items for everyone to fulfill and satisfy customer needs,” shared Forrester. “We always think about how to expand.” And like their website says, the variety of colors and styles the brand offers resembles the culture around its two creators.
Their current high demand products during these cold months? Sweat suits and hoodies. Their new spring collection includes several must-have items, too. “It’s going to be a great season release,” said Bailey.
“Starting the brand with hats, we created 30 to 40 different styles that some customers request, and we do pre-orders and also custom orders for all items,” explained Forrester. “We focus on building customer engagement.”
With each new season, Forrester and Bailey are committed to working hard, staying positive and being consistent with their mission to inspire.
“Our brand is evidence of growth, and we are blessed to share our art and mission with the world,” said Forrester.
“Just like ‘you are what you eat,’ you are what you put on,” added Bailey. “We want to put out apparel that not only appeals to people, but also inspires them when they put it on. Our brand symbolizes being a go-getter—going after and obtaining your goals with persistence and consistency. So, when you see those words—Double or Nothing— just know those are words that you can live by and stand firm on.”
The Double or Nothing Apparel online store is available at www.doubleornothingapparel.com and based in Greater Hartford. Find Double or Nothing Apparel on Instagram and Facebook. Email inquiries to Doubleornothingunited@gmail.com.
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By Sarah Thompson
After tasting the food at My Wife Didn’t Cook, you might think that owner Deivone Tanksley’s number one goal is to make your mouth water. After all, his fried chicken or deep fried whiting fish with mac and cheese, collard greens and cornbread or the wing plate with his signature barbeque Hennessey sauce will captivate you in no time. And while there’s truth to his goal of serving only the best food, the reason behind his restaurant runs much deeper—it’s bringing people together, one plate at a time.
Tanksley, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Jaci—who Deivone says is his biggest supporter—has deep roots in New Britain, where My Wife Didn’t Cook opened its doors in 2019. Having lived in the city his whole life, Tanksley knows firsthand how difficult it was to overcome some of the generational challenges so many of his friends and neighbors face.
“I was brought up in the projects where my dad was in and out of jail and my mother was on drugs. They are both doing wonderful now and have changed their lives around, but it was at age 11 when I was first incarcerated—I was sent to juvenile detention,” he shared. “Then [the mistakes I made] kept trickling to 14 years old, 16 years old, and the system engulfed me. At the age of 20, I started reflecting. I had two kids and I kept thinking, this is the status quo. I was able to see how the culture repeats a cycle for generations after generations—and in that moment my eyes opened and everything changed. From there I said I have to cut the cycle, so I started working and people would laugh at me. I went from the kid on the corner selling weed to a kid with his shirt tucked in. I was like, you can laugh all you want. I have a family to take care of.”
And, thanks to his self-described “relentlessness” and creative brainstorming and partnership with his wife Jaci—who is a whiz in the kitchen--he was able to continue turning the pages in the next chapters of his renewed life journey, inspiring countless people along the way.
In 2016, Tanksley started New Britain Legacies, a youth basketball mentoring program. Not too long after, he recognized that there was a market for a soul food restaurant in New Britain, so he opened My Wife Didn’t Cook. Perhaps surprisingly, the non-profit and restaurant often work hand-in-hand to make a positive impact in the community.
In fact, three alumni from New Britain Legacies worked at the restaurant before heading off to further their careers, and several other youth are currently working at My Wife Didn’t Cook, building their job skills and receiving mentoring support.
“We feed each other--the restaurant feeds the program, whatever the program needs, and we use the restaurant platform to provide. We try to give the kids that outlet. If we can’t hire them or fulfill something, we use our resources and reach to point them in the right direction,” he shared.
Last year, Tanksley’s felony record was expunged. While he lived through some dark and challenging times, he’s committed to sharing his story to help others, and to amplify that story through his business.
“It’s my purpose—I can reach more people with my story, I can help more people with my platform, I can continue to be a philanthropist and invest in the community, and this is where my relentlessness comes from. I feel like I’m that one person that people look at and see that people can change and people can be something in their life. If I quit now, I’m not just quitting on me. I’m quitting on my whole name and history—my kids, my community, my people. I feel that my sacrifice of my time is worth it to help thousands of people,” he shared.
Tanksley proves that there are people with stories behind every business, people who have experienced setbacks, struggles and sacrifice--but he hopes to inspire other people to pursue their passions and open a business, too.
“Because of the status quo of Black businesses and Black entrepreneurs, there’s not a lot of us who are in this game for ownership; there aren’t a lot of us who are creating our own,” he explained. “We had so much setback, so when we do either try to sit at that table or challenge the status quo we are questioned--do you belong here or do you not? And we can’t make as many mistakes and not be criticized. We have been miseducated, we’ve been misguided, we haven’t had certain resources, we don’t have generational wealth, so we’re literally setback. The challenge that we face is probably double or triple as opposed to another person facing that same thing.”
"I feel like I’m that one person that people look at and see that people can change and people can be something in their life. If I quit now, I’m not just quitting on me. I’m quitting on my whole name and history—my kids, my community, my people."
When another enormous setback—COVID-19—struck, Tanksley chose to use it as an opportunity to help the community. He and his crew were able to provide free meals for nearly 2,000 people in just a few days, earning a “Think Beyond Yourself Award” from New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart.
“I’m real big on community and providing for the community in times of need. If we didn’t have this platform, we would not be able to give away so many free plates during COVID,” he said. “During the first week of COVID when everyone was really struggling, we prepared about 900 plates—we had a line out the door. Within a half an hour all those plates were gone. Over the next couple of days, people around Connecticut heard about this story wanted to help. They started sending me and my wife checks from all over, so we did another barbeque again and another 1,000 meals were out the door.”
Free meal or not, Tanksley works hard to make sure all who visit his restaurant receive fantastic customer service.
“It’s the main thing I train my staff on,” he explained. “I love people so for me to have [good] customer service is all I care about—when that customer walks in, whether they are having a good day or a bad day, I want to make sure they leave happier than when they came in. Customer service is number one, and the food has got to be consistent and excellent, which it is. It’s not just customer service because we want their business, but it’s when I’m walking down the street, I want a customer to say--that’s a good guy.”
Bringing people together is at the heart of My Wife Didn’t Cook. When customers step inside, they are transported into a place that inspires and comforts. From the cozy lounge area to the bright colors throughout and motivational quotes on the walls, happiness is evoked.
“When [you] come into our restaurant, you get more than food. You get an experience. People come to get inspired. And it inspires us to hear their stories. We didn’t want to just bring a restaurant--we wanted to inspire the youth, adults and the community to let them know that we’re here. That’s our whole purpose.”
My Wife Didn’t Cook is located at 89 West Main Street, New Britain, CT and will soon open a second location at the Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester, CT. Click here to visit their website for hours, menu and more.
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By Sarah Thompson
It’s been quite a “season” for Lillard Royal Lewis, Jr.
Also known as “Chef Jay,” Lewis is a world-renowned chef, an insightful food philosopher, a published author and a philanthropist. He applies his philosophy and global vision of food sustainability and health disparities, plant-based economics and corporate responsibility to his Connecticut-based business, which is 100% Black-owned. His many products, which include the Baby J’s Spice label, are all driven toward two central philosophical pillars of his corporate structure: sustainability and diversity in education.
While his gourmet spice line has launched him into a class all his own, his journey started as a private chef to the stars, preparing meals for R&B legends and performers including Carl Thomas, K. Michelle, Smokey Robinson, Al B. Sure!, Styles P and Gregory Osbourne. Over the years, some clients turned into significant friends and mentors—including legendary actor and comedian John Witherspoon and business icon Curtis Robinson. Both have provided Lewis with invaluable professional guidance.
“Some of the first people to try my spices before they were even labeled were Smokey Robinson, John Witherspoon and Soledad O’Brien,” he shared. “They tasted my food, sampled the original spice blends and they were like wow, you’ve got to bottle this!”
Lewis knew early on that what would set his business apart was research and development of proprietary intellectual property. He wanted to own components and raw resources used to create in his industry.
“In the culinary world, spices and spice blends are to the culinarian as gold is to the watchmaker or platinum is to the jeweler,” he explained. “Spices are immutable commodities in my profession. Unlike raw material commodities, spice blends can be created and for the creative mind—opportunities will always abound.”
Inspired by stories of spice traders throughout Africa and Asia, Lewis began to create various herb and seasoning blends—almost daily! Eventually, he created an array of reliably delicious spice blends that were hit when used for exclusive dishes for his private clients.
"I take my products around the world, around the country and around the state and use our resources to educate on social and corporate responsibility as well as feed hungry people."
What followed was the incorporation of his business, Fūd, Inc. Built completely from the ground up and self-funded, Lewis specifically chose to incorporate his business in Connecticut because he believed in how positive the future could look.
“This is our state,” he shared. “We must invest in ourselves and in our children’s future.”
And it has always been his two young boys, Jayden and Jameson, who have been by his side as his builds his company.
“Ever since I’ve started this business, they’ve been there every step of the way,” he said. “They taste-tested and helped develop the spices. I remember bringing them to the Secretary of the State’s office, meeting Denise Merrill while I was trying to set up my business, and being there when I closed the deal with Geissler’s—they were right there with their pens and papers, with their hands raised. I think it’s a phenomenal way to teach my sons what it means to be a Black-owned business.”
Lewis and his boys are delivering some phenomenal products to people all across Connecticut and beyond. Now featured at grocery stores across Connecticut and Massachusetts, Baby J’s Errr-Thang Spice—which, according to Lewis’s sons, goes great on steak and chicken—has become a household hit.
Photo courtesy of Chef Jay
Geissler’s Supermarket, a New England-based family-owned chain founded in 1923, saw value in partnering with Lewis’ brand right away.
“We took this last year as an opportunity with Geissler’s—who has been an amazing business partner with us—to understand how retail works, how having a product in grocery stores works,” explained Lewis. “It’s a field rife with challenges but enormous benefits if one is willing to put in the time, gather and listen to advisors and work toward excellence. I wanted my sons to see this process up close and appreciate what it takes to be an entrepreneur.”
Following a logistics and strategy meeting with Rob Rybrick, co-owner of Geissler’s, Lewis’s son shared that he was “going to grow up to be a genius just like Daddy.” Soon after, Baby J’s Errr-Thang Spice arrived on Geissler’s shelves in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“The response from the community has been enormous. We’ve been getting calls for product all the way from Texas to Colorado and we’ve even shipped to California,” he said. “We have a couple of cases going overseas. We’ve gotten a really good response.” While Lewis is grateful for this uptick in business, he doesn’t want to simply benefit from the moment.
“It’s a good opportunity to fundraise,” he explained. “If we are going to get this influx in new customers and revenue streams, I think that it’s a socially responsible and corporately responsible thing to do to take some of that and reinvest it in the community so that my sons have some more tools than I did.”
Lewis has already given to his son’s schools and is currently forming an initiative that focuses on diversity in education, inside and outside the classroom.
Every bottle of Baby J’s says, “of food and philosophy,” which mirrors the heart behind Lewis’s business and the transition he’s making from the catering world to retail, business consultation and social justice education.
“In my most recent trip to Ghana, I lectured at Webster University about sustainability and corporate responsibility to a group of undergraduate and grad students,” he shared. “That’s where the company is going. I take my products around the world, around the country, around the state, and use our resources to educate on social and corporate responsibility as well feed hungry people.”
Lewis, who has a degree in Philosophy and African American Studies from Central Connecticut State University, stresses the importance of “balancing the scales” when it comes to business leadership and decision-making.
“Everything has been so data driven lately, but what we’re seeing in real time is how data-driven solutions are not necessarily the best solutions for the times,” he said. “What we need in board rooms across America is more wisdom, we need more social sciences and philosophy. Students with Liberal Arts degrees are, in my opinion, where the leaders of the future are going to be coming from. Today’s corporations, large and small, need more empathy, maturity and to be more social justice-minded.”
Lewis believes that the best way to start the day is with positivity. Often, that positivity comes from his sons, who he refers to as “living life coaches.”
“My sons have been such a phenomenal source of positivity first thing in the morning,” he shared. “When you start off with your sons believing in you—believing in themselves—and having their own ideas for the business, that’s a help!”
And, Lewis says he feels like a genius when he sees his boys wanting to start their own businesses.
What’s next? You guessed it—a new Baby J’s spice blend called Genius, which will feature young boys and girls of color on the bottles. Lewis will also feature the youth on the bottles in blog posts, sharing why they are geniuses, ultimately benefiting a charity as well.
One thing is for sure, with the next generation following in his footsteps, the Baby J’s brand is going to be just one of many great businesses to come from the Lewis family.
Find bottles of Baby J’s at Geissler’s Supermarkets across Connecticut and Massachusetts. Find locations here. Click here to connect with Chef Jay on Facebook and here on Instagram. A website featuring Baby J's Spices with purchase options will be available soon.
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By Sarah Thompson
Surf’s up, right in the heart of Blue Back Square in West Hartford! Marked with a bright pop of blue on its exterior, Playa Bowls welcomes guests with a laid back vibe. Surfboards, egg chairs, murals of mermaids, flat screen TVs streaming surfing and extreme sports and even a cozy fireplace all combine to bring a bit of the beach right to this restaurant.
But, according to owner Mitch Jackson, what stands out the most is what he calls the best acai ever.
Jackson’s background is in corporate and private business, in the information technology space, so before taking the plunge in business ownership he knew it had to be good.
“I tried the product before I bought into it—and it’s the best I’ve ever had,” he shared. “The owners of this franchise have gone above and beyond sourcing just the right acai from Brazil. It’s blended with real cane sugar, no preservatives, and everything is all natural. It’s delicious!”
From bowls to smoothies and juices, Playa Bowls offers a colorful selection of inviting and unique offerings that are delicious and satisfying. Customers love the Nutella, Pura Vita and Electric Mermaid Bowls most. The best part? Everything is prepared fresh and right on the spot.
Playa Bowls West Hartford open its doors in November 2019. Friends since their college years at UCONN and having both grown up in the area, Jackson and co-owner Mike Bogdan had noticed an untapped opportunity to bring something new and fresh to West Hartford. Having been mutual acquaintances with the CEO of Playa Bowls—a franchise that began as a pair of blenders, a patio table, and a fridge that has flourished into over 83 stores, thousands of employees, and a mission to lead communities in healthy, sustainable living—they had a great place to start.
Jackson is also an agile specialist for Deloitte, so when the challenges of running a business come his way, he handles them with optimism and wisdom.
“When COVID hit, everything had to go to a standstill,” he explained. “Once we started getting more information about it, we were able to pivot. We had already had delivery with Grub Hub, Uber Eats and Door Dash, so that gave us a huge advantage, so people could order even though our doors were closed. We took a pretty decent hit and we were a bit concerned and worried like any business owner would be in February and March, but once people started to acclimate into the new style it was as if things were regular. We actually did better than we did when we were open.”
In fact, they adapted so well that their growth created new jobs and adding more hours.
"The customers love the product and the energy. We give them a place where they can just hang out and work on their laptops and do their homework or hang out with their kids, because we appeal to all ages, whether you’re eight months old or 80 years old."
“It was great to be able to say that we aren’t going to have to let anyone go and that we could still hire some other folks,” said Jackson.
When it comes to customer service, he says “there really isn’t a secret sauce. It starts with saying please, thank you, and smiling.”
Playa Bowls West Hartford is particular about who they hire and keep on staff, because they want to ensure that customers experience a positive energy the minute they walk through the doors.
“Everything starts from being polite to maintaining safety, and then it goes from there,” explained Jackson. “We preach safety in every way, making sure they are safe, wearing their masks properly, constantly washing their hands, and looking for things that are out of sorts with food or surfaces.”
The restaurant even has an app where customers can track their purchases to earn points for discounts or free bowls.
At the leadership level, Jackson says they try to bring a positive energy to their employees.
“It’s contagious. The customers love the product and the energy. We give them a place where they can just hang out and work on their laptops and do their homework or hang out with their kids, because we appeal to all ages, whether you’re eight months old or 80 years old,” he said.
And while Playa Bowls is new to West Hartford, they have made a commitment to give back in any way they can. “We think it’s important to give back to the people who put trust in you, the customers,” shared Jackson.
Through Dine-to-Donate, they’ve been able to work with various local organizations and causes to give back a portion of their proceeds, including supporting a senior dance concert for University of Hartford students and holding a Best Buddies fundraiser to support local students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Jackson also believes their employees should represent the people in the community and that being on the Playa Bowls team means being part of a family.
“We have a multitude of different backgrounds and representation, including a minority owner. When there were Black Lives Matter rallies and protests, one of our employees spoke at one. We allowed other employees to wear BLM shirts and speak out on social media about it. We highly encourage it. I sat down with every employee and told them that if there was anything that they were struggling with that we are here as a family – not just as owners or managers or shift leaders, but as a family to talk about this and grow through this and learn from each other. We’re all in,” he shared.
Playa Bowls is located at 51 Memorial Road, West Hartford, Connecticut. They are open 8:00am-9:00pm during the summer and 8:00am-8:00pm during other seasons. Learn more or browse the menu of acai, pitaya, coconut, green, chia, banana, and oatmeal bowls, and their huge variety of smoothies and juices at: https://www.playabowls.com/.
Click here to connect to Playa Bowls West Hartford on Facebook.
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Pictured: Co-owners of Your CBD Store Simsbury, Katonya Hughey and Nakia Kearse. (Photo: Corey Lynn Tucker Photography)
By Sarah Thompson
Nakia Kearse and Katonya Hughey always knew they wanted to go into business together. A friendship that sprouted 14 years ago when they were corporate colleagues has now flourished into a business partnership with proud new roots in Simsbury.
CBD. It’s a buzz word that has been around long enough for many people to know that it has something to do with cannabis, but perhaps not long enough to fully grasp the wide range of benefits it offers. The growth of CBD products has been so immense that industry analysts predict the U.S. CBD market will reach $20 billion in sales by 2024. For Kearse and Hughey, it not only has helped them with friends, family and personal health challenges, it has offered a great way for them to give back and help people in their community improve their lives.
Hughey was born and raised in Bloomfield and has frequented Simsbury since childhood. Kearse, a resident of Simsbury for the past 14 years, has enjoyed raising her children in the town she now calls home. Both have a deep affinity for Simsbury, which is why it made perfect sense to set up their business right in the heart of the Farmington Valley town, on Hopmeadow Street.
“As I thought about my community, I reflected on the number of stories I’ve heard over the years about friends and their loved ones with health concerns or just looking for something to help them feel better. And after not finding many options locally to seek out these natural alternatives— like CBD—in a place with people you could trust and who cared—that is what we set out to create. A neighborhood store, with high-quality products and a strong community connection,” explained Kearse.
Because one-size-doesn’t-fit-all for using CBD products to address ailments, Kearse and Hughey take customized approaches to each person who
With education, consultation and community at the heart of their business model, the pair work hard to ensure that all who come into their store feel comfortable and informed.
“We strive to be consultative,” shared Hughey. “We put a premium on listening to our customers’ concerns in order to provide appropriate solutions.”
According to Project CBD, cannabis has a rich history as a medicine going back thousands of years. CBD is one of more than a hundred phytocannabinoids unique to cannabis. These cannabinoids endow the plant with its robust therapeutic profile. Cannabinoids interact with the body's Endocannabinoid System. The Endocannabinoid System is a system of receptors responsible for regulating many vital processes within the body including immune response, communication between cells, appetite, metabolism, memory, and more. CBD binds with these receptors to help your body achieve homeostasis—a state of stability, balance or equilibrium within a cell or the body.
“We make sure that customers understand that it is an alternative to traditional pharmaceutical drugs,” explained Hughey. “We talk through all the benefits and the different ways of ingestion. CBD is a natural anti-inflammatory. Each product works differently and can impact each person in a different way. We explain the whole process to them.”
Because one-size-doesn’t-fit-all, Kearse and Hughey take a customized approach to each person who walks through their doors—something they have dubbed “helping one neighbor at a time.”
“Our goal is to help,” shared Kearse. “We’re not here to sell something that doesn’t work. We want to help people discover what works best for them, their routine and their goals.”
This promise is even backed by a 30-day refund guarantee on all their products—including their most popular—Topical Creams, Oil Tinctures and delicious edible treats like and Peach and Watermelon Rings.
Kearse and Hughey also stay on the cutting edge of new developments in the market. Because the store is part of a larger footprint of stores, they are connected to regulations and how the market is evolving.
“We are excited about some of the new science exploring other powerful cannabinoids and the use of other natural ingredients to target specific needs,” Kearse explained. “Like our new CBNPlus tincture that is infused with lavender and valerian root, to help relax and calm before bed. It has CBD, but also a higher concentration of CBN, another cannabinoid found in cannabis. Or our Maxine+Morgan capsule that is includes CBD and other natural ingredients like fennel, tumeric, ginger, cramp bark and valerian root. This products helps women suffering with premenstrual and menstrual symptoms.”
After having opened their doors in February of this year, the pair was full steam ahead with doing in-store sampling and offering high-touch in-person demos to showcase the power of their high-quality CBD products. They could easily point out the unique QR codes that are on each product that link directly to third party lab reports, ensuring a consistent quality process and transparency all the way through.
And then boom—COVID.
Just one month into their new business, they were forced to shift gears. But, finding solutions is what Kearse and Hughey do best, so in a matter of weeks they launched a new website with an online store, virtual consultations, curbside pickup and even delivery.
What has catapulted them into a more grassroots effort has kept student athletes with aches and pains and people with arthritis, gout, sleep issues or anxiety reaching out for help.
And beyond helping customers find relief, Kearse and Hughey have supported first responders in Simsbury and Bloomfield with CBD care packages and are working to develop a forum that will allow community members to discuss racial injustice, bias and inclusion in a safe space.
“We both have a history in diversity and inclusion,” shared Kearse. “As we see the level of unrest, a lot of the times people just don’t know how to have the conversations and they want to help, but don’t know how. They have questions but don’t have a safe place to discuss what’s on their mind. Many may not have close relationships with people of color, so they are left looking at TV or reading something in the news as opposed to having real-life interactions.”
“We can begin to have some of these conversations that are deeply meaningful for us as a country, so this is simply not a movement for a day, but something that can have a long-lasting effect on the way we interact and live. Our goal was to be a neighborhood store, to understand the needs of the community and try to serve them not only with CBD but with other things, and this was a gap that I think we were uniquely positioned to try to help fill,” she added.
The store is also partnering with Signs Plus of East Granby to benefit Simsbury A Better Chance (ABC)—a non-profit organization making a difference in the lives of academically talented young men of color from underserved communities. Black Lives Matter signs and t-shirts printed by Signs Plus are being sold at Your CBD Store Simsbury, and $5 of the sign and shirt proceeds plus an additional 5% of CBD sales from customers who buy a sign or shirt will be donated to ABC.
Now that their store is fully operational, Kearse and Hughey are experiencing the joy of helping one neighbor at a time have health without the “high”—benefiting from the therapeutic properties of cannabis without the psychoactive effects.
“We always had a desire to do something different—something where we could truly give back and help,” said Kearse.
In just a few short months, they are fulfilling their dream of building strong, lasting relationships with their neighbors and offering high-quality service and products for a better community.
Your CBD Store, at 1243 Hopmeadow Street in Simsbury, is open Monday-Friday from 11:00am-6:00pm, Saturday 11:00-5:00pm and Sunday, 11:00am-4:00pm. Visit their online store at ycbdsimsbury.com, find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Your CBD Store offers 10% off for new customers (use code "neighbor); is hold a Fourth of July sale (July 1-5) with 25% off entire orders; and a Shop Black special on 7/7 - buy one get one 50% off.
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