‘A dope vision’ comes to life in a West Philly food desert
Imperial Caribbean & Seafood restaurant, which opened during the pandemic, is now a community staple, thanks to the community revitalization efforts of the People’s Emergency Center and Wells Fargo.
If you think opening a new business during the pandemic is a questionable idea, Jen Smith might chuckle as she agrees. Yet she and her husband Thommy and their partner, David Ross, took that chance: they opened the doors of Imperial Caribbean & Seafood in Philadelphia in July 2020. “We opened at a crazy time. It was madness all around. We definitely took a risk,” Smith said. “It was a tough year, but we pushed through it.”
Today, 16 months later, Imperial is a beloved neighborhood staple. But Smith didn’t achieve success alone. She had a terrific partner in the People’s Emergency Center, or PEC, a nonprofit devoted to improving quality of life along Philadelphia’s lower Lancaster Avenue corridor.
Hands-on support helps Main Street businesses thrive
“Retail is really hard on these small corridors because of proximity to shopping malls, Walmarts, and Targets,” said James Wright, PEC’s director. So the PEC steps in to help mom-and-pop establishments thrive. “We see the ‘Main Street’ model as a big part of creating a balanced ecosystem in the neighborhood where we [live and] work,” he said.
As part of Wells Fargo’s commitment to community revitalization, the company has contributed $10.5 million over the past 25 years to support PEC’s efforts.
“We opened at a crazy time. It was madness all around, we definitely took a risk. It was a tough year, but we pushed through it.” — Jen Smith
“Our customers are our community, so it only makes sense to identify things we can do to help support the vibrancy of our communities,” said Stephen Briggs, Wells Fargo community relations senior consultant. “No. 1, it’s smart business sense. And No. 2, it’s just really the right thing to do.”
Smith is grateful for PEC’s help — particularly for being pointed in the direction of grants she could qualify for and for the networking fostered among Lancaster Avenue businesses. “Surviving a pandemic would have been impossible without the resources and without the handholding,” Smith said. Smith is also grateful for “having support from the PEC and having Wells Fargo understand that these minority businesses couldn’t have survived, literally. Businesses were closing all around us.”
Come for the jerk chicken lasagna, stay for the community
With Imperial located “in the middle of a West Philadelphia food desert,” Smith knew a restaurant would be a smart bet. “One thing we didn’t see was a really nice fusion, something that gave you a taste of the islands and a taste of our own soul food.”
Customers come for Imperial’s signature dish: jerk chicken lasagna. Other menu favorites are oxtails, mussels, fried shrimp, whiting, macaroni and cheese, and cabbage.
The menu isn’t the only thing working in Imperial’s favor. Wright said the Black-owned, woman-led business reflects the people who live in the community, and the outdoor space enabled dining options during the pandemic — all lending to the restaurant’s viability.
“They have a dope vision,” said Dante Leonard, PEC commercial corridor manager. “They are poised to do a whole bunch of cool stuff” — including starting a garden and a jazz club. He’s excited that Imperial will be the epicenter and anchor point for the area’s revitalization.
When small businesses do well, neighborhoods thrive
Because the restaurant opened after March 2020, Imperial was ineligible for COVID-related financial relief. Leonard pointed Smith in the direction of grants for minority- and women-owned businesses.
That grant “helped provide payroll. It helped to keep us afloat in terms of food purchasing, so that was mission-critical money,” Smith said. “We had just literally survived the winter at a loss, so that money was just in the nick of time and funded an almost-empty account.”
Supporting small businesses is imperative, because when businesses do well, their success can have a far reach. Not only do they provide jobs, but they can also change the way people feel about the neighborhood.
“If everything you’re purchasing is from outside of your community, then when you get the opportunity, you’re going to go outside the community, too — so the community could stay at the bottom of the barrel,” Leonard said.
That’s why investing in our communities and supporting their vitality is such an important goal for Wells Fargo, Briggs said.
“When changes begin to occur, they’ll take some pride and want to support bringing the neighborhood back — whether it’s taking a broom and cleaning in front of their homes or manicuring their grass or keeping their own space upkept,” Briggs said. “When they see good things happening around them, I think it rubs off in a positive way.”