A Chance Meeting Blossoms into a Sweet Business Relationship.

Have you looked at 75th Street between Calumet and Indiana? Outdoor Greenhouses for dining line the streets and new establishments and businesses are renting space.   A&S Beverages Owner, Ahmad “Eddie” Elkhatib and Brown Sugar Bakery owner, Stephanie Hart take pride in that.   The two business owners met at a Super Bowl party in 2007.  Eddie loved the cakes Stephanie served that evening.   At the time, Stephanie was looking to relocate her business and it just so happened that Eddie had space available to rent.   That space would eventually become Brown Sugar Bakery’s flagship location.

Brown Sugar Bakery A&S Beverages Chicago Defender

Eddie is an immigrant who moved to Chicago 30 years ago from Kuwait. In 2021 his business, A&S Beverages will turn 40 and Eddie will celebrate 20 years of owning A&S after purchasing and revamping the store from its original owners.  Through his time as a business owner in the neighborhood, Eddie has worked with various organizations, and fellow business owners to improve the community.  He is intent on being an asset and contributing to the neighborhood in which his store resides.

Stephanie Hart is the owner of Brown Sugar Bakery a southern-style bakeshop specializing in traditional sweet treats and custom cakes.  She opened her business in 2004 and has enjoyed increasing popularity and business growth mainly from word of mouth from her many customers. She initially rented one unit from Eddie but expanded to three units of the property.  Her bakery recently served Vice President, Kamala Harris while she was in Chicago.  Eddie is happy to sell the property to Stephanie, as she becomes the sole owner of her flagship store.  Through the years, Stephanie and Eddie became more than business associates, they became friends.

The Chicago Defender had a chance to speak with these two business owners about their passion for building up the Chatham neighborhood, their friendship, and how the positive influence of friends can help grow your business.

CD: How did your business relationship begin?

Eddie: We met at a super bowl party and tasted her cake. I loved it and I told her you must come to 75th. We need you over here.  We kept in touch and exchanging phone calls…

Stephanie: Right and someone bought the building that I was already in and I sought Eddie out because I did not want to leave 75th street. When Eddie said this space was available, I knew that was where I wanted to be.  Eddie trusted my business and me. He knew I had a good product.

In 2009 when they shut 75th street down, we all had to band together. We started having meetings, Eddie made sure all of the business got together to figure out ways to keep our customers patronizing our businesses. We had a Facebook page called “Renaissance Row” that would list all of the businesses in the area to support.

Eddie:  That is what I loved about it. It was all of these local businesses, black-owned businesses in the neighborhood. It was a drive.

CD:  Take A&S Beverages for example. You really turned that store around. It does not feel like your normal neighborhood liquor store.  What was your intention in renovating and changing your space?

Stephanie: I have to say, as I started to grow and Eddie grew in his business, I remember he came to me and said, Stephanie, “I want your customers. How do I get them?” I respect Eddie for that.  He changed his whole profile about what he does. Not only was it a good move but he did get my customers. It made it more of a triangle between all of our businesses.

Brown Sugar Bakery A&S Beverages Chicago Defender

CD:  What are the keys to building successful business relationships like this?

Stephanie: You cannot be sensitive if you want to build a good strong business relationship. The benefit of us together was this… his ideas were on one end and mine were on another but when you work together, you always meet somewhere in the middle.

“If you can have a relationship with other businesses in your community, fight for that. Stick together, talk about it, and give each other constructive criticism, even if it stings sometimes because the only way to grow is to hear that there may be a different way”.-Stephanie Hart.

 

CD:  Collaboration, sharing best practices and ideas; how has that helped both of you in the growth of your businesses?

Eddie: Friendship goes a long way. People have to be genuine with one another.  It’s simple… positive attracts positive.

Stephanie: I will admit, Eddie and I did not always get along but we had something that surpassed that. It was respect. We respected each other. I respected what he was trying to do and he respected what I was trying to do.  Even if we disagree, we had a level of respect for one another. When you have that, you can always come back and build upon that.

CD: Many could not see the vision you both have for this neighborhood.

Stephanie: It is so funny; Eddie and I would talk about this back in 2008. We would talk about what it could be and what they had in different neighborhoods.

Eddie: Especially coming out of those hard economic times in 2008/2009.  I said, this is what we got and this is what we are going to build. People admire and are inspired by what we are doing.

Stephanie: It took something big for Eddie to say, I am not going to be like every other food and liquor store in other neighborhoods.  I am going to stand strong on who my customers are and cater to them. It showed respect for our community and leadership on his part.

Eddie:  It was about rejecting the stigma and doing something different. Now my business serves as a model.  This is what I wanted it to be. I want it to be an experience. I want everyone who walks into our store to receive something different.

CD:  I have to tell you from personal experience. I came out of sheer curiosity because I did not believe it.  I have never really been comfortable going to my neighborhood liquor store for fear of my safety or because of the clientele.

Eddie: Exactly. That is the stigma.

CD: it was a completely different experience. I did not just come in, grab something, and leave. I stayed to enjoy a wine tasting much to my surprise.

Stephanie: Yes, wanting to linger! That is how you gain a customer! Eddie made a decision to get rid of certain things that attracted certain clients.

Eddie: We got rid of the lottery machine, super cheap wines, 22 and 40 ounces, all of that was part of changing our business model.

CD: So that was an intentional decision.

Eddie: Absolutely.  We wanted to get to know our customers and what they wanted. We created an email list to communicate with our customers.  We wanted to bring in better quality spirits and create different experiences for our clients.

CD:  Eddie as the owner of A&S you are breaking stereotypes as well. Especially the ones that say local business owners who are not Black American do not care about the community. You have invested in this community for three decades.

Stephanie:  Absolutely! He has invested not only in the community but also in the businesses in the community.

Eddie: Yeah I eat here, get my dry cleaning done across the street, have clothes repaired at the tailor at the end of the block.  When I came to this neighborhood, I was not looking for a business. I was looking for a family, a community. I spend 10-14 hours here, this is my family.

Stephanie: And you found it. You are our family.

CD:  You are part of the community. This is the type of leadership needed in our communities. Business owners who do not just come into the neighborhoods to make a profit but those who have the vision to improve and build the community.

Eddie: I am a believer in bringing the cultures together, share, and exchange; that is how a community grows and flourishes.

  “It is not about avoiding a neighborhood. Come in and make it better”, Ahmad “Eddie” Elkhatib

 

CD: What advice would you give to business owners or aspiring business owners about the benefit of forging great relationships within the communities you serve?

Eddie: I still walk the street and shake hands. I introduce myself to new business owners in the community. I tell corporations and distributers who visit me to go and check out the other businesses on the block.

Stephanie: Yes, Eddie sends all of his famous friends to Brown Sugar Bakery.

Eddie: Everyone knows about what is happening on 75th Street. Even the Vice President!

CD:  Yes, Stephanie you were recently visited by the Vice President, Kamala Harris. What does that feel like to know the VP visited your bakery on a recommendation?

Eddie:  It is a belief in what we are doing and ourselves.

Stephanie:  I am eternally thankful to God. Someone would think so highly of our business to recommend us to the Vice President.

There used to be a time when people would say things to me like, “Well you’re just a little business on 75th street.”

Well, they are not quite saying that now. People now want to be a part of this community we have.

CD:  In addition, the business models you have both created with your individual businesses, you have also created a business model about how to bring quality, strong business to the neighborhood, and create economic development.

Eddie: Nationwide. I have been interviewed by different organizations who asked how we do it. We talk about our experiences, our vision, our tough days, and what we need.  This is how you piece things together and figure it out. These models are needed especially in underserved communities and neighborhoods.

CD:  What is the key to revitalizing small businesses in communities devastated by the pandemic?

Eddie:  Whenever there is a will there is a way.  We as business owners must be educated and must adapt.

Stephanie: It is an opportunity for us to take back our neighborhoods.  You know why you see so many abandoned businesses because they are not us. Those were the businesses not invested in our communities anyway.  People like Eddie are “us”. He is still here because he is “us”.  We can now transform our neighborhoods. We can fill those empty vacancies.  If you want a restaurant, do not go to a ghost kitchen, negotiate with these landlords who have these empty spaces and negotiate.   Now is the time.

Brown Sugar Bakery A&S Beverages Chicago Defender

Brown Sugar Bakery is getting ready to launch its signature candy line. Stephanie Hart says the new line called, “Life is Sweet” will include the spirit of Cupid Candy’s products with some “Brown Sugar” on it.  Included in her new line are meltaways, turtle candies in a variety of new flavors including German chocolate and Ruby Chocolate (a pink chocolate). In addition, the “Life is Sweet” collection will include the “Kamala Candy” inspired by the Vice President’s visit.

A&S recently opened its second location on 51st and Halsted. Eddie is looking forward to helping to transform the neighborhood and continue the business model he has adopted for over 20 years.  “It is not about avoiding a neighborhood. Come in and make it better”, Eddie says.  Eddie is also working with the Arab American business association that educates, assists, and helps build the bridge and create trust between Arab American and Black American Business owners.   A&S Liquors will celebrate its 40th year in business at its 75th street store.

“If you can have a relationship with other businesses in your community, fight for that. Stick together, talk about it, and give each other constructive criticism, even if it stings sometimes because the only way to grow is to hear that there may be a different way”.-Stephanie Hart.

A&S Beverages will soon sell the Brown Sugar Bakery’s “Life is Sweet” candy at both of their locations. For more on these two businesses please visit their websites at A&S Beverages and Brown Sugar Bakery.

 

Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSandersOfficial.

 

 

 

 

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