Photography by Luciana Calvin Photography.
When a small business owner takes the leap from dreaming about her business to manifesting it, she steps into a whole new realm that can simultaneously feel fulfilling, exhausting, terrifying, and life-changing. Suddenly, she has a real business to nurture and grow for herself, her family, and her community. Nadine James launched her Jamaican food business, Unique Cafe, during the Covid-19 pandemic and felt both the excitement and overwhelm of running a new business.
“I don’t know how to put it into words. It’s amazing and at the same time it’s overwhelming because sometimes I have to do everything myself… But when people eat the food and say, Wow, this is really amazing. I haven’t tasted this before, that gives me the push to stick with it,” says Nadine.
Nadine opened her cafe in Worcester, MA in February 2021 after running a food catering business. She participated in the Worcester Regional Food Hub Food Entrepreneur Program, and with the help of her mentor and food hub director Shon Rainford, she transitioned from home catering to opening the cafe. Nadine was drawn to the opportunity to learn from other small business owners and see her business with a new perspective and joined her Entrepreneurs Forever (eforever) peer group in March 2021. In her first peer group meeting, she met other entrepreneurs who were eager to learn from each other and be authentic about what it is like to stabilize and grow their businesses.
“My first response to the group was, Whoa, these people are really honest. They’re really looking for help,” says Nadine.
Right away, Nadine was reminded that she wasn’t alone in the particular triumphs and struggles that she faces as an entrepreneur. Even though her group includes small business owners in industries other than the restaurant industry, they experience the same wins and challenges throughout their businesses’ growth periods.
“I heard what other people go through and I can see that I’m not alone. It’s not just me experiencing this, it’s also these other business owners…It is something that I need right now,” says Nadine.
Nadine self-expressively loves a challenge and saw an opportunity to officially open her own cafe when restaurants were starting to re-open during the pandemic. She sensed that people would be looking for new foods and tastes to discover, and decided that she would be ready to offer her Jamaican dishes. She already had a hungry client base after making her dishes at home and selling them to folks in her neighborhood. Nadine also taught virtual cooking classes, which fueled her passion to cook and added a revenue stream that helped her purchase her cafe space at 79 Millbury Street in Worcester, MA. With all of these components in place, opening the cafe became a natural next step for Nadine.
Growing her businesses does not come without its challenges though. Nadine is now in the process of hiring employees. As she navigates this process for the first time, she is able to ask questions and get feedback about hiring staff and creating an employee handbook from her peer group.
“My group helps me to get a better view on what to look for when I hire and how to hire the right employees,” says Nadine.
Tracking Unique Cafe’s revenue was another new process that motivated Nadine to join a peer group with other small business owners. Nadine’s group provides feedback about how to track her finances, and after discussions with her group, Nadine is now using Quickbooks and working with a bookkeeper.
In 2021, Unique Cafe was selected by Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce for the Minority-Owned Business of the Year Award, which honors a minority-owned member business for their outstanding commitment and dedication to the organization’s mission, vision, and values.
With her business, Nadine creates a family-oriented environment and invites customers to live their unique healthy lifestyles, whatever that means to them. Unique Cafe sources local ingredients to create and share the Jamaican dishes that Nadine grew up cooking for her family, including oxtail, curry goat, and stewed fish . Growing up on sweet fruits, Nadine also creates delicious smoothies, juices, and detox shots, and consults with customers about which juices can be most supportive to them.
“I’m from a big family, and I like to be around other people. I try to create a family-environment so when people come here, they feel a sense of belonging—like they can come here and feel okay,” says Nadine.
Nadine also involves her two daughters, Kayanna and Khaaliyah, in her business as much as possible. Kayanna helps keep the cafe operating smoothly and manages Unique Cafe’s social media pages. Kayanna attests to the difficult and fulfilling process that it took to open Unique Cafe and the connection that they now feel with their community.
“Our customers are super diverse, and when they come to the cafe, they share their own stories and experiences within the community. We like that…and as much as I can say that we’re sharing our gifts with the community, it is the people in our community who have really impacted us,” says Kayanna.
As a gathering place for community members to experience new food and share their stories, Nadine is working to expand Unique Cafe’s physical space. In the spring of 2021, Nadine learned about a grant sponsored by the Worcester Chamber of Commerce to help restaurants create outdoor seating. Ashley Fitzemeyer, the western Massachusetts Community Director at Entrepreneurs Forever, shared the grant opportunity with Nadine when she was ordering dinner from Unique Cafe and Nadine mentioned her desire for outdoor seating.
“I want to share as much information and pass along as many opportunities to our members as possible. I believe that our members thrive best when they tap into multiple resources or avenues of support,” says Ashley.
Nadine applied for and received the grant and shared her exciting news with her peers. Nadine is now using it to add an outdoor seating section to her business.
Even when Nadine’s peers are not responding directly to her business processes, Nadine continues to gather valuable information that she can apply to Unique Cafe.
“I get pieces of knowledge from each and every one of my peers—the blessings that they’ve had, the pros and cons of certain decisions, what to do when this particular thing is happening. I pick pieces and apply them to my business…My goal is that whatever I am experiencing, I share it with them so that it can help someone else as they have helped me,” says Nadine.