In 2018, cousins Jacqui White and Tosha Wilson had an idea to open a laundromat-meets-cafe business in Evanston’s historically Black fifth ward. They would name it The Laundry Cafe, TLC for short.
White and Wilson envisioned TLC as a gathering place where Evanston residents could socialize and enjoy a cup of coffee, all while doing a load of laundry. Their business would bring a unique twist on an essential chore, set in a space that would encourage community.
Despite both working full-time in law enforcement, White and Wilson were committed to getting their idea off the ground. Unfortunately, the pair hit multiple roadblocks when it came to receiving funding, prompting Wilson to organize a crowdfunding campaign on Facebook for TLC and other Black businesses. While their campaign was warmly received by the community, they still weren’t bringing in enough funds to get The Laundry Cafe off the ground.
“We applied for small business loans, and we weren’t having any luck,” White said. “We were hitting some dead ends with financing.”
Then in 2020, White and Wilson had a meeting with Lori Laser, a woman who was looking into a way to help expand wellness services for underserved residents in the Chicagoland area. She wanted to partner with local leaders and aspiring Black business owners like White and Wilson.
“We all just sat together, bouncing off ideas, figuring out how she could help us and surround us with other Black businesses,” White recalled. “In that, we came up with the Aux.”
Now, two years later, White, Wilson and Laser, along with Gabori Partee and Tiffini Holmes make up the co-development team of the Aux, a wellness hub — mainly for Black-owned businesses — slated to open in the Fall of 2023.
The Aux will be located at 2223 Washington St. in a 16,000-square-foot building that used to be a vegetable factory. Construction on the project is set to begin in late October. Some of its confirmed tenants will include The Laundry Cafe, a meditation studio and a hair salon.
The team behind the Aux aims to empower Black businesses that will provide essential health and wellness services to the Evanston community. According to Gabori Partee, one of the project’s co-developers, the needs of Black business owners have been positioned front and center from the Aux’s inception. Four of the five Aux co-developers are Black entrepreneurs, and the team has made a conscious decision to work with Black-owned architecture, construction and media companies during the development process.
“The plan from the start was to have businesses of color, minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, but mainly Black-owned businesses,” said Partee. “We wanted all the practitioners, all the developers to be cut from that same cloth because we want to be seen as more than just workers.”
Tiffini Holmes, an Aux co-developer and lifelong Evanstonian, is hopeful that the business incubator will break barriers that local Black entrepreneurs often face when it comes to receiving funding and acquiring space.
“Today, when we look at capital and bank loans, we’re not afforded the same opportunities,” she said. “This will challenge the community, in particular, Evanston, to really be about what it says it is when it talks about racial equity.”
In addition to the struggles in getting bank loans, aspiring business owners of color often lag behind their white counterparts in receiving financial assistance from their inner circles, according to Williams W. Towns, a professor in Kellogg’s Sustainability and Social Impact Program at Northwestern University, who has written about the challenges of Black entrepreneurs. He said this gap can be tied to a lack of generational wealth among entrepreneurs of color and systemic issues such as redlining.
“We see significant gaps between minority entrepreneurs and whites in the first round of capital from friends and family,” he said. “A lot of that stems from structural things that were in place a long time ago.”From her experience living in Evanston, Holmes said that problems such as the wealth gap and the achievement gap between white and Black residents are very prevalent in the city, making the mission of the Aux all the more important.
“Being from Evanston and knowing what our issues are, it made sense to essentially save ourselves,” she said.
Who and what will be in the Aux?
So far, the Aux is set to house six confirmed businesses — four of which are Black-owned — that will offer a variety of services such as catering, workout classes and massage therapy. The co-developers also plan to have additional businesses that sublease or set up pop-up shops in the building.
Sunshine Enterprises, a Chicago-area nonprofit, will have a space in the Aux. It plans to offer courses and resources related to business development for rising entrepreneurs located both inside and outside of the Aux.
“The people that we tend to serve are the ones making the most impact on their communities,” said Jair Pinedo, managing director of communications at Sunshine.
Partee and Holmes are co-owners of Well Beings Chicago, a business that will be run out of the Aux. In addition to running a full-service gym, the pair intends to offer behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, fitness classes, and health coaching. By providing so many services, the pair aims to provide their customers a more holistic approach to health and wellness.
“The mission of Well Beings Chicago mirrors the mission of the Aux,” said Holmes. “We want people to be well.”Mike Jones, an Evanston police officer and owner of Badge Brew Coffee Roasters, is another Black entrepreneur connected to the project. Every morning, Jones wakes up early to roast coffee beans out of his garage. Next fall, you’ll be able to find an exclusive blend that Jones is currently curating in The Laundry Cafe. Wilson, Jones’s coworker, was the one who first approached him about the opportunity.
“It’s just perfect timing,” Jones said. “[Wilson] knew I was developing this coffee concept, and it was a way for her to have the best coffee in the world.”
Chef Q. Ibraheem, who made national headlines for her work to combat food insecurity in Evanston at the start of the pandemic, will be running a catering business in the space, in addition to leading the operation of a community garden, and providing food service training and cooking classes. By having a dedicated business space in the Aux, Ibraheem is looking forward to making her services more accessible to residents.
“It’s going to be pretty magical,” Ibraheem said. “I am excited to be a part of the change that is coming to Evanston via the Aux and to simply be surrounded by other Black entrepreneurs that intend to grow, develop and lift others as we climb.”
So far, the Aux has raised $5.5 million of its $7.5 million fundraising goal. To close this gap, the co-developers plan to soon launch a community equity fund. This fund will allow community members to purchase a portion of the Aux for $1,000 a share. The purpose of the fund is to enable residents to own a stake in the building while receiving a modest return on their investment.
“The equity piece is huge because it gives us a chance to own where we work versus just renting where we work,” Partee said.The financial model of the Aux — which is supported by a mix of public sector support, the community equity fund and philanthropy — is inspired by the work of Juli Kaufmann. Over the past 10 years, Kaufmann has used real estate as a tool for social change through multiple redevelopment projects in Milwaukee.
Kaufmann, who is working with the co-developers as a consultant, said that the Aux is her most ambitious project yet. However, she asserts that this model has proven to be sustainable and groundbreaking in its impact. Kaufmann said her developments have collectively provided more than $25 million in economic impact, housed dozens of small businesses and hired hundreds of residents.
“The way we make it sustainable is really front-loading a bunch of financial issues,” she said. “But when it’s complete, it’s just the community equity owners that remain engaged.”
While the Aux is still more than a year away from being fully operational, the co-developers have a clear vision of the impact they want the space to have on the community. For instance, White from The Laundry Cafe is optimistic that the project will encourage the next generation of Evanston entrepreneurs to dream big.
“When you’re a kid growing up in Evanston and you don’t see a lot of Black business, but you go to this hub where everyone in there is a Black entrepreneur and doing different good things, I think it’s inspiring,” White said. “Not only are we providing space for Black entrepreneurs, but we’re providing hope.”
Melissa Renee Perry is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk.