Black-owned businesses’ positive contributions elevate Utah’s Black community

Story by SUNWHEE MIKE PARK

Salt Lake City’s NAACP Chapter vice president Shawn Newell joined an asynchronous interview with student journalists at the University of Utah in early February. There, he said that one of the biggest issues that any Black community in America faces is its misrepresentation in mainstream media. “[They] wait until there’s a murder or … a gang fight … before [they] go into these communities, and then [they] want to engage people,” he said.

For the most part, his words ring true for the Black community in Utah as well. An internet search of the words “Utah Black” or “Utah African American” brings up stories about Black culture’s rejection in Utah, or how difficult it is to be Black in such an overwhelmingly white state.

What these stories fail to show is that Utah’s Black community is actually full of supportive, successful and ambitious individuals who are devoted to its growth and development. Despite their sheer lack of coverage from mainstream news outlets, the state’s myriad professionals, business owners and community leaders contribute daily to the continued success of Black Utahns.

To observe the effects of their positive influences in the state’s Black community firsthand, Voices of Utah spoke with three of Salt Lake City’s Black leaders as they explained the ways they make a difference in their community, and why the work they do matters.

Makaya Caters

Chef Roody Salvator moved to Utah in 2008 from Florida, hoping to find a corporate job. The last thing on his mind then was to become a professional chef. However, on casual weekend gatherings with friends, he was drawn instinctively to the kitchen. He recreated dishes from his native Haiti that he remembered from his childhood – flavors that his American friends had never tasted before.

Saying that his food was, “too good not to share,” Salvator’s friends urged him for years to consider cooking professionally. Even though he had been training for an office job for nearly a decade, Salvator finally decided to take a leap of faith and open Makaya Caters in 2017, with the humble goal of bringing a taste of Haiti to Salt Lake City. Renting out a kitchen space on 300 W. Paxton Ave., Salvator started taking appointments to cater weddings, parties and corporate meetings.

Makaya quickly rose to fame in the Salt Lake City community. Along with his business’s success, Salvator soon amassed a social media following of 10,000 people and boasted exclusively five-star rated reviews. Despite his rapid success, however, Salvator did not lose sight of his foundational ideology in cooking. 

Chef Roody Salvator is the founder and owner of Makaya Caters. Makaya is the official catering service of Black Lives Matter Utah, and is well known for its food donations across the city. Photo courtesy of Makaya Caters.

“I came from a place where I knew what hunger feels like … [and] to not know where your next meal’s going to come from,” says Salvator about his upbringing in Haiti over a phone interview. “If someone is hungry … and I have the means to feed them, I will do that.”

Turning to the community that embraced him, Salvator began making food donations with any surplus ingredients he had. He delivered meals free of charge to the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, and to the Black Lives Matter Utah summer camps – the latter of which saw Makaya becoming BLM Utah’s official catering service.

When the pandemic arrived in 2020, however, Salvator was met with unprecedented challenges. He lost almost all of his catering clients who held in-person events, and was forced to switch his business model to a more affordable food trailer operation. He reluctantly set up a GoFundMe page, asking now for the help of the very community which he fondly cared for in the past.

Even so, Salvator’s commitment to the Salt Lake City community remained unhindered. Working odd hours out of a food trailer that is too small to be considered a kitchen space but too big to parallel park, Salvator still managed to cook and donate 50 meals to the city’s homeless population in November 2020.

Salvator says that his dream for Makaya Caters now is to establish a physical store location in the near future – to continue his work both in the kitchen and in the community. Two-thirds of his desired $10,000 goal has been reached on his GoFundMe page, which aims to keep Makaya in business in order to continue its important mission.

A ‘La Mode

In 2014, sisters Jasmine and Angelique Gordon founded an online shopping service with a mission to empower women of all shapes, sizes and social backgrounds. Their business, A ‘La Mode, caters to specific fashion needs on a budget.

The sisters’ successful business model – which promotes women of color who have realistic body types, and uses an accessible custom-styling system on their website – has garnered high praise from their clients over the past seven years. In fact, the sisters’ massive success inspired them in 2018 to open an offline boutique on 265 E. 900 South in downtown Salt Lake City.

That’s when they began to feel that they could branch out of their client base to serve a wider community. “When we moved to Salt Lake after [being] online for a couple of years … our No. 1 focus was being more engaged in our city,” says co-founder and owner Jasmine Gordon in a phone interview about her and her sister’s decision to contribute to their newfound community.

Angelique (left) and Jasmine Gordon are founders and owners of A ‘La Mode. The sisters help their Salt Lake City clients network through their business, and donate frequently to various charities. Photo courtesy of A ‘La Mode.

The sisters began by partnering with other small businesses in the area (Utah Key Real EstateImage Studios and Olympus Health & Performance, to name a few) to host monthly networking events for their clients. Soon enough, they found themselves donating to notable charities like YWCA Utah, as well as to the Rose Park Elementary School and the city’s growing homeless population. The two were even on the board to plan a women’s music festival before the pandemic began.

Despite these numerous contributions to their community, the sisters were not exempt from the challenges of being Black entrepreneurs in Utah. Jasmine Gordon recalls that at first, she was fearful that A ‘La Mode’s use of Black models in their advertisements and on their website would be considered “too Black” for Utah’s majority white audience. The phrase, she says, is one that has been used to devalue the success of Black Utahns for generations.

That’s why Gordon says that her goal now is to keep on succeeding as a Black entrepreneur in order to serve as a positive example of Black leadership to the youth. “Seeing Black adults in day-to-day leadership roles … as teachers, as coaches, as local business owners … is something that sticks in their minds,” she says.

Utah Black Chamber

James Jackson III is regarded as one of the most ambitious and devoted leaders in Utah’s Black community today. Working as the supplier diversity program manager at the Zions Bancorporation and as the principal consultant at J3 Motivation (a company he owns and runs), Jackson is also the founder and executive director of the Utah Black Chamber.

But 12 years ago, Jackson was just a young section manager at Morgan Stanley who noticed that Utah’s Black population greatly lacked a sense of community. Even though Black Utahns made up only 0.9% of the entire state’s population, Jackson realized, they rarely had opportunities to connect with one another.

That’s why, in 2009, Jackson took it upon himself to create an organization that could lay the foundations for a tightly knit Black community in Utah. He named his new project ACCEL – short for African Americans Advancing in Commerce, Communication, Education and Leadership (which he now admits was a horrendously long name) – and began efforts to facilitate networking between the state’s Black professionals.

Jackson fondly recalls his first ever networking event with ACCEL, which he absent-mindedly planned for a 6th of July. While he worried that the event would be overshadowed by Independence Day festivities, over 60 people showed up keen to connect with fellow Black professionals. On that day, Jackson realized that his fledgling project could serve as a true catalyst for the creation of a thriving Black community in Utah.

Since then, Jackson has worked tirelessly for over a decade to grow his organization (now called the Utah Black Chamber after two name changes) to what he calls an “enterprise.” With nearly 500 members, three separate chapters across the state, and plans to create a Black Success Center to offer training to Black professionals, the Utah Black Chamber has grown into the state’s most formidable Black-run organization.

Transcending the realm of networking, the Utah Black Chamber now focuses on providing financial training to Black business owners, championing Black leaders for local government positions, and even plans to open a transitional housing complex for struggling homeowners. Its goal now, says Jackson in a Zoom interview, is to elevate Utah’s Black community to a level that will garner national renown and respect.

“It’s exhausting but we know that this is the role that we play,” Jackson reflects, “to be the voice for those that just don’t have one.”