It was more than their desire to open a restaurant that led culinary professionals Tina Grant-Holt, Dale Holt, and Reginald Ingram to apply to become the operators of a food service establishment at the Northland Workforce Training Center on Buffalo’s east side. The trio saw the opportunity to make their community healthier. So they went for it. Manna @ Northland opened its doors on Nov. 4.
The fact that they were replacing a previous operator that failed under the pressures of running the place threw an extra spotlight on their effort, and many eyes were on the Manna group as they launched.
“In the first few weeks, we’ve already learned a lot about every aspect of the behind-the-scenes, and managing a restaurant,” says Grant-Holt, who, in addition to serving as Manna’s president and CEO, will continue in her role as an educator at Buffalo Public Schools’ Emerson School of Hospitality.
“The [east side] community has been very supportive; we did anticipate that,” says her husband Dale Holt, a chef with 30 years’ kitchen and catering experience, who will run Manna’s daily operations. “And we’re so happy to be in the Northland Center, to provide for all the companies here.”
To create their business plan, the three met with advisers from Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI).
Yanush Sanmugaraja is WEDI’s economic development director, and, along with other WEDI staffers, was instrumental in assisting the group. WEDI provided loan capital for startup costs, working capital, and marketing, as well as technical assistance (helping prepare the pitch to the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, and helping package their WEDI loan proposal). WEDI also connected Manna with resources (like accounting, bookkeeping and legal) to support their business moving forward.
“In addition to being serious entrepreneurs, this venture Dale, Tina, and Reginald have embarked on has the potential to make an impact for the surrounding communities,” says Sanmugaraja, of WEDI’s decision to support the initiative. “Manna is both creating new jobs, and hiring people from the neighborhoods. Their impact also includes offering accessible, affordable, and healthy food options in neighborhoods where this is currently scarce.”
“The Northland Center is an active training facility,” points out Grant-Holt. “It comes with a built-in body of customers. But we don’t want to just build a small company—we’re building a family, all learning and growing together. It’s a win-win, to be able to employ people from the community.” They have around 25 employees.
Reginald Ingram, the third partner in Manna, is also a chef; he ran Ingram Brothers Catering for more than 30 years. He will oversee kitchen operations and catering. This new venture, he says, is not that different than anything any of the partners had done before.
“We all love food and food service, and we wanted to do bigger things,” he says. “Manna @ Northland makes us stronger as a team; we couldn’t have done this individually—that’s a piece of advice I’d give to anyone starting out as well. It’s important to have good working relationships with trusted partners.”
Another resource that the Manna group received support from was the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center. Royce Woods, the center’s executive director, agrees that the Manna partners possess a passion for the project.
“Dale, Tina, and Reggie’s combined commitment, energy, and excitement made me optimistic they could do well,” Woods says. “After the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation selected Manna as the restaurant operator, we assisted the partners in developing their financial projections and securing capital. We assessed their operations, and connected them to a number of free small-business resources around the city.”
“Royce is very knowledgeable about running a business, and understanding how to line up financing,” says Ingram. “He spent a lot of time with us, preparing us for what to expect.”
Financing came from WEDI and the Buffalo Urban League, as well as from some angel investors. “People believe in us and our mission, and are showing that with their support,” Holt says. “We are gladly looking forward to paying them back!”
“We already have a great rapport with the leadership at the Northland Center, including Stephen Tucker, president and CEO, and Simmone Washington, the vice president of business and center services,” he continues. “In addition to coming into the restaurant and introducing us to important community organizations, they’re helping us through our ‘new tenant growing pains.’ We want to continue to grow these relationships.”
With Holt and Grant-Holt’s backgrounds as educators, they take seriously the notion that they can be of service to the community. “We’re trying to demonstrate a healthier spin,” says Grant-Holt. “African American folks have high rates of diseases like diabetes and hypertension—I love to go out into the restaurant and talk to people, let them know that certain foods have negative effects on your body and health, and that others, like many on our menu, that are more nutritious.”
The space was designed with roll-up walls, and in the more temperate months, says Grant-Holt, they want to let the fresh air in and make the most of it. She dreams of having their own meat smoker on the premises, to produce even more homestyle food.
Manna participated in the Northland Harvest Festival back in October, and, adds Holt, they have more plans to integrate into the community. “On New Year’s Day, we’re launching what will be a monthly gospel jazz brunch,” he says.
In what he calls “our house,” Holt notes that they will host cooking classes, and also display and offer for sale work by local artists and photographers: “These are the creative relationships that Manna will have—with the city, the people and the communities. It’s another win-win.”