Black Business Bus Tour introduces shoppers to unique small shops

Robin Ward knows the struggles of owning a small business. As owner-operator of The Ward’s Robe at 1266 East Hillsborough Avenue since September 2017, she and her husband, Tony, have experienced times when the number of customers coming through the door on a daily basis could be counted on only a couple of fingers. 

Then Candy Lowe’s Black Business Bus Tour stopped by on a Saturday last spring. The result? Dozens of shoppers arrived at her Seminole Heights store, and now half a dozen customers or more can be found shopping there on any single day of operation. 

“We sell mainly trendy urban club wear -- people of all ages can find something to wear here. We sell everything from dresses to shoes and purses to jewelry.” Robin and Tony Ward at their store, The Ward's Robe in Tampa during the Black Business Bus Tour.

Ward, who is from New York and came to Florida to find the sunshine, says she and her husband once ran a boutique in their one-time home of North Carolina. Their aspirations were to do the same in the Sunshine State. 

"When we moved here, we wanted to get settled into the area first and take time to research the demographics so we'd know where to open a store and what to offer. We wanted to offer something unique -- the options here in Florida aren't the same as back in New York,” she said. “We wanted to give people something different than what they can find anywhere else." 

The Ward's Robe, which offers a mix of designers and styles, has become a hit with local shoppers, but Ward said it didn’t happen overnight.

"It takes time to get everything just right,” she notes. “There are many groups on Facebook and social media offering support for small businesses. If you want to open a business, you've just got to go for it.”

Ultimately, Ward believes many folks want to run a business and may even know how, but often fall short of taking action.

“They've just got to do it. And if they fail, they've just got to try again!"

An upward trend

The number of black-owned businesses in Tampa is increasing, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Figures provided by Hillsborough County Economic Development show the number of businesses owned by African Americans grew 52 percent between 2007 to 2012, from 9,919 to 15,053.

A consumer supporting locally owned black businesses.But a growing number of black businesses does not guarantee collective success for the individuals who invest blood, sweat, and tears – let alone money – into their business ventures. Many black business owners often don’t get past the first year or two before closing up shop – an unfortunate situation all too common for small business owners regardless of race or ethnicity.

Tampa visionary Candy Lowe hopes to change fortunes for her fellow African American business owners. In 2006, she launched the Black Business Bus Tour to help bring awareness of local black businesses, with the overarching goal of helping expand opportunities for current and future business owners. Her periodic bus tours gained national attention in November 2017, when USA Today profiled her successful efforts in getting 150 shoppers on a handful of motor coaches that toured several black-owned businesses throughout Tampa on the Friday after Thanksgiving. 

"When you take a small, black-owned business that might see two or three customers per day and participate in a bus tour, which might have two or three busloads of people, you could have 50 or more people visiting the store in a single day,” Lowe explains. “People come on this tour to spend and engage with the community." She says once these people are aware of the business, many become regular, returning customers. 

The purpose of the Black Business Bus Tour isn't solely to promote black businesses, but also to help improve the networking opportunities and economic conditions for the local black community and the entire community on the whole.

"In the African-American community, unemployment is very high. The hope is to set these businesses to improve their revenue, helping them to succeed and enabling them to hire people from the community."

Lowe knows the challenges of owning a business. About a decade ago, she ran a tea room at the Sulphur Springs Harbor Club, a historic landmark that tragically was destroyed by a fire in 2014. Her business folded, but she hopes she can make a difference in helping others thrive. However, her road to running the bus tour wasn't easy.

"I had a hard time getting sponsorship for the buses. But James Rivard Pontiac in Brandon agreed to sponsor them, and when one of the people on the bus tour went to the dealership the next day to buy a car, they were hooked," she chuckles. "We've been gaining more awareness from the community since about 2013. I think our city is ready for this, and I think our country is ready for this." 

While she is glad that businesses who participate in the Black Business Bus Tour see a substantial single-day spike in revenue, her primary objective is giving businesses exposure to new customers who may become long-term regulars. "So many small black business open, only to close a few years later. The ultimate goal is to build awareness, bring financial gain, and help ensure stability to local businesses."

Taking the leap 

Another Tampa couple with a can-do attitude took a chance on running a business 10 years ago when they bought African Extravaganza at 1409 Tampa Park Plaza. The store, now 25 years old, sells custom clothes and many African imports, including clothing, jewelry, shea butter soap, black soap, purses.

“We bought from the previous owner who wanted to return to Africa,” explains Evelyn Igbinosun, who bought the store with her husband, Taiwo. “I wasn't so sure about taking over the business, but my husband said, 'we can only fail if we don't try.' And so we did.”

Igbinosun says it wasn’t easy keeping the business early on. “That first year was awful. We had maybe five people walk through during a whole week.”

They spent money on advertising fliers and radio ads to no avail.

“When Lowe's bus tour began, I thought 'we don't have the money not to do this,” says Igbinosun. “And that first bus tour brought 50 people in one day. Now we have five or six people a day, and regulars who come by – all because of Candy Lowe.” 

Igbinosun says those who wish to run a small business need to know their market and be ambitious. “Make sure there is a demand for what you want to put out. And if there is, go for it!”

Ambition led Howard E. Green to open TPF Menswear in 2009.

“We specialize in men’s suits, and our claim to fame is our custom-made bow ties,” Green says. 

His store, at 14805 N. Florida Avenue near Lake Magdalene, has drawn a decent clientele for some time but received a significant boost when he decided to join in on Lowe’s bus-driven initiative.

“Last year was my first time and I’ve been on board ever since,” he says. “I’ve gained new faithful clients since taking part in the Black Business Bus Tour.” 

Now, Green plans to expand into Brandon, Gibsonton, and Bradenton over the next few years. He believes others who wish to follow the path to owning a successful business should capitalize on their inherent talents and skills. “Stay faithful to your craft and do whatever it is that God had called you to do.”

Want to get on the bus? To find out when the next tour will be, visit the Black Business Bus Tour website.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.