In 2017, Entrepreneur Magazine ranked New Orleans No. 5 on their “8 Cities Whose Entrepreneurship Communities Are Booming” list. Though New Orleans is turning 300 this year, young business owners are bringing new life and innovation to our city; providing building blocks for a city of the future.
When Jessica and Alonzo Knox opened Backatown Coffee Parlour in 2017, they knew that Backatown was going to be more than just another coffee shop. Their goals are to help revitalize the Basin Street business community and to create a unique yet authentic gathering space for local innovators and creatives.
We recently sat down with Jessica Knox to talk entrepreneurship, living in New Orleans, being part of the hospitality and tourism industry, and much more.
How long have you lived in New Orleans?
Alonzo and I have lived in New Orleans since 2003 which is 15 years.
Tell us a little about your backgrounds how you decided to open Backatown Coffee Parlour.
Alonzo and I worked together managing programs at the United Negro College Fund in DC. I had just graduated law school and he had just completed a tenure as Legislative Correspondent to Senator John Breaux. I went on to practice law for 5 years in DC and he became the Director of NY Programs for the Children’s Scholarship Fund in NYC. Alonzo eventually moved back to DC to complete his MBA at Trinity University while we were dating and later married. We both have always had an interest in business. Before opening Backatown we were part owners of Café Treme but the partnership ended in 2012. During this time Alonzo discovered his love for operating a business and interacting with clients on a daily basis. So we both knew that he would eventually open another coffee shop. Once he saw the new construction on Basin Street for a retail site, he began inquiring extremely early and he then sent the landlords a proposal based on our previous ownership of a coffee shop. He knew the location was good and that we can build a successful business.
What separates Backatown Coffee Parlour from other coffee shops?
Backatown Coffee Parlour actually has a feel of an old school gentlemen’s parlour that was membership only where men and later women could gather and socialize in an inviting and refined setting. Because Backatown is on the very site of some historic but a bit different “gentlemen parlours” at Storyville, we wanted to embrace the aura of a bygone time while ensuring that people from all walks of life felt that they come and be a part of Backatown to gather with old and new friends. We are not just coffee. We are a gathering house and hopefully a space where ideas and innovation can sprout.
One of the things we love most about your business is that you seem to be an actual part of the community, as opposed to just a coffee shop. You have art exhibits, open mic nights, etc. Talk about the importance of businesses being members of the communities they operate in!
Alonzo and I have always been very active in our community even when we did not have a business. So, we wanted to continue that as business owners. We believe that as we grow, so should our community, with our help. You cannot sustain a business in a community if a community is not thriving.
As entrepreneurs and owners, what does your typical day look like?
We work from 5:30am to 9:30pm which is a 16 hour work day. Backatown opens at 7am and closes at 7pm. Alonzo generally is there at 6am while I am doing paperwork for the business at that time. We both tend to close at night but then we have to prep for the next day which may mean getting products, dealing with staff issues, payroll, responding to emails and requests, etc., but we try to cut off by 9:30 and wind down. It is important to maintain priorities when having a business and one of those priorities is self and family.
What advice would you give someone who is looking to open his or her own local business?
We would advise those wishing to start a business to have a business plan that involves more than how much you can make/gain in revenue. The plan has to take into account payroll, purchase of products, start-up costs like equipment & furniture, rent costs, insurance, and many other items. Owners have to know their break-even point to understand what they must do to stay afloat. We would also say that you must invest in your business to make it a place that you and others would enjoy and you have to do this in the beginning. Our mentors, Naydja and Adolph Bynum, once told us that you have to have three wows when you have something for sale and we have adhered to that advice. Lastly, you have to know your strengths. If you are not good with paperwork like bill payment or payroll, outsource it. If you are not a people person, you should not be in the front of house. If you do not use social media, you learn or you find someone who does! All of this will affect your brand.
How important do you think the tourism and hospitality industry is in a city like NOLA?
The tourism and hospitality industry is extremely important to this City as it provides the majority of our jobs and opportunities for business ownership!
Where do you see New Orleans going in the next five years?
I believe New Orleans will see more African-American business owners from the ranks of those who have worked in the hospitality and tourism industry; those who have the experience and expertise to capitalize on this growing and sustainable industry.
Complete the sentence: New Orleans Will…
New Orleans Will be always be a place of unique expression & creativity!