A year ago, Dorian Bolden, the owner of the popular downtown coffee shop Beyu Caffe, was frantically trying to complete the process of moving his business into a new location on West Main Street. It was a move aimed at preserving the coffee shop’s longevity — making it the owner of its own space rather than a lessee at time when downtown rents were rising.
But it was also a move that almost took down the Durham staple.
“My wife didn’t even know how bad it was, and how close we were to not making it,” Bolden said with a laugh. “She was so mad when she found out.”
Moving into a self-owned space was a more ambitious project than Bolden originally envisioned. The former Wall Street financier and Duke University graduate said he thought it would’ve been much easier than starting the business from scratch like he did in 2009, when he raised around $500,000 to open the original space at 335 W. Main St., now home to the Indian restaurant Viceroy.
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“I’ve only told a couple people this, but the construction process was definitely the biggest thing I’ve had to go through as an entrepreneur,” he said.
Bolden had made an eight-month plan and set aside $75,000 to do the renovation of Beyu’s current space, 341 W. Main St. But the renovations went over schedule and over budget — swelling to $225,000, even as Bolden continued to pay a full-time staff while the restaurant was closed.
If it wasn’t for some good luck and several long nights of doing renovation work himself, the outcome could have been grim, he said. But now, nearly a year after moving into its new confines, the coffee shop, which also operates as a restaurant and jazz club, is thriving. It has also become one of the main networking hubs in downtown where you can often catch influential Durhamites holding meetings.
The travails of moving into a permanent location have given Bolden a refreshed perspective of what it means to be a black business owner in Durham — especially during a time when business and political leaders are beginning to grapple with how to maintain diversity as the city’s downtown core faces rapid growth. For example: Downtown Durham Inc.’s latest master plan includes a section on diversity for the first time.
“Buying the property was not just about having a stake in Durham as much as it was about protecting it,” he said about the city’s reputation a diverse business environment. “... It’s one of my biggest fears that I think over the next two to three years (that diversity could change).”
Bolden hopes that Beyu becomes a business that embodies the reputation Durham has earned as being a diverse business ecosystem.
“I am a firm believer that what has always separated Durham from any other place, and the reason that we call it Dirty Durham, is diversity,” he said. “... I am hoping new companies coming to Durham like it for its authenticity and its grit, and work to maintain diversity in the workforce.”
Bolden believes that starts with making sure your own employees represent a diverse mix of individuals. To ensure an equitable mix, you have to pay attention to your hiring process, he said — adding that he doesn’t look at criminal records in that process, and he prioritizes an even male-to-female ratio as well as hiring transgender employees.
But maintaining diversity also requires public discourse, he said, adding that he has felt compelled to take more risks in making Beyu a place where discourse happens — especially in regard to politics.
Beyu has hosted several political and cultural events in the past year, including Chelsea Clinton, who held a rally there for her mother Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and hip hop artist Talib Kweli, who spoke about hip hop’s role in politics.
“I've made a commitment to being more socially active even if it might cost me financially,” he said. “We definitely got some backlash for (hosting Chelsea Clinton). But the reality is that I felt that we needed to be more engaged in civil discourse.
“... The goal (of Beyu) was to always have it be a diverse and open platform for people to be engaged and (for politicians) to meet the people. To go where they are at instead of going to town hall.”
The strategy seems to be working, as the coffee shop continued to grow despite the hardships of relocating.
“Compared to year over year we are doing really well,” Bolden said. “... The restaurant business has been down by about 2 to 3 percent industry wide, but we have been able to remain stable enough that we can think about what is coming next.”