Rontavia Briscoe's face may have been covered with a mask Wednesday evening, but there was little doubt she was flashing a smile underneath. After all, Briscoe said with a giggle, she's earned the nickname "Smiley" thanks to her omnipresent grin.
Briscoe has had a lot to smile about lately. Business is quickly picking up at Taysty Treats LLC, the bakery and treat shop she started from her kitchen in October of last year after being laid off from her job at United Healthcare.
Thanks to SOUL Street’s Black Owned Farmers Market, which officially launched at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, she now has a new venue to advertise her sweets and meet customers.
“It provides a great opportunity for us, especially the small businesses in the community,” Briscoe said, her eyes crinkling up in a smile. “Sometimes it’s better to see and feel and taste in-person than doing something online.”
The Black Owned Farmers Market will continue providing that opportunity to Black craftspeople, agriculturalists, creatives and entrepreneurs in the Frederick area for the rest of the summer, occurring every third Wednesday of the month, from 4 to 7 p.m. Besides next month’s market — which will be located at the Sky Stage — vendors will be gathering at the 7th Street Common Market, as they did on Wednesday, filling the parking lot with colorful booths and cheerful chatter. Kids dashed about on the pavement, many making a beeline toward Briscoe’s table, which was crowded with gourmet popcorn, cookie push-pops and other toothsome treats.
Creating a market like the one that kicked off Wednesday was a core goal of Black business owners and community members in Frederick when they came together to create SOUL Street in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, aiming to empower Black entrepreneurs and businesspeople while building Black generational wealth. Ultimately, the collective wants to open a brick-and-mortar grocery store stocked entirely with products from Black farms and businesses, said Michele Forbes, one of the organization’s founding members.
“We want our kids to grow up and see these Black businesses and be able to walk down Market Street and be able to see people who look like us in a business,” said Forbes, who attended high school in Frederick and has two children.
Forbes and the other SOUL Streeters at the market Wednesday were ecstatic to see the crowd it attracted. Before the booths had even officially opened, people were already roaming around and chatting with the vendors. There was Dominique Tolbert’s spice shop— which was represented by her twin siblings — and Natisha Britton’s apparel pop-up, Rhonda Walters’ skin and hair butter and the Bryan family’s bakery.
At one table, Amira Chappelle Brooks stood before an array of colorful candles — each one hand-poured and plant-based, she said. Similar to Briscoe’s shop, Chappelle Brooks’ candle company is a fairly new business; she just had her four month-iversary, she said with a laugh. She started making candles during the pandemic, picking the hobby back up after trying it as a teenager.
“When I ran out of people to give them to, I started selling them,” she said, smiling.
Natasha Bowens Blair’s booth seemed especially busy. Customers buzzed around the table, smelling the dried flowers, herbs and plants arranged around it. Bowens Blair, another SOUL Street founding member, is one of Frederick’s very few Black farmers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture — the most recent data available — there are only seven farms with Black or African American producers in the county, compared to 1,358 farms with white producers. In all, farms that include Black or African American producers span only 0.1 percent of the county’s farmland.
Outside of helping to run Native Mountain Farm with her mother-in-law, Bowens Blair is dedicated to advocating for other farms run by Black, Latina, Asian and Native communities across the country. In 2015, she published “The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming,” a book featuring the stories and portraits of farmers and food activists from these communities. She spent Tuesday and much of Wednesday on the road, picking up produce and other “goodies” from Black farmers who operate close to Frederick to sell at Wednesday’s market.
“If we really want equity and justice in the community and we want to have equality and invest in our community, it’s through the dollars,” she said.
Shana Knight, SOUL Street’s executive director and another founding member, had a similar message to share Wednesday evening. Fresh off a 30-minute bike ride from where she lives in Ballenger Creek’s Farmbrook neighborhood, Knight beamed as she talked about how proud she’s been of the Frederick community as she’s seen how many residents are excited to invest in Black businesses.
“[The market isn’t] just a place for Black people — it’s a place where everyone can come together to support the Black business community,” she said, “because that really does build that Black generational wealth. And it really does help with creating systemic change and battling systemic racism.”