In Brownsville, Cake With a Side Order of HopeThree local sisters start a business that shows gentrification isn't the only way up for a Brooklyn neighborhood
They call it “a café with purpose.” The light-filled space, scattered with tables and comfortable seating accented with orange and blue pillows, is large enough to house three Manhattan-sized cafés.
In Brownsville, one of the few remaining Brooklyn neighborhoods that hasn’t quite been touched by gentrification, three sisters decided to get ahead of the curve. Instead of being pre-empted by outsiders moving in and opening up a hip new café, they opened up their own.
At first, Brownsville residents were wary of this shiny new space that popped up in their neighborhood last summer. But over the past several months, the 3 Black Cats Café/Cakery, created by three of Brownsville’s own–Diana, Ionna and Melissa Jimenez–has become an inspiration and vital gathering place for the community. The cafe has hosted events from open-mic performances to fashion shows, and even a casting call for hit reality TV show Shark Tank.
The sisters’ inspiration started about five years ago with the reality show Cake Boss, said Ionna. Her older sister Diana would watch the show with a friend and got the idea of starting a business to make beautiful cakes, but at affordable prices.
A business partnership didn’t pan out with Diana and her friend, but when the two other Jimenez sisters saw Diana’s passion for the project, they got on board. Along the way, they heard about the Dream Big Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers underserved communities by investing in local entrepreneurs. Dream Big describes its mission as “challenging the negative effects of gentrification and enabling success from the inside–out.” The Jimenez sisters decided to pitch their business plan and ended up winning the funding.
Yet the sisters were still beginners at running a business. “We had no idea how to run a café,” said Ionna. “All we knew was cakes, cookies, pastries.” The sisters had been selling baked goods out of their homes, often catering children’s birthday parties. Pernell Brice, executive director of the foundation, mentored them throughout the process of setting up shop. “We were extremely focused on selecting entrepreneurs who had a passion to own their own café, obviously had a great product with their existing business, and were not only from Brownsville but had a strong connection to the community,” said Brice. “The Jimenez sisters overwhelmingly fit these criteria.”
Crafting a Clear Identity
As they got ready for their launch, the Jimenez sisters wanted to make it clear that the 5,000-sq.-ft. café was not created by outsiders, so they put a lot of thought into the name. “We wanted to make absolutely sure that people knew it was opened by three black women,” said Ionna. “And we all have black cats,” she added with a laugh.
Before the café came to the neighborhood, there was a McDonald’s, soul-food restaurants, and some walk-in pizza places, but nothing quite like 3 Black Cats. The café brings a warmth and personality lacking in chain restaurants, providing a relaxed, welcoming place to gather for good food, good coffee, professional meetings, and ugly sweater parties.
A Skeptical Reaction
Yet some of the community didn’t take to the space right away. “Residents felt that they don’t deserve a space like this,” said Ionna, adding that some people thought it seemed too nice, too not Brownsville. For months, the sisters organized events and reached out to the community. They hosted baby showers, brunches, wedding receptions, and a poetry slam.
Now people in Brownsville have warmed up to the café. Paulina Armstrong, 48, who lives in neighboring East New York, is thrilled with the new addition to the neighborhood. “The fact that the business is family-owned and operated by African-Americans is what makes it special to me, especially since Brownsville is occupied by mostly African-Americans,” she said. The café shows that people can achieve their dreams and make choices to improve their lives, she said. “3 Black Cats Café for me represents hope in a neighborhood that can use hope in a positive way.” Says Ionna: “I wouldn’t call it gentrification. I’d call it community development.”
In April, Shark Tank came to the café to hear business pitches from local entrepreneurs as part of its effort to bring more diversity to the show. More than 100 entrepreneurs from Brownsville and around the city pitched their ideas to the casting team.
Now established, 3 Black Cats is expanding its repertoire. While its roots are in baking, the cafe now serves waffles (including a customer favorite, the Red Velvet waffle), sandwiches, paninis, jerk chicken, salad, mac ’n’ cheese, and smoothies. More vegan options are on the way. The sisters plan to add outdoor seating in warmer months, as well as beer and wine for their brunch and live-music events.
“I hope that the space becomes more than just a café,” said Ionna. “A space where people can be inspired and motivated to work hard, so residents know we can have beautiful things.”