When Mike Hastings and Armando Vasquez were in the early stages of setting up their tropical-themed Anchor Island Coffee in Kansas City two years ago, they hid that they were a couple.
Before starting their business, the two lived in Overland Park, Kansas, where they felt less accepted than in their current community. They decided to come out when they had to sign the lease for their business premises.
“We wanted to be upfront and honest with them about who we are and what we’re going to do before we do this lease,” Hastings said.
The decision to go public with their relationship wasn’t without its challenges — some people in their lives don’t talk to them anymore, Hastings said. Vasquez in particular was not accepted by some members of his family.
But in doing so, the couple created a space accepting of the LGBTQ community.
“We’ve had a number of kids coming out of middle school and high school who live in our community and bring their parents to us because we’re an inclusive, supportive company,” Hastings said.
A recent report by New York-based Out Leadership ranked Missouri 35th out of 50 states for LGBTQ inclusion and protections. The group measured things like legal and non-discrimination protections, access to health care, and the work environment. Missouri’s score was down in every category from last year.
This climate creates challenges for LGBTQ business owners, who often must overcome social and legal hurdles in addition to the typical risks of starting a business.
Protect staff and customers
When Caitlin Cunningham opened the Dandy Lion Cafe in Ashland in late March, they knew not everyone in the rural community would support the openly LGBTQ space. But Cunningham, who uses the pronouns they/them, wanted to create a welcoming, welcoming place, so they went ahead with it anyway.
“In rural Missouri, for people who are outside of the status quo, outside of the norm, to try to make progress in terms of owning a small business, there’s definitely rumblings of ‘Oh the audacity,” Cunningham says.
When the cafe opened, Cunningham did not feel accepted by some people in the local business community. They said they installed security cameras outside the cafe to protect their eight employees, including five teenagers. That’s something that might not be a priority for businesses with heterosexual owners, Cunningham said.
The Dandy Lion Cafe displays LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter flags outside, a move that has prompted warnings from local business leaders. Cunningham received emails urging them to remove the flags to avoid losing business. But for Cunningham, creating a cafe that matches what it stands for means more than doing business.
“Finding that balance between being able to provide those opportunities for staff members to work in a safe and inclusive space, but also being able to afford to have those staff members is the cost and the limitations that every business owner knows,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham has developed several client relationships that have made the experience worthwhile. Cunningham is proud to own a space in Ashland where LGBTQ customers feel they don’t need a “license to exist.”
Cunningham recalled a client who said she was considering leaving Ashland to protect her child, who identifies with the LGBTQ community. But the space created by Dandy Lion Cafe made the customer reconsider, Cunningham said.
“It’s hard for me to appreciate the impact I know coffee has when it’s still blowing down my neck that I may not be able to continue to provide this space for people,” they tearfully said. . “That’s the most important thing, not making money from this space (but) just being able to keep the doors open.”
Cunningham would like his business to be on par with long-established businesses in Ashland in terms of connections and resources.
“I worry sometimes there’s a little bit of control,” Cunningham said. “(Business leaders) can identify companies that might need that block higher so they can see over the fence, so they can be part of the conversations so we don’t exist in a echo chamber.”
“Represent something different”
Sophie Mendelson, co-owner of Sugarwitch in St. Louis, said she’s had a good overall experience with community support since opening her ice cream sandwich shop last year, but sometimes people will assume she is not responsible.
“It’s the little things,” she said. “It’s the contractor asking my husband or wanting to speak with what he presumes to be the real authority.”
Mendelson recognized this trend in the restaurant world around him. “It’s still in many ways the good old boys’ club,” Mendelson said.
Brandi Artis, the executive chef of 4 Hens Creole Kitchen in St. Louis, is proud to have the same support as a queer Black business owner that she and her wife received when they lived in Chicago. The couple moved to St. Louis about a year ago.
“I love that my family is different,” Artis said. “We represent something different to the community and the people in our lives who love us.”
This story originally appeared on Missouri Business Alert.