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At an iconic holiday market, minority-owned small businesses step into the spotlight

The Bank of America Small Business Spotlight program provides four minority-owned small businesses with a rent-free booth at Bryant Park's Holiday Shops. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)
The Bank of America Small Business Spotlight program provides four minority-owned small businesses with a rent-free booth at Bryant Park's Holiday Shops. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)
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NEW YORK CITY (TND) — De'Asia Collins had never won anything in her entire life.

So when the Yonkers, N.Y. resident submitted an application to showcase her homemade babkas through the Small Business Spotlight program at Bryant Park’s Bank of America Winter Village in Manhattan, she did so with incredibly low expectations. Further hampering her chances, Collins believed, was the fact that her business idea was something that she “made out of thin air.”

But anyone who meets Collins, even briefly, would find it difficult not to root for the bubbly Brooklyn native with a discernible passion for Jewish-baked goods.

The source of that inclination to support Collins is twofold. It’s in her babka itself, of course, with each gooey, indulgent bite of the addictive treat providing a compelling argument as to why Bitchin’ Babkas is deserving of broader recognition and continuous growth. But it comes, too, from the giddiness in Collins’ voice when she describes her journey from being entirely unacquainted with the sweet braided bread to diving headfirst into elevating classic recipes with novel flavors like baklava and birthday cake.

“I have probably over 250 different babka ideas in my head,” Collins said, the ebullience in her tone unmistakable and her vivacity shining clearly through the partial obscuration of a mask.

It’s perhaps no surprise to anyone other than Collins herself that the Bank of America team took note of the baker’s spark during the Small Business Spotlight selection process and offered her one of their four rent-free time slots at this year’s Holiday Shops at Bryant Park.

With its never-ending rows of vendors trying to lure holiday shoppers from the jam-packed crowds into their booths, Bryant Park’s Bank of America Winter Village, in its current form, could easily be assumed to have existed forever as a mainstay of New York City’s Christmas season. But in fact, it was only in 2005 that it began to resemble its present-day splendor when the Bryant Park Corporation discovered that adding a free skating rink into the mix was the key to attracting tourists and locals alike to a market that had once struggled to stand out among much competition.

Now, hundreds of artisans selling crafts and edible treats aspire to join the elite group of vendors who set up shop at the 9.6-acre public park from late October to early January. Urbanspace, a food hall operator that runs several year-round spaces in addition to seasonal pop-ups, is tasked with curating the selection of shops at Bryant Park’s Winter Village from far more applicants than there are openings.

The high demand merits a price tag to match. Sure enough, the rent for a booth at Bryant Park’s 2021 Winter Village ranged from a staggering $20,500 to $39,500, according to the Urbanspace application portal.

But to those vying for one of the coveted spots, the cost is often no deterrent. Particularly for an established business, it’s an expense readily justified by the shopping destination’s prime location, its prolonged duration in comparison to other holiday markets, and proven sales figures from years prior.

Most small business owners, though, are unable to jump into such a hefty financial commitment, no matter how much revenue or exposure the market promises to provide. And for many, the unprecedented challenges introduced by the pandemic further lessened the feasibility of funding such a pricey marketing tactic.

In recognition of those limitations, Bank of America established the Small Business Spotlight program last winter to provide a rent-free booth at Bryant Park’s Winter Village to four minority-owned small businesses for around two weeks each.

Initially prompted by the difficulties of the pandemic, the initiative quickly demonstrated its obvious potential to become a fixture of the holiday market for years to come. Even as Bank of America’s 2021 Small Business Owner Report found many entrepreneurs regaining their footing following a tumultuous 2020, there would always be those who, pandemic or not, could benefit immensely from the publicity that would accompany their participation in the program.

And so, the Small Business Spotlight concept returned first for a spring pop-up market, also in Bryant Park, and then again this winter to the Holiday Shops with a new selection of local artisans eager to show off their creations: Vampin’ Vintage, Kalsang Pottery, Blue Paws Art, and the aforementioned Bitchin’ Babkas.

Kalsang Chomphel and Tenzin Tseyang Gonsar, the husband-and-wife team behind Kalsang Pottery, initially considered renting a vendor spot at the Winter Village for their budding ceramics company. Since launching the business in 2020, they had grown accustomed to selling Chomphel’s hand-thrown creations at craft markets and street fairs, and Bryant Park’s holiday market seemed like a fitting continuation of their marketing model thus far.

But upon discovering the sizable sum that they’d have to pay for the pop-up, they were unsure that it would be a prudent decision in their first year of operations.

We were wondering if it would be worth it, if we could invest that much of our money at the moment,” said Tseyang Gonsar. “We were a bit hesitant.

In continuing to research their options, Tseyang Gonsar and Chomphel came across the Small Business Spotlight program. The focus on highlighting minority-owned businesses helped to convince the Tibetan couple that submitting an application would be worthwhile, so they diligently answered a series of questions about Kalsang Pottery and about themselves (“A lot about ourselves,” Tseyang Gonsar emphasized) and hoped for the best.

Like Collins, Tseyang Gonsar and Chomphel are the type of people who inspire support through both their talent and their character.

Chomphel is the sole artist for Kalsang Pottery. Prior to pursuing pottery as a full-time venture, he held various positions within the service industry, but the pandemic’s unprecedented level of disruption to day-to-day life cost Chomphel his steady job — and simultaneously afforded him the boundless supply of free time needed to transform his hobby into a business. Unforeseen circumstances became an opportunity, and Chomphel latched onto this silver lining of the pandemic — to build his ever-replenishing inventory of functional, yet imaginative, stoneware art pieces from a small studio in Woodside, Queens.

Admiring the one-of-a-kind vessels, which have a degree of tranquility in their finished design analogous to Chomphel’s meditative approach at the potter’s wheel, it’s difficult to believe that they’re the work of a self-taught artist.

We live in a very lucky day,” explained Chomphel, “because all of the resources are readily available on the internet. I didn’t have to go to a strict structural apprenticeship for five or six years, like how people used to do it long ago.

Each one of Kalsang Pottery’s stoneware clay pieces embarks on a two-week journey from start to finish. Rather than concentrating his efforts on a single cup or bowl, Chomphel will instead fire dozens of items at once to meet demand. “If I make one cup, I will make a hundred a day altogether,” he said.

With Chomphel occupied at the potter’s wheel, Tseyang Gonsar manages the daily operations of the business. As a writer, she also serves as the company’s chief storyteller, using her talents to turn Kalsang Pottery’s website into a poetic ode to the art of ceramics.

Before applying for the Small Business Spotlight, the couple had already received some validation for their hard work through their inclusion in other craft fairs, at which they had started to procure a loyal fanbase willing to follow them from one location to the next. They also had found success in selling products wholesale to several stockists around the city, including an immigrant-owned home decor store in Brooklyn called 21Tara and the Rubin Museum of Art’s gift shop, both of which offer an impressive selection of Tibetan products.

But no amount of past achievements could dull the excitement of finding out that Kalsang Pottery had been chosen for Bank of America’s Small Business Spotlight.

To know that we had a free spot for two weeks at one of the most popular winter holiday markets in New York City, we were just over the moon. We were both so happy,” said Tseyang Gonsar.

For the couple, a booth at Bryant Park represented much more than simply a chance to sell pottery. With dreams of expanding Kalsang Pottery far beyond its current operations, Tseyang Gonsar and Chomphel viewed their two-week run at the Winter Village as an avenue through which they could generate more exposure for their business by building connections with other artists and potential customers.

It was also a prime opportunity to represent their culture.

While Chomphel’s work draws inspiration from a number of different sources, including the ethical pots of British potter Bernard Leach and the folk ceramics of Japanese artist Shoji Hamada, Tibetan influences are present in many of his pieces. He recently made noodle bowls, for instance, with a blue-green glaze evocative of gyu, a precious turquoise stone cherished in Tibet as much for its perceived spiritual value as for its beauty. And learning to let go of his favorite pieces, Chomphel said, has helped him to practice the Buddhist concept of impermanence.

Chomphel and Tseyang Gonsar also chose to wear traditional Tibetan clothing in the media photo that they provided to Bryant Park.

By contrast, Collins lacks the Jewish background that one might expect of someone who bakes a seriously good babka. But Collins is not one to shy away from uncharted territory, especially when food is involved.

I’m just obsessed with learning about new foods, talking about them, and expanding on them,” she said.

Collins recalled the excitement of making brownies from a box as a kid, but her interest in recipes beyond the pre-packaged variety didn’t come until much later in life. Her curiosity about Jewish baked goods, in particular, stemmed from a book that she received as a gift. Intrigued by the book’s elaborate recipes, Collins began to try her hand at baking a variety of Jewish treats like babka, blintzes, and rugelach.

Despite her natural talent in the kitchen, a future in the culinary world wasn’t on Collins’ radar — until the pandemic hit. Stuck at home during the early days of quarantine, Collins began to reevaluate her priorities while simultaneously baking a lot of babkas.

Soon, a conclusion to her period of self-inquiry became obvious. Collins quit her job as an executive assistant and threw herself into food ventures like Bitchin’ Babka and Eggroll Mami, an egg roll pop-up featuring unique fillings inspired by Collins’ Jamaican heritage.

Collins was working at a pop-up for Eggroll Mami when she got the call from Bank of America.

I was so shook,” she said.

From that moment onward, it was a flurry of endless preparations for the self-described perfectionist. Her babkas stay good for about a week and a half at room temperature and up to two months frozen, but she knows that there’s nothing quite compares to a freshly baked loaf. So on Nov. 26, the day before her tenure at Bryant Park began, Collins woke up at 8 a.m. to kick off a long day of nonstop baking in her Yonkers kitchen. By the afternoon of Nov. 27, she still hadn’t slept.

Enough adrenaline, though, is sufficient to mask exhaustion, and adrenaline certainly helped Collins during a frenetic two weeks of vending in Bryant Park. She went through 496 sticks of butter, 306 eggs, 200 pounds of sugar, and 400 pounds of flour.

Being busy doesn’t phase Collins. When it comes to her future plans for the business, she truly subscribes to the belief that the sky’s the limits. Collins plans to continue experimenting with unique babka flavors in the new year, as well as vegan and gluten-free options. And further down the line, she hopes to open a storefront focusing on all types of Jewish breakfast items.

“But if someone wants to take me over to Whole Foods, I won’t say no,” she added.

Since the holiday shops at Bryant Park first opened Oct. 29, there has been an invisible thread running steadily through the Small Business Spotlight booth, regardless of who is occupying the space.

The four businesses, each one offering something decidedly distinct from the others, are tied together by the vendors' tireless devotion to their craft. Whether it be stoneware, babkas, or something else entirely, all of the products sold at the booth are fired in a kiln of enthusiasm and have heaping tablespoons of passion ingrained in their recipes.

During the first time slot of the 2021 season, that unshakable sense of excitement could be found bursting out of Puma roller skates and hanging on carefully curated clothing racks alongside vintage Starter jackets and faux-fur Lilli Ann coats from the 1940s. It was tucked into each and every pocket, and on the shelves, it had carved out just enough space to settle among the rows of fashionable busts decked out in felt hats and statement jewelry.

In talking to Vampin’ Vintage owners Aqeel Abdul-Majeed and Ebony Jones, the ever-present excitement lingering in the air becomes all the more palpable.

With a shared love of all things vintage, the married couple is assiduous in their goal of curating a dynamic inventory that truly offers something for everyone. The mission is not to be confused with a sales tactic. While it would be easy to make an unsubstantiated claim that there’s “something for everyone,” Abdul-Majeed and Jones are remarkably earnest in their attempts to connect customers with the perfect pieces.

Sometimes, that means that Abdul-Majeed and Jones will spend hours assisting a shopper with an outfit dilemma. In August, a group of women with a fashion emergency showed up to a pop-up vintage market just as Vampin’ Vintage was closing up shop. It wouldn’t have been the Vampin Vintage way to turn them away, so instead, the booth remained open for another hour to ensure that those customers left as satisfied as any others who had visited throughout the course of the swelteringly hot day.

Bringing happiness to all those who shop at Vampin’ Vintage, in turn, becomes a major source of joy for Abdul-Majeed and Jones.

It’s not always easy. It takes time, and it takes dedication,” Jones said of the time-consuming process required to curate high-quality, stylish products for Vampin’ Vintage. “But seeing the smiles on customers’ faces makes it worth doing.

Personal style guides their selections to an extent, but Abdul-Majeed and Jones still invite inspiration to arrive from all angles. Abdul-Majeed’s hip-hop background serves as a significant influence, as do those customer requests for specific items or styles. Abdul-Majeed and Jones also value input from their teenage son, particularly when it comes to any decisions involving sneakers.

Summing up the signature Vampin’ Vintage look in a single word, then, is a daunting task.

“What do you say on the website?” Abdul-Majeed asked Jones.

Before Jones had a chance to respond, Abdul-Majeed remembered the answer to his own question: “You chose to use the word ‘eclectic.’”

The story of Vampin’ Vintage bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the other vendors.

When Abdul-Majeed painted an anime character on an old jean jacket for his son in 2019, the attention that the finished product received became the impetus to turn his talent for revamping vintage clothing into a business.

But it was the pandemic that ultimately allowed the couple to focus full-time on Vampin’ Vintage. In early 2020, Jones closed the day care center that she had owned for over a decade and started to volunteer at a vintage shop in her neighborhood. As her longtime hobby for thrifting became an increasingly larger part of her life, Jones realized she couldn’t ignore the relentless tug pulling her further and further in that direction.

A year and a half after launching Vampin’ Vintage, the husband-and-wife duo hopes to sell at more markets with sights set on further expansion. But first, a break is in order. “We’re going to just hang out a little and take our son somewhere nice,” said Abdul-Majeed.

Once folks have freshened up their winter wardrobes, purchased pottery for everyone on their Christmas list, and eaten their fill of babka, there’s only one thing left to do — commission a custom portrait of their pet.

Fortunately, that’s one specialty of the final business to occupy the Small Business Spotlight booth this season. For more immediate gratification, people can browse through Blue Paws Art’s original illustrations that reimagine beloved TV characters and popular celebrities as pugs and German shepherds. Ariana Grande, with her signature ponytail, is appropriately portrayed as a Maltese; an Afghan hound is immediately recognizable as Cher.

There are also holiday-themed designs, a series of dog mermaids, and pups posing with quintessential New York City symbols like MetroCards and hot dogs. (Yes, it is a dachshund posing with the hot dog.)

Owners Viito Mejia and Andres Isaquita Romero had some experience with craft markets prior to their inclusion in Bryant Park’s Winter Village with Blue Paws Art. In 2015, the gay Latino immigrant duo established A&V Art, now called The Werkroom, to sell illustrations, often erotic or provocative in nature, of animated characters. They've displayed their buff Disney princes and Playboy Bunny princesses at numerous street fairs and comic book conventions across the country.

The Blue Paws Art display near Bryant Park’s iconic fountain is more family-friendly. A dog dressed as the Statue of Liberty graces the outside of the booth, covered in triple the amount of clothing worn by any of The Werkroom’s shirtless cartoon hunks.

Inside, people can thumb through prints or choose to purchase their favorite design on a mug, a sweatshirt, or a dog-sized hoodie. If they're lucky, they may even get to meet Blue, Mejia's miniature schnauzer who inspired the two entrepreneurs to launch Blue Paws Art in the summer of 2020.

Mejia is just as enthusiastic about dogs as he is about illustration, and at the start of the pandemic, he decided to dedicate his newfound free time to pursue his dream of drawing pets. As Mejia began to build up a selection of designs for Blue Paws Art’s online shop, Isaquita Romero focused his efforts on growing their new business. Eventually, his persistent research led him to the Small Business Spotlight application.

When Mejia got the call informing him that Blue Paws Art had been selected, it took him a moment to understand the good news.

English isn't our first language,” said the Colombian native. “When Sean Callan from Bank of America called, all I heard was ‘Bank of America,’ and I thought at first they were talking about my bank account or some loan.

But once he processed the information, he switched the call to speakerphone so that Isaquita Romero could join in the celebration as well.

The spot at Bryant Park’s Winter Village is the first time that Blue Paws Art’s illustrations have been showcased beyond their website and social media accounts, and both Mejia and Isaquita Romero were unable to contain their excitement. Given their positive experience at other holiday markets with The Werkroom, they knew that operating a booth in a heavily trafficked area full of shoppers in pursuit of unique gifts would provide an invaluable experience for a business in its early stages of growth.

Of course, those unable to travel to the Bank of America Winter Village can still support Blue Paws Art, as well as the other vendors, through the convenience of online shopping.

Collins sells her babkas on Etsy, which often comes as a surprise to those unaware that the online marketplace known for handmade and vintage items also supports the sale of edible items. Vampin’ Vintage spreads out its products across multiple platforms, depending on the vibe of each item. And while Kalsang Pottery’s online shop is in need of a restock after nearly all of Chomphel’s recent work went to pop-up markets, Tseyang Gonsar said that they plan to increase their digital presence in the near future.

Those unable to make it to the Midtown Manhattan shopping destination in-person will find Blue Paws Art in the Small Business Spotlight booth until Jan. 2, which is also the final day for the Holiday Shops altogether. The rink, as well as the après-skate lodge and the rinkside shops, will remain open through March.

In September, results of a study conducted by Swedish fintech company Klarna showed that, based on data from more than 24,000 survey respondents and over 29 million orders on the global shopping platform, big-box retailers will continue to reign supreme this holiday season, followed by department stores and malls as the second and third hottest places to shop for gifts.

Small businesses, which ranked fourth in Klarna’s report, are still being overlooked by shoppers who prefer racing down the aisles of Walmart on Black Friday in search of signs boasting everyday low prices in bold letters. But initiatives like Bank of America’s Small Business Spotlight are helping to generate higher sales numbers for artisans whose handmade products will assuredly pack a bigger punch on Christmas morning than the unimaginative items yanked from the shelves of a big-box retailer and hastily thrown into a red-and-green bag.

The importance of the program is amplified through its focus on minority-owned businesses, as numerous studies have found that minority entrepreneurs battled disproportionate levels of hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic and typically face a steeper uphill climb to recovery and financial security.

While choosing to shop exclusively at minority-owned small businesses would be a commendable undertaking, it’s not always the most viable option. But even if people still plan to hit up Walmart or order last-minute presents on Amazon with a couple clicks of a button, dedicating just a small portion of their budgets toward local makers can bring someone one step closer to achieving dreams that otherwise might, without enough support, end up buried beneath the more pressing need to make a decent living.

And as a bonus, people will end up with some of the best babkas ever tried, or maybe a flawless cartoon depiction of their cat to display proudly in their living room — not a bad incentive for ditching retail giants to instead help a small business along the path to lasting success.

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