Lakesha Brown-Renfro, Nzinga Teule-Hekima and Tanecia Willis, are the entrepreneurs behind Simply Panache Group, which operates a restaurant, spa, boutique hotel and an event venue. Brown-Renfro, 43, called it "unimaginable" to think that her ancestors once walked in chains down the street where their businesses now stand.
"We're living our ancestors' wildest dreams," she said. “I think they would beam with pride...They would say ‘wow.’ But more importantly, I know what we would say and that’s ‘Thank you.’”
Like many other black female entrepreneurs, the trio struggled to find funding and eventually had to finance the business themselves, splitting the costs equally from their savings, Teule-Hekima said.
The number of businesses owned by African-American women grew 605% between 1997 and 2017, making black women the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States, according to a study of women-owned businesses commissioned by American Express. But black female entrepreneurs raised an average of only $36,000 of outside funding, a 2015 study from Digital Undivided found, compared with an average of $1.3 million for all startups, according to an October 2019 analysis by CB Insights.
"Especially being three African-American women in business, we’ve heard ‘no’ from the banks, we’ve heard ‘no’ on 'Shark Tank,' but our community keeps telling us ‘yes,’” said Brown-Renfro, who runs marketing for Simply Panache. “You really only need one 'yes.'”
The empire started about 15 years ago as an event planning business. The trio, all from families of entrepreneurs, organized everything from weddings and bar mitzvahs to book signings and album release parties in Hampton and bigger cities including Houston, New York and Washington, D.C.
They kept their costs low by sticking to a budget set by clients, charging a 30% fee and investing the profits directly back into their business. To make the events stand out, they incorporated a signature ingredient into many of the catered dishes: gourmet mango preserves called Mango Mango.
Although the preserves don’t come from a family recipe, Brown-Renfro, whose great grandfather comes from Jamaica, said mangoes remind them of their heritage.
“This fruit is just the fruit of our ancestors, all those places that we have connections to," said Teule-Hekima, 45, a family practitioner who handles their human resources needs. "Mango is the main fruit in Africa, it’s the main fruit in Jamaica."
Customers asked about the secret ingredient so much that the group decided to sell their preserves commercially.
“They would ask ‘So what’s in the punch?’ and it would be the mango preserves. And 'What’s in the ginger and shrimp recipe?’ It would be the mango preserves,” Brown-Renfro said. “We kinda looked at each other and said ‘hey we’ve got something here.’”
Using money earned from their events business, Simply Panache started retail operations small in 2012 at Hanover Cannery in Ashland, Virginia, an industrial-sized kitchen where locals can preserve their fresh produce. Each batch cost about $1,000 to make and would produce enough preserves to fill about 300 jars, which they packed and labeled with a four-person staff.
The preserves gained a cult following at local farmers’ markets, earning the trio about $100,000 their first year. After Whole Foods featured the product in a few stores, someone from QVC asked Simply Panache to sell the product on air, Brown-Renfro said.
But they had to put their QVC appearance on hold when an even bigger opportunity came up in September 2013. ABC’s "Shark Tank" wanted them to pitch their product in front of a panel of potential investor "sharks" including Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John and Kevin O'Leary. They sent in a video demonstrating some of the 100 ways customers could use their "party in a jar" and served the sharks mango ginger shrimp, mango lemonade and mango fruit dip.
Although they didn’t get a deal on the show, Brown-Renfro said they got 15,000 orders worth $300,000 in just 48 hours, then went on to sell out on QVC five times. "Shark Tank" taught them they needed to scale up their operations and fast, so they enlisted friends and family to help package their product.
Simply Panache has grown exponentially since then. In 2012, they had no brick-and-mortar stores and earned about $100,000 in sales from their mango preserves that year. Now, they're profitable, making about $100,000 each month in sales at their 50-table restaurant Mango Mangeaux, which serves upscale French Creole dishes and neo-soul food. Their families still help, but they now employ nearly 45 people in the community.
With so many businesses to juggle, Brown-Renfro, whose husband was in the Navy and who served as an ombudsman for his command for several years, has made Simply Panache her full time job. Willis, 42, a former critical care nurse, runs their spa full time and organizes their books. Teule-Hekima still see patients during the day and handles employee relations at night.
“There are a lot of things that you just don’t know that you don't know,” Teule-Hekima said. “Those things that you don’t know have the potential of being crippling.”
Brown-Renfro said it's important to pass on the knowledge she's gained. After Mango Mangeaux helped launched Black Restaurant Week in the area last year, the group became a resource for other black restaurant owners, offering strategies on marketing and establishing an online presence.
"It feels good to be able to work hard and build something that’s not just for us but that continues onto the next generation," Teule-Hekima said. "We feel that we are honoring our ancestors by being good stewards of their sacrifice. We feel that if they could speak to us, that they would feel like what they went through wasn’t in vain."
Simply Panache sells the mango preserves at its Hampton stores and online at https://amangoparty.com/collections/product. Here are the recipes the entrepreneurs showcased on "Shark Tank":
In a bowl, mix together the desired amount of mango preserves and cream cheese until well blended. Use a hand mixer for the creamiest texture. Makes 2 ounces. The recipe can be increased by adding equal amounts of each ingredient.
Shake all ingredients in a vinaigrette shaker or whisk in a bowl until well blended. Pour a few tablespoons of the vinaigrette over your favorite salad. Cover the remaining vinaigrette and refrigerate. Shake again before use.
In a medium bowl or large zipper-seal storage bag, toss the shrimp and mango preserves together, making sure that the shrimp are well marinated. In a pan with a little olive oil sauté the shrimp, preserves and start with 1/2 teaspoon of Jammin' Ginger PARTY Mix; add more spice to taste. As an alternative, the shrimp can be grilled on a skewer 2-4 minutes on each side or until shrimp are done.
— As an appetizer, eat them like popcorn shrimp, on a kabob with other meats and veggies, or in a lettuce wrap.
— You can add them to a stir-fry mixture of sliced onions, sliced bell peppers and carrots and serve over rice.
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