Dawn Kelly Creates an Oasis with The Nourish Spot
A food desert is defined as an urban area which has difficulty in buying good quality or affordable food options. In a neighborhood starved for fresh food options The Nourish Spot, and it’s CEO, Dawn Kelly, arrive to help bring in healthier choices. Described as a healthy food haven, Dawn and her super-team bring in brightly colored foods and drinks, and even brighter smiles to their customers. We met with Dawn to learn more about her, and what sparked the idea to bring about change in her neighborhood.
FLASH: You got started in your career doing PR, what made you want to switch from doing that to running Nourish?
Dawn: I guess the decision was actually made for me. I am a PR person by trade, by vocation, that’s what I worked in for thirty years. And in September 2015, unfortunately I was told that my job of sixteen years was being eliminated. That threw my whole world into a tailspin because I saw that as a failure, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was actually ready to retire, I was old enough to retire, but I hadn’t really planned out what my third act was going to be. I was in a deep depression and spent a lot of time crying between September 2015 and March of 2016. During that time I looked for a job: I went out on three interviews, and by the third one I realized I didn’t want to work for anybody else.
I’m a radical Christian. I believe in Jesus Christ and so I pray walking, I pray sitting, driving my car, I’m in prayer. I was in deep prayer asking God to help me, because I couldn’t figure it out myself. One day I was laying home in my house, in tears again, and because I do PR I loved to watch the news. As I’m crying I hear the news host on CNN say, ‘up next Styles P opens juice bar in Yonkers,’ and that caught my attention. I stopped crying and swung my body around to actually sit and watch the segment. I was inspired, I really really was. I said to God I could do that, I could do that Father. I’m like, where can I do it at? The Holy Spirit sent me outside because I live around the corner. Now I’ll be honest: I do believe in God but sometimes when you hear voices you might challenge yourself thinking you’re hearing things, but I’m obedient to the voice. I asked my daughter who is in her 20s to come outside with me, she gave me a side eye because I told her why I wanted to go outside but she went with her mother.
I came around the corner to Guy R. Brewer and I held onto the light pole as I was instructed. Then I was told to look up. When I first looked up and looked straight ahead I did not see anything. I’ll be honest I rejected it. I put my head down. My daughter started screaming at me and I pleaded to her as I was fragile [maybe this much suicidal], cause I really didn’t know what to do with my life. I’m an overachiever. I’ve always done stuff. I just don’t know how to handle failure and I don’t know how to handle idle time either. So I put my head down and I prayed and asked God not to let me look like a fool in front of my kid. I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I looked up and I looked to the left and didn’t see anything, but then I looked to the right and I saw it. My knees started to buckle and I started to slide down the pole because I was just overwhelmed by the sign. My daughter said, ‘What is it, what is it? What do you see?’ I kept saying, ‘it’s there!’ She was looking all over but I never said anything, and then she was like, ‘I see it! I see it mommy I see it!’ What we saw was the awning on top of this building, I still have a picture somewhere. The awning on top of this building said DK Upholstery; My initials—my name is Dawn Kelly. That was the sign that this was the building that my juice bar was would be in. And here we are today.
FLASH: Having been in the industry for such a long time, how does your experience help you in manifesting things for the day and taking care of things while you are here?
D: When I was in college at Howard University I had to pay for my college through loans and working, so I always had a job. I was an administrative assistant for the Department of Justice, so I’m super organized because I had more than one person who I reported to, and I had to manage all their different things. As a PR person, you have to promote people, places and things. I actually now have the ability to promote my own stuff so it is real easy for me. I use social media mostly but I have engaged traditional media as well to promote our opening and to promote our sustained business, as well as on Instagram and Facebook. When clients come in I ask them can I take their picture. Depending on what type of conversation or rapport we have while they are here, I write a little story about them and I put it up on Instagram and Facebook. Between the traditional media, I’ll tell you it was challenging promoting myself. I’ve spent so many years promoting others and that was so easy to do, but when I realize I had to promote myself I felt a little weird about it. I remembered another one of my mother’s clichés and its, ‘if you don’t think highly of yourself, who will?’ So I took that to heart, and that’s what I did. I decided to tell me and my kids’ story: that we were starting a business here in Jamaica, Queens.
It was a selfish business because there was no place around here to get a salad, and no place with adequate parking to get a salad. I would drive from my house to Panera on Rockaway Turnpike in Woodmere, Long Island to get a salad. Not only drive there because I could get the salad and walk away, but sometimes I just wanted a place where I could chill. Get a salad, take my computer, put it up, do a little paperwork. Nobody bothering me. Clean, nice, calm. I wanted to create that same kind of environment in Jamaica where I live.
I also used to juice: when the Holy Spirit was talking to me about how I could do a juice bar, I was challenged to go back on my personal Instagram. A quick backstory: when I went to Prudential in 1999 I was the size you see right now. When I left Prudential, in September of 2015, I was a size 16. Now that comes from stress, that comes from sitting down all day, that comes from social drinking, that comes from eating from galas and dinners at night. That comes from overall being unhappy. So I actually did go back and look at my Instagram and I saw all those juices, and I thought, if anybody ever asked me why you think you could do this, I could just show them all my juices. So it just seemed like it all fell in line. It’s almost like you never know what your life is going to be, but when you get to that point of what your life is going to be if you look back over your life you would see how all the puzzle pieces fell into place to get you to that point. And that’s what I saw.
F: Since you’ve opened in 2016, how much business have you seen?
D: Oh, it’s been…it’s been beautiful! First of all I’m so proud of my community. I did have some people inject some negativity into my life, making me think that maybe black and brown people would not support an effort of this kind. So I’m not going and lie and say I didn’t have a little bit of trepidation, but then again back to my radical belief in Jesus Christ I knew that God don’t bring you through things to see you fail. So I always tell myself that even though on days when it is slow, I always tell myself that it’s just a slow day today, tomorrow’s going to be a great day because God does all things well. And He did this. I didn’t. So this is going to win no matter what. I just keep the belief that everything’s going to work out and it’s going to work out for my good.
When customers come in I take pictures of them and post it on social media, and that creates engagement between the community. Our customers, they like to see themselves. So what they would do, they would share it [the post] or they would engage with me online. Now I have customers that are family members. I have I have my finger on the pulse of what goes on in this community because I’ve sat on the board of the Jamaica Arts Center; because I worked at York College I know all the elected officials and all their staff. If I call their offices they respond. So I feel it’s my job to share what I know with the people who live in the community. I put up information on our Instagram and our Facebook feed that I’ve learned from all the different people and places that I go to. So now I’m helping to impact people’s actual real life, and I think it’s wonderful. Not only am I making them healthier but they go in the small business classes, they go and do neighborhood clean up, they do everything.
What I want to do with this place is that I want to impact people’s life positively any which way I can. I always used to think about owning something, but I wasn’t raised to own something, I was raised to work. Most black people are raised to work. Unless you come from an immigrant family, and you can’t work because you don’t have a green card, you’re forced to open your own business and then your kids work in the business because that’s the only way small businesses flourish until you reach a point where you could make some extra money, and start hiring people.
I want my legacy to be that she changes people’s lives.
F: Do you have any relationship to the neighborhood that Nourish is in, and how important is cultivating a strong community to you?
D: I have many relationships in this community because I have lived in this community since 1994. I was born and raised in New York City, born and raised in Harlem with my parents. We moved from our Harlem brownstone to Queens. I lived all over Queens: I lived in Ravenswood for a little while and then my father got a promotion and my parents bought a house in Cambria Heights, then a house in Laurelton. After that I left to go to college. I lived in D.C. for 16 years until I got married, divorced and wanted to come back home. When I came back home I worked at York College as a director of Public relations there, that job gave me the ability to engage with everybody. Everybody!
For colleges to be worth their salt in a community and really be able to uplift their community like they’re supposed to, they have to have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on. I was always the representative to the community for the college. That allowed me to interact with all of our elected officials and their staff members in a major way, as well as all of the community leaders. York had a community advisory board which was made up of seasoned individuals around the community, not necessarily individuals who graduated from York College, but people that were influential in their particular environment or neighborhood that provided advice to the President of the College. I helped the president run that organization, and that’s what helps me now, because when I call people they know who I am and they’ll do whatever I need them to do because I was helpful to them. That’s why it’s important to be kind no matter where you are in life because you will meet them again, and when you meet them again you’d want them to remember something good about you.
F: What were your other inspirations that led you to create this place?
D: Yes, so I travel an awful lot. I am a global travel enthusiast. In 2016, I didn’t know how long it was supposed to take to do all of this. I guess because I was so gung-ho and I wanted it to happen quick, I wanted it to get done in nine months. It took longer than nine months, so during that time I was crying a lot, and thinking, ‘Oh my God it’s never going to happen, help me oh God!’ One day, I’m walking past the mirror in my house and I swear the Holy Spirit said, ‘You, hey you, stop for a second. I need to talk to you for a second. Do you know you’re free? Do you know there’s nothing holding you, you could do whatever you want? Why you acting like you got to sit someplace? Go away, go somewhere.’ So, I turned into a bird. I just started traveling places I could possibly go. In 2016 my daughter and I went to Dubai, Abu-Dhabi, Singapore, all while this stuff was happening or not happening. Instead of making myself crazy, I just was free. When I did that, when I stopped being mad at the situation, and when I stopped being angry, it seemed like life started being better. I was seeing the world because I love to see the world and stuff was happening, and every time I would come back I would call the contractor and I would say, ‘you need money? You need something?’ I would send him a note, say what needed to be done and off I went again until it was done.
I also love street art, and you’d often see me on Instagram in front of street art. Something told me to put some street art on your gate. So, I called my landlord and I was like, ‘Would you mind if I got the gate painted?’ and he was like, ‘You going to pay for it? I don’t care. It’s your store, do what you want to it.’ He asked if there were gonna be any curse words on there and once I assured him that there wouldn’t. So, I went online, and I started looking for graffiti artists. I found some artwork that I really liked and I reached out to the person. I didn’t know if they were black or white or Puerto Rican, I just knew that I liked their work. So, I reached out to this woman online because all you saw was her artwork, you didn’t see her.
She wrote back, and she was a white woman! Her artwork was to die for! So, I commissioned her to do the Goddess of Nourish and she did pretty good. So, once I found her on there, there wasn’t anything that could unsettle me on that. I pretty much knew that this was going to happen. I knew it was going to be great and It was!
I also wanted to use millennials if I could. So, I said to my daughter and to my son, ‘If you have talented friends that can help me do x, y or z, let me know who they are!’ I’d say I need an architect and my daughter had them, ‘My friend Cecilia is an Architect! Mommy we went to school together!’ So I said, ‘OK! Let’s hire her!’ What she did was take me to different juice bars in Brooklyn and send me to different juice bars to look at their décor as me and my daughter travelled around the world. I have pictures from juice bars all over the world. We looked at those juice bars and I took inspiration from all those places and then, with the vision, and with Cecilia, she helped me source all of the materials.
F: How important is it to always keep a positive mindset?
D: It is very, very important to keep a positive mindset. “Out of the heart the mouth speaks.” So, if you speak positive, then you have to act positive. If you speak negative, then negative happens. So, I try my best. Even though I’m human and we all have moments of frustration, confusion, and challenges, I try to quickly look at the bright side of it. I’m older than 50, so I’m just grateful to be on the other side of 50 and alive. I can tell you I have many friends that have passed away and sometimes I ask God, why am I still here? When I was seventeen I had my first friend die and it’s been consistent my entire life, where my friends have passed away before me. My college friends, my grade school friends—I just had another friend, the other day, I learned passed away, younger than me—so, it’s very important that I keep a positive outlook on life because I want so much out of it. I’m ambitious, and I actually have two kids! I want to set the right role model behavior for them, as well as for these interns that I have in here.
F: Let’s talk about that for a little bit and how it came to be. Can you give the full scope of what started the internship?
D: Opening up a small business, bank loan or not, is challenging. It costs a lot and often times you don’t have any money left for staffing to actually pay somebody for working at your business. So, when my daughter and I were sitting around trying to decide how we can get some staff, she recommended some programs in New York City that we could probably lean on. So, I charged her with finding the programs that we could partner with to maybe get some interns. She was found the program, Childcare Center of New York at August Martin High School. A woman named Cherry-Anne King, is one of the counselors of the program. She found them [the interns], set up a time for us to talk to them, and welcomed us into their programming where they work with small businesses, as well as big brands like Walgreens and some of the other stores to place students from August Martin into internships. The school or the program pays them and the actual small brands, we give them the experience that they need.
I have grown to love them. I see them all as my kids, and I feel responsible for them. Not just responsible for their training in here, but I feel responsible for their lives as well. They see me as a black woman and it changes the propaganda that they’ve heard about black people because many of them are children of immigrants. They may have been born in the United States but they’re children of immigrants, and I know in some immigrant homes the propaganda on black people have their zeal about life and about ambition is not really what it should be, and so I think that I dispel those myths about what a black woman is and what she stands for. I also show them that if they try hard and save their money, they too can have a business.
I teach them about travel. When I came back from Bali, Indonesia, one of my revelations that I had was that black people are to beholden to America. America is large, and if we don’t like it here there’s a lot of places where we can take our shows on the road. One thing that I came home with was I told every single student to consider going to college out of the United States. I think that we need to think broader. I also told them that if they’re not taking language they need to take a language because Americans are the only world citizens that only speak English. If you go outside of the United States, people speak at least two languages, but most speak three or four.
I have more girls than boys so of course I talk to the girls about being a woman, and relationships with men and women. I also talk to them about being all they want to be, like don’t let their parents’ ideas for their life be all they know. Daring themselves to think greatly, and dare themselves to go out and dream big, big dreams, and go after those dreams.
F: How do you balance your work life, and your personal life?
D: Well, before Nourish, I would say I probably didn’t do as good of a job as balancing my work and my personal life, but I always tried my best to put my family first. In my corporate life I was always honest with my recruiters that I had two children and that I was a single mother, and that they meant the world to me. If my children needed something, and my job needed something, the job would lose because my kids always came first. So I needed a job that would be ok with me working remotely, working at home, so that I can be home to go to my kids’ baseball or basketball game or to their track meet, or to their dance recital, I wanted to be the parent that was there. So, I tried my best to balance as best I can—my work responsibilities and my life responsibilities. I just think that people need to decide in their life as to what’s meaningful to them, that’s what’s most important. I think that the world ‘balance’ can be a bit overused, I just think that you need to be present wherever you are: if you’re at work, you need to be fully present there. If you’re going to be someplace for a family event, you need to be there. So now, With Nourish, it doesn’t bother me to be here. When I walk in this door every morning I’m so happy to come in here, so If I need to work here all day long it doesn’t bother me. My daughter and I have worked it out so that we share time.
You do what you have to do in order to make the business run, but I would not (because this is my third act) allow this business to make me unhappy. If I feel that its encroaching on my personal life or I need a day or two away, I will keep that shutter down and go where I need to go because self-care is the best care. You cannot help anybody from an empty glass. So as long as I’m full, I can fill up everybody else.
F: In both your time doing PR and with Nourish, have you ever faced any adversity or any kind? And if you did, how did you handle that and move forward from it?
D: I’ve faced adversity. I mean, I’m in my 50’s so, you know, just being a black girl in America is facing adversity, you know? Just coming outside every day is adversity! How do I manage it? With prayer: I pray about everything, I’d even pray about you, I pray about everything, and I ask God to go before me in everything and everywhere I go. Go before me all in my words, instruct my behavior and instruct my words because I don’t know what to do. When I was working at that financial firm, they would give me jobs to do and I’d be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start! I would go into the bathroom, close the stall, and say, ‘Lord please, show me what to do, tell me what to do first,’ and He would. And I’d get it done. Stellar! I believe that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. There’s nothing on this earth I can’t do. Just got to try. If I run into a brick wall, I gotta have the balls to call somebody and ask because somebody would’ve done it before me! There’s nothing new. So, I have to make myself vulnerable enough to call somebody and say, ‘I’m struggling right now, I don’t know how to do ‘X’. I know how to do A though W and I don’t know what to do. Can you help me out?’ More often than not, if you built the network like I’ve built the network, there’s somebody that’s going to answer the phone and give you exactly what you need. And that’s how I’ve handled adversity.
F: If you can advise any woman who wants to venture out on their own business wise, what would be the biggest piece of advice that you would give them.
D: If I was to offer advice to any woman who wanted to start a business, do your research. Although this idea of the Nourish Spot was a vision from God, I also did my research. I got in my car and I drove up and down Guy R. Brewer Blvd. to see if there was another juice bar, there was none. Then, I went into the Juice bar that was on Merrick by the Police Department—I went in there and saw that they sold cigarettes, I was like I’m not going to be doing that, I’m going to win with that. There’s another one going down towards Sutphin; I checked them out to see what they were doing. You got to do your research, and once you do your research, jump in. Jump in with both feet and don’t give up. Never, ever give up. I don’t care how challenging it seems, I don’t care if you think that it’s not going to work. If God gives you an idea to do something, it’s going to work. You would be tested to see if you really have faith, and to see if you have the perseverance necessary to mark whatever the gold brass ring you’re going for to make it actually come through, but, if you have faith and exhibit “stick-to-it-ness”, it would happen.
F: How do you think you being here is changing the conversation in the terms of healthy eating from black and brown people?
D: Jamaica, Queens for the most part, is a food desert. There is only one grocery store between Jamaica Ave and Linden Blvd. Between Linden Blvd and Rockaway, there are two grocery stores. I’m sure there are more than one million people in that circumference of area. In those stores, they don’t even carry everything that people need. So, a lot of people who live in this community live in single rooms with no access to kitchens and refrigerators. That means that the only thing most of these residents have access to are are the fast food restaurants: the McDonalds, the Wendy’s, the pizza parlors, the Chinese restaurants. There were no salad places. There was not one salad place. There was not one smoothie place, there was not one yogurt place, there was not one vegan place. Those people need options too! I realized that I could be that person, but I can live in the middle. I am not vegan. I like steak every once and a while. I like a piece of chicken every once and a while, but I like balance in my food. I would have a couple of meatless days and I love broccoli, so I would eat broccoli by itself. I just really wanted to, bring a healthy alternative to Jamaica, Queens and I believe that is what the Nourish Spot has done. It has established itself as an alternative food and beverage option that’s healthier for the people of this community.
I would tell you an example. I know a reverend, and every once in a while he would bring people in from the community and will pay for them to have a meal. He brought in a woman, who is an alcoholic, and she ate a fruit salad. From that day, when I see that lady, she is not drunk. And she says to me, ‘I know what you’re trying to do around here,’ I said, ‘what am I trying to do?’ She said, ‘Trying to make us all healthy.’ When she said that, I knew the mission that I was on, was the right one, and that God was going to continue to bless me.