Wednesday, June 26, 2019
On North Street in Belhaven Heights, a woman gets out of her car and walks toward a navy blue building with a wide front porch. The building's sign out front has a fox with a pie slice cut of its head, the words "Urban Foxes" and "Small Batch Baking, Coffee & Courtyard" around it.
Just inside and to the left, Urban Foxes owner Cody Cox is taking orders, shouting coffee drinks to a barista behind him. A line quickly forms, stretching from the cafe area to an adjacent sitting area.
After months of work and preparation, Urban Foxes opened May 20, adding another entity to Jackson's growing small- business community.
Cox's goal was to create a local hangout for Jacksonians, and so far, his endeavor seems successful, he says. The business has hosted a few events already, including a community "fun run" with Fondren Fitness, in which participants walked or ran 3.14 miles around Belhaven. Afterward, they ate pie from Urban Foxes.
"We're estimating based on the number (of people) we think got wristbands and all that stuff, we're thinking about 100 people," he says. "That includes also moms with strollers and dads with strollers and people walking and walking their dogs, and all that kind of stuff, too, but there were a lot of people. We've had a lot of support in general."
Cox worked at Cups Espresso Cafe in Fondren from 2009 to 2018. He became the general manager of the business about six years ago.
The whole time he worked there, he had the idea to eventually open a place that would contribute to the diverse culture in Jackson and create a community of sorts.
"In my head, it went through manifestations of, 'Well, it's going to be a concert hall, and ... at the front where you get your tickets, you can get cocktails and pie, or maybe I'll make cobbler. I'll do something interesting with baking or cooking, and that will be the weird thing that sets us apart from every other concert venue,'" he says.
He describes a place like Duling Hall, but there's popcorn or some other kind of food at the front. He thought about doing high-end slow-bar coffee, but that also did not feel right. Ultimately, he settled on Urban Foxes' current form, a business that is neither a coffee shop or a bakery or a restaurant, he says. At its core, Urban Foxes is a community hangout with coffee, baked goods, beer, local events and more.
"Our business isn't like anything else, and that's not like a humble brag," he says. "That's just there isn't really (anything like it)."
This became clear when he and Molly West were trying to file the business with the secretary of state's office.
"They were like, 'I don't understand. So you're a coffee shop,' 'Well, we have coffee,' 'Wait, you're a bakery?' 'Well, we do, but not like (a normal bakery), 'So you're a restaurant.' 'Well, it's just counter service, but we're not doing full plates.' 'But you do have beer.' 'Right.' 'So you need a liquor license.' 'Well, we're not doing liquor.' People just couldn't figure out what category to put us in," he says.
Cox gets his love for baking and cooking from his family. His grandmother, Frances Wynne, owned Fran's Drive-In in Lexington, Miss.
"The whole family basically worked in it," he says.
All through middle school and high school, his mom, Fran Cox, made the pie crusts for the restaurant. Everything her son ate while growing up was sourced from their land or from a friend of the family, he says. Some of the fruit and vegetables they grew would become the dishes at Fran's.
"I grew basically cooking and baking, the family doing that, preserving and pickling and all that stuff," he says
After Wynne passed, Cox's family wrote down all the recipes so they would not forget them, and many of the items at Urban Foxes come from that.
While Cox and West could have chosen a building that was mostly ready, they chose instead to renovate a property in Belhaven Heights. The character of an older building appealed to him.
"If you're willing to put the work in, Jackson's there for you, and the community supports that kind of stuff and that kind of work ethic," Cox says. "I feel like the best way to show that off his to find something that's very Jackson, like an old building or something like that, and basically just try to ... bring life back into it a little bit."
Doing Zoning Right
But their building choice did present a hurdle to overcome: zoning.
The City of Jackson had originally zoned the building for part residential and part commercial.
"(That) would have been great, except for cafe, restaurant, kind of stuff, you have to have a certain size parking lot for your customers," he says.
"If you have 20 people inside your building, you have to have at least that many (parking spots). ... Obviously, there's no parking lot at this building."
Cox and West debated what they would do if they left the zoning how it was, but then City Zoning Administrator Esther Ainsworth and Office of City Planning Deputy Director Jordan Hillman told them they should get it rezoned correctly.
"Just because somebody didn't do it right years ago doesn't mean that we don't want to do it right now," Ainsworth said.
The rezoning process for Urban Foxes took about two months.
It was nerve-wracking, Cox says, but the process went fairly smoothly.
"I feel like a lot of people at the City want ... development to happen, so they're not hindering your development," he says. "They're just trying to do it correctly. Because a lot of things that they've done (in the past were) very handshake, maybe not the right way on paper to do things, so there's a lot of stuff they're having to go back and fix and do correctly."
But once they completed the zoning process, the real-estate agents were ready to finish the paperwork and hand Cox and Molly the keys.
Zoning almost derailed another local business in Ridgeland that now has plans to open a second location in Jackson: Mama Nature's Juice Bar.
T'Keyah Williams started the business in 2016 with her mom, Nora Weston. Williams would sell her juices at local farmers markets and other events, as well as deliver them.
"I definitely saw the need for it in our area," Williams says.
In April 2016, Weston adopted a vegan diet in an effort to prevent the onset of health issues such as hypertension, or high blood pressure. She began sharing the information with Williams, whose daughter, Londyn Stalling, suffered from chronic asthma.
Williams started making juices and smoothies to help with the illness, and then started making them for friends when they got sick. She also began taking a look at her own health.
"I was healthy, but I wasn't the healthiest," she says. " I didn't realize that some of the products I was taking myself weren't as healthy as I thought."
In November 2016, she launched Mama Nature's.
The next June, she and partner Michael McElroy began preparing a space off State Street for a small juice bar as a retail location to sell the products that Williams had developed. They had everything ready for opening, but in fall 2017, they encountered a zoning issue. The space was zoned as a convenience store and restaurant, Williams says, but that kind of business had not been in the space for more than a year, so she had to go back through the zoning process.
"That was just a major delay that I honestly didn't want to face," she says.
They were more than a month into the process when real-estate agents showed her a space in Ridgeland. That spot was ready, she says, and since she already lived in Ridgeland, they decided to go with it.
Building a Healthier Community
Now, though, Mama Nature's is heading back to Jackson.
When Fondren Fitness opens later this summer in Rainbow Natural Grocery Cooperative's old space, Mama Nature's will have a location inside the gym, and will offer juices, smoothies, wraps, salads and more.
Williams says the process with Fondren Fitness has been more seamless because the developers have dealt with much of the red tape.
The two saw bringing their business to Fondren Fitness as a way to build a healthier community in Jackson.
"Mississippi ranks pretty (high) in the majority of negative categories," McElroy says. "We're one of the worst in education (and) obesity."
"We're ranked one of the highest in obesity-related cancers and things like that," Williams says. "... [I]t's honestly due to lack of education of food because down south we kind of eat for comfort versus for health."
They're making it their mission to bring that education into the city and community.
Fondren Fitness General Manager Terry Sullivan echoes this statement. A business like the fitness center is important, he says, because it can help maintain a healthy community.
With the neighborhood's mix of working-class families, young professionals and community from the nearby University of Mississippi Medical Center, a lot of local people are health conscious, Sullivan says.
"By having a neighborhood fitness center right here, easy access, it would help to build a healthier community and just have a good addition to Fondren that we currently don't have."
Sullivan was a personal trainer in Fondren from 2010 to 2015 and has been heavily involved in community events focused on fitness. He started the Fondren Hill Runners group in 2011, and would also do tabatas (eight rounds of ultra-high-intensity exercises in a 20-seconds on, 10-seconds off intervals) and other types of exercise around the neighborhood with his clients and interested participants.
"I was really involved in trying to make Fondren a more active community," he says.
He took a break from the fitness world from 2015 to April 2019, working for Up in Farms food hub and Sunrise Fresh Produce as an operations manager. When the ownership group of Fondren Fitness, which includes architect and co-owner of Fondren-based Wier Boerner Allin Architecture Michael Boerner, contacted Sullivan about helping open the business, he seized the opportunity.
"Fondren and Fondren's health is very important to me, and when this opportunity came up, I jumped on it because it means a lot to me," he says.
Boerner and other members of the ownership group purchased the building that once housed Rainbow around October 2018.
A national chain also was looking at potentially moving into the space.
"It wasn't a chain that would've really fit in with Fondren or the Fondren shopping center," Boerner says.
The developers for Fondren Fitness also wanted something they thought would push Fondren's growth in the right direction.
"Our concern was that a national chain would not necessarily have Fondren's best interest in mind," he says. "That was just a concern. They could've been a great neighbor, but a group of us thought that it was a better idea to put in a fitness center, which the neighborhood was lacking. It's been very well received from the local business owners and neighbors."
Fondren Fitness, which the ownership group projects to open later this summer, will be open 24 hours a day and seven days a week. It will be a full-service fitness center with cardio equipment, resistance, free weights, classes such as yoga, barre and high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, and showers and lockers. The rates will be affordable, Boerner says.
Developers had to face the flooding that ultimately helped lead to Rainbow's demise in that location. The City worked on drainage in the back of the building, Boerner says, and the developers also replaced the roof and installed new downspouts to drain water.
"We haven't had any issues so far, knock on wood," Boerner says. "We've seen some pretty good storms."
Rainbow had been facing the flooding issues for 18 years, but the City had not done much to help, General Manager Patrick Jerome says.
"Of course, right after we moved out, the street was redone, and the problem fixed," he says. "Those new businesses aren't flooding anymore, but it was too late for us."
Fondren received a $2.5-million federal transportation grant in 2011 to fix the sidewalks, add new traffic signals, and also get new landscaping and signage, bicycle racks, sidewalk accents and a new transit shelter. The grant also included changes to Fondren's drainage system.
City Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine said some Fondren businesses have faced problems due to the growth of the area, specifically development that has happened outside city code.
Growth "outside of city code" refers to developments such as state facilities that do not have to abide by the City's building codes.
"The fact that they have had pretty exponential growth with the medical center and other spaces that have added to the stormwater system means that the capacity on that side of town has moved faster than what the infrastructure could support," Blaine says.
"That leads to some of the overburden of the infrastructure, if that's not taken into account as that growth happens," he says.
Businesses Jackson have collected an extra 1-percent sales tax since 2014 that is earmarked for infrastructure improvements. Some of that money has gone to alleviate some of the flooding problems the City has experienced, and part of that is cleaning up issues with the infrastructure, Blaine says.
Officials are also putting emphasis on keeping restaurants and others from putting fats, oils and grease, or FOG, in the sewer system.
"It restricts the throughput of the sewer systems, and on top of that, the off-gases that are caused by FOG deteriorate concrete," he says.
"The concrete pipes that all of our sewer system is composed of is actually compromised by the fats, oils and grease that are collecting inside of those pipes."
The City started the Fats, Oils and Grease Control Program in 2018 and has worked with local restaurateurs to help with the issue, Blaine says.
Rainbow's New Place
In March 2018, Rainbow's board of directors voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to the loss of sales from issues such as flooding and parking. Then, the physical business closed its doors on July 8.
Since then, the board had been searching for a new location. This past May, the business finalized its move into Northpark Mall in Ridgeland.
The board had looked at locations in Jackson, Jerome says, but they could not find a suitable spot.
On why they chose Northpark, he says: "The rent was good, and we didn't have to spend a ton of money to renovate the space to do what we needed to do."
Another reason the business left Jackson is because their new business plan relies on a different clientele than it had at the old location.
While the flooding and parking presented the biggest issues, he says, the customers were not like the people in Fondren.
"Our customers were not young and wealthy," he says. "A lot of them are middle class. They're driving all over the place to get to Rainbow, and they couldn't find a place to park that wasn't filled up. A lot of them left."
With the new location, Rainbow has decided to cut many of the grocery items it carried before and focus on things like bulk goods, including teas, spices, flours and herbs.
"A lot of that stuff that you can't get anywhere else," he says.
They also plan to highlight local and Mississippi-made products, though he cannot say which products just yet.
"I'm drowning in catalogues and stuff I've got to order, and local people who want to talk to me and everything," he says.
"We're going to make sure that our local vendors are as well represented if not better than they were (in the previous location)."
While they want to reopen the mostly vegan High Noon Cafe that used to sit adjacent to Rainbow, Jerome says they don't have a way to do it right now.
Rainbow is aiming to open at the end of July. The business will have a community meeting on June 30 at 1:30 p.m. at Northpark Mall.
"We're going to talk in depth about our business plan and why we moved and the future and what we're going to do and all that," he says.
The Importance of Local
Local business is the way that Jackson will grow, Blaine says.
"... Investing in local businesses and investing in growth at home is the way that we as a city grow out of our own challenges," he says. "It's the way that we recirculate dollars in our own community, and we use that as the infrastructure to build the Jackson of tomorrow."
If we export our dollars, we are taking our resources and giving them to someone else, Blaine says.
"What we want to be able to do is to essentially invest in ourselves," he says. "And that happens when you support businesses that are actually within the city limits."
In an effort to bring more entrepreneurs and local businesses into Jackson, the City has started the BEAT, or Business Entrepreneurs Assistance Team, which takes entrepreneurs through the process of opening their businesses.
"It's almost like a concierge service," he says. "We walk them through the steps, and then once they have their license, we stay in contact with them to try and provide assistance to them as they're growing."
In 2004, Civic Economics published a retail economics study of the Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago. It found that for every $100 someone spent locally, $68 would go directly back into the community. In comparison, $100 spent at chains only generated $43 for the community.
The American Independent Business Alliance says on its website that shopping local helps build community, shapes a neighborhood's character, gives people access to expertise on a product; and creates a healthier environment because smaller businesses take up less land, carry locally made products, and are often closer to residents; generates more tax revenue; and creates more wealth in the community.
For Jerome, it's important to keep that money local. Even with their new location in Ridgeland, just outside the city limits of Jackson, he sees their local business benefiting people throughout the metro area. "Our money stays here," Jerome says. "(Rainbow's) profits at the end of the year are going to our shareholders. They're not going out to somebody who makes billions of dollars a year. ... We're not going to take your money and invest in drilling for oil or some weird political campaign or something like that. We're taking our money, and we're giving it directly to the people that own the co-op, which are regular people."
McElroy, who will now have Mama Nature's locations in both Ridgeland and Jackson, says, "If you want Jackson to be a better city, if you want to see Jackson improve, you should support Jackson intentionally."
"Especially if there are local businesses here (who) are trying to improve the area, trying to uplift it in any way," Williams adds. "The support from customers and anyone that supports the businesses really helps the community because it uplifts the community and it get the people in the communities more involved."