This KC Entrepreneur Couple Started and Grew a Food Business during a Downturn
Sometimes entrepreneurial inspiration is right under your nose. For Tameisha Martin, it was in every bite of the food her mother and her late grandmother made with love.
The family had long had a dream of starting a food business, but Tameisha and her husband, Cameron, made it happen. Stepping out of their comfort zones, working with Kansas City Resource Partners and being intentional about every move empowered them to create Love is Key Food and Dessert Innovation. Here’s how they did it.
Entrepreneurship as the way to break the cycle of poverty
Tameisha grew up surrounded by the love and nourishment of good food.
“This all started with my grandmother and my mother,” she says. “This is their gift: Cooking and serving people is a gift from God. They always wanted to have a restaurant, but they cooked at church, at funerals, at family events, because they loved it. But they didn’t understand business, and we didn’t have the best knowledge of financial stability, so it didn’t come to life.”
The food business remained a dream deferred until Tameisha and Cameron came to a fork in the road.
“We were tired of dreams going to the grave,” she says. “We decided we were going to do this. So we researched and dug into the business side of it.”
The couple worked with mentors who challenged them to get their personal finances in order. With the goal of self-funding a restaurant, Tameisha and Cameron cut expenses like fast food and cable packages. Manicures were out; paying off debt was in.
“We decided that entrepreneurship was the way to break the cycle of poverty for our family: We wanted a different legacy,” Tameisha says. “We believe in the American dream and know entrepreneurship is the way to end poverty. It doesn’t make sense to keep taking out more loans. Plus, a restaurant is too risky – a lot of banks won’t loan to you. So for us, self-funding was the only option.”
Small savings like reducing the phone bill soon paid off big.
“We had $10,000 plus what was in our savings, so we could buy everything we needed to launch,” Tameisha says. In 2018, the Martins started Love is Key. The home-based catering company was built on recipes from Tameisha’s mother.
Turning a side hustle into a full-time job – and more
“It was more of a gig than a full business,” Tameisha says. “We were doing events here and there, and a few free events. I’m a social worker by trade, so we did things like host a free child abuse prevention brunch – food events with an educational component.”
One event was featured in the news, and suddenly, Tameisha’s phone started ringing. Her side gig turned into a full-fledged company, and she quit her full-time job.
Like many entrepreneurs who start at home and find success, the Martins looked to expand to a brick-and-mortar model. But instead of searching for the location of their dreams, they looked for a location that would fit their self-funded budget.
“We got connected with the 30th and Troost revitalization zone, near Ruby Jean’s Juicery,” Tameisha says. The former owner gave them an opportunity, so Love is Key hosted a pop-up concept for just under a year. This visibility led to new relationships with nonprofit and corporate clients. Then, the restaurant moved across the street to the Wonder Building.
“We hit a snag,” Tameisha says. “We couldn’t build out the kitchen, so we went with plan C: a mobile kitchen that sits in front of the Wonder Building. People can still walk inside the space. It’s a cool concept.”
By rolling with the changes and sticking to their budget, the Martins have made the family dream a reality. Chicken and waffles are flying out the door, and they’ve hired employees. But there’s still so much happening behind the scenes.
Kansas City resource partners help these business owners plan for a bright future
Tameisha and Cameron continue to look ahead.
“Right now, we’re in a growth phase,” she says.
Love is Key did a pop-up with the University of Missouri - Kansas City and is exploring a more permanent relationship. The Martins are also looking to partner with other hospitality businesses. And they want to launch a nonprofit that hosts conferences promoting marriage and families.
All of these things feel possible because of ongoing and new support from family, friend and resource partners.
“We’ve been blessed because we were selected for the Porter House KC video pitch contest,” Tameisha says. “We won $15,000. In November, we won a GIFT grant of $25,000. The owner of the Wonder Building believes in us and our concept, and he’s helped us by reducing some of the cost. When you work hard, things align.”
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That hard work included getting involved with the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and taking advantage of coaching, networking and grant opportunities. A recent Urban League grant purchased Love is Key a new commercial mixer and much-needed refrigeration. The Martins also attended a JUMP class at GIFT. That session focused on how to create an effective pitch. But Tameisha and Cameron also did their homework.
“We watched ‘Shark Tank’ to learn how to pitch!” she says.
The Heartland Black Chamber of Commerce has also been a valuable resource.
“I’m a part of the chamber and they put on a lot of events, networking, meeting other business owners,” Tameisha says. “They have a series at UMB downtown, and each time, they talk about a different industry. When they focused on restaurants, I was able to connect with a lot of people who’d already launched.”
Finding the people who not only share information but actively help your business thrive has been a game changer.
“There are so many resources out here, people who are wanting to help entrepreneurs succeed,” Tameisha says. “If you want, you can make it happen without taking out that traditional $100,000 bank loan. There are so many resources to help startups and help them grow. The Urban League and the Heartland Black Chamber put on events that talk about credit and what you need to improve those financial relationships. They’re tackling it from both sides – funding, connections, the whole nine.”
Business ownership as a tool in building community
Love is Key is part of a larger calling for Tameisha and Cameron.
“We named it Love is Key because we wanted to be true to our values and faith, and we truly believe love is key to irradicate any problem,” she says. “We want to show love to our community, showing love in serving food and giving back. We are more than a restaurant – we are serving our community.”
Following this calling hasn’t been without its bumps along the way. Tameisha takes her lessons learned and offers concrete advice to other entrepreneurs.
“I had to learn the hard way that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” she says. “You need to connect. Fortunately, the right organizations truly want you to win. Secondly, for me, I wanted to pray to make sure I was in alignment with what God wanted me to do. Third, you have to look in the mirror. You have to get your personal finances in order and get your personal life organized. You can’t be a successful business owner when your life is a disaster.”
Finally, the Martins focus on the driving force behind everything they do – whether it’s a holiday toy drive, collecting personal hygiene items or feeding the community.
“Be joyful, love what you’re doing and have fun,” Tameisha says. “There are all kinds of barriers, but you can’t let it discourage you. We want to be kingdom builders and help people raise themselves up. There’s nothing special about Cameron and me. But we work hard and want to improve more than we could working a 9-to-5 job. We want to fulfill our destiny and break the chains of poverty and despair.”
Build your business the right way
The organizations that can help you determine your business goals and reach them are all in one place. KCSourceLink’s Resource Navigator lists more than 230 Kansas City-area groups that offer free or low-cost guidance to entrepreneurs. And the KCSourceLink Calendar is the definitive listing of hundreds of classes and networking events for local business owners.
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