hen you’re homeless, it can be difficult enough to know where your next meal will come from, let alone to consider starting your own business. But with help from MORTAR, a local incubator that helps launch non-traditional entrepreneurs, that’s exactly what JameriSol’s Nyah Higgins did. JameriSol offers a line of Jamaican-American-inspired vegan foods and beverages available at Findlay Market.
“I’ve always had some issues with low-paying jobs,” Higgins says. “They didn’t always afford me the ability to keep a roof over my head, and last year I found myself shelter-less again.”
“I was working a packaging job and I was down at the Drop Inn Center,” she continues. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, if I keep doing this I’m gonna end up right back here again, so what can I do differently?’ I decided I was going to take a chance on myself and use the God-given talents that I have — I’m good with people and I’m good with food.”
Health issues forced the mother of three and grandmother of 10 to reform her diet. “My food is still the same type of stick-to-your-ribs-type food that I like, but I just use better ingredients so it’s not really sticking to your ribs,” she says.
Inspired by her grandmother’s recipes, Higgins focuses on tradition but removes all animal products. She replaces goat and chicken — meats typically used in Jamaican jerk — with tofu, and uses the more nutritious black rice as a base for most of her dishes. Higgins also prepares the traditional Caribbean dish Callaloo, which is made with leaves from the amaranth plant, with local greens.
It was during a conversation with Meggie Kingsley, service coordinator at CityLink, that Higgins found out about MORTAR. “The first day I was at CityLink I was talking to Meggie about food for hours,” Higgins says. “She said that I would be great for this program called MORTAR, and I said, ‘Hook me up with these guys.’ ”
One part of the application asked candidates to upload a business plan. Higgins had no idea how to create one.
“So that’s what I put on my application,” she says. “You know, that’s what I need you guys for.”
About a week later, Derrick Braziel, MORTAR’s field director, called Higgins and said she was exactly the type of person the program was looking for.
“I had to go outside and yell,” Higgins says. “I was really excited and happy about that.”
MORTAR’s entrepreneur program involves a nine-week course based on curriculum first proven and pioneered by LAUNCH Chattanooga, a program that aims to educate new business owners and connect them to community resources.In Higgins’ case, that resource is in the form of SCORE mentor and investor Keith Stradford, global innovation manager for Procter & Gamble. Stradford has been with Higgins throughout the MORTAR program and the launch of her Findlay Market food business.
He also helped her develop a line of healthy fruit juices called “Criss” — a Jamaican patois word meaning “good” — which will be featured at Whole Foods.
Braziel knew immediately that Higgins would be a perfect fit for MORTAR.
“She had a great idea,” Braziel says. “The most important thing for us is a great idea and having a person who will actually execute that great idea. Nyah is a great example of that. If you give someone an opportunity and they already have those qualities you look for in a successful entrepreneur, then they’ll be successful. You just have to give them that chance.”
Higgins’ enthusiasm was a driving factor in her success, Braziel says. She consistently brought in new foods for her team to try out, and even though she was creating vegetarian and vegan goods, she included her takes on classic Cincinnati fare like a vegan coney dog.“It’s hard to be an African-American in Cincinnati,” Braziel says, “and it’s hard to be an African-American and start a business in Cincinnati. I think when you look at a lot of the programs that exist right now, most of them your typical African-American would not feel welcome or feel that that’s not a place for them, where a program like MORTAR, Nyah said she saw three brothers and it felt like a place where she would be welcome.”
Higgins indeed felt the love.
“Cincinnati has been nothing but beautiful to me from the moment that they heard about JameriSol,” she says. “Everything happened for a reason this year. All of it I did not understand at the time — now I do, because if I wouldn’t have been at the place where I’m living now, I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate fully on JameriSol.”
Find JAMERISOL at stall No. 16 at Findlay Market every Saturday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. More info: facebook.com/jamerisol.