The Never-Ending Struggle to Sustain a Small Business

Delissa Reynolds, an actress, ran a popular local bar for years, until the neighborhood changed.

A photo illustration of a beer glass and cocktail mixer
Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article is part of Exit Interview, a series of conversations about leaving one’s career.

Like many theater rats, the actress Delissa Reynolds had juggled auditions with an on-and-off office job, “daylighting” as a temp at Citibank. She had some success as an actor, even landing two roles on Law and Order. But by 2002, Reynolds faced a reckoning in a field notoriously challenging for anyone who dares to age, particularly women. “I was 40, and did not want to be a 50-year-old temp,” she said.

9/11, still fresh in New Yorkers’ minds, had already led her to question how she could be more involved in her community. “So, while I figured out what’s next, I supported the firefighters because they had lost quite a few of their guys,” she said. “Once a week, I’d host a dinner. It was just beans and rice and boxed wine. And I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have something like these gatherings, but in a bigger space?’” That idea became Bar Sepia, one of a few small businesses that helped build a vibrant block in a then-rough part of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn—before a wave of development gentrified the neighborhood, and a new landlord decided to sell the building where her business was located. Earlier this year, her bar closed.

As an African American woman, Reynolds was at the forefront of one of the fastest-growing groups of entrepreneurs in America—but her experience also showed her how banks, funders, and developers need to repeatedly invest to ensure those entrepreneurs’ businesses survive. I spoke with Reynolds for The Atlantic’s series Exit Interview to learn about what it feels like pour yourself into a business and run it with integrity. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Catie Lazarus: Walk me through how you opened the bar. How’d you make the transition and get banks to underwrite you?

Delissa Reynolds: My boss at Citibank helped. I got a lot of support in how I presented my proposal and business plan. I’m so grateful to everyone who supported me.

It took time. I did a lot of homework to support the idea that a neighborhood meeting place would be of value when I put together my business plan. I knew the median income, how many kids went to public school, and how many families owned their homes—and [this area has] one of the highest rates of minority private-home ownership in New York. So, I went to a couple banks and I got turned down.

Eventually, I bought an apartment down the block, turned that around to use as collateral to get a loan, went to a community bank, and they gave me an SBA [Small Business Administration] loan to open the bar.

Lazarus: How many people did you employ?

Reynolds: Anywhere from six to 12 people. We struggled every day to make sure our bills were paid on time and cover our staff. You make do; you just don’t pay yourself.

Lazarus: Ironically, your bar, plus affordable rents and access to the subway, was pivotal in making this location enticing to developers, buyers, and renters, many of whom may not have known or cared what the neighborhood was like 20 years ago.

Reynolds: When I first moved here, people wouldn’t visit. I couldn’t order a pizza or any deliveries on certain streets because the delivery people got robbed.

Lazarus: But your bar kept drawing a diverse crowd even while the neighborhood gentrified.

Reynolds: People don’t realize how diverse this neighborhood really was culturally, socially, economically—artists, actors, Caribbean and African American, white. Our client base was that cross-section, and it’s shifted a lot, but, for the most part, it’s always been a 23-to-91 age range, and everything in between.

When I’d started to notice the shift in demographics, I didn’t want to sit on the sideline and be marginalized. I didn’t want to be excluded from this neighborhood’s evolution.

My neighbors and I turned around a pretty desolate block, in what was considered one of the worst neighborhoods in the nation, and created a point of reference for others to come. It’s now a prime location. Why shouldn’t I benefit from it? Why should somebody else? So, it’s a question of ownership and who deserves ownership.

Reynolds near the old location of Bar Sepia, in Brooklyn (Courtesy of Delissa Reynolds)

Lazarus: Your bar was more of a local favorite than a bougie or hipster joint, but it also wasn't a dive bar. Did your bar shutter because you couldn’t compete with the onslaught of upscale new bars or due to other financial issues?

Reynolds: No. We had a good year. I couldn’t get a mortgage [preapproved] in time [to buy the building, and by then it was under contract with someone else].

Lazarus: Why do you think it was so challenging to secure a mortgage?

Reynolds: It was baffling. My credit is excellent. My husband’s credit is excellent. I own two properties—my apartment down the block and a place upstate.

Lazarus: Are there other factors which might have made securing financing challenging?

Reynolds: You do the math. Put two and two together—and look at my face. It took two years to get the money. It wasn’t until right after we were closing that I finally got [preapproved for] a mortgage. Now the building is in contract with somebody else. So, everything I’ve worked for this for a decade and a half is now nonexistent.

Lazarus: I imagine it’s raw. Would you share what it’s like for you?

Reynolds: It’s surreal. It feels terrible. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to have formed relationships that I will have for the rest of my life. I have grown as a human being and as a business owner. I am grateful for the gifts you can’t name.

Lazarus: How will you and your husband survive now?

Reynolds: We’re prudent. We don’t go on vacation. I don’t go out to eat a lot because I’m a really good cook. My average day running the bar was 14 hours. I’m up by 5:30 every morning, and in this office until eight or nine at night, and that’s if I’m not in the bar until 2 or 3 a.m., or whatever.

Lazarus: Are there things you won’t miss?

Reynolds: Yeah—everything breaking down on a Friday night. I won’t miss trying to explain to someone that they’ve had enough, and I just want them to get home safely. I won’t miss the stress you experience being responsible for your employees’ lives. You are the bread-and-butter account that feeds your employees.

Lazarus: What will you miss?

Reynolds: Everything—even the bad. It’ll take me a while to walk down the block. I’m resilient, but it's a loss, not only for my livelihood, it’s a loss for the neighborhood’s community.

Lazarus: When your bar was about to close, customers started a GoFundMe page, a #SaveBarSepia campaign, and a rally. Can you talk about the ethos behind that sort of customer loyalty?

Reynolds: You have to fight for your financial and moral integrity, in how you run a business and how you treat people and, every day, getting up, you fight for it. I am navigating the bar’s closing with the same integrity and grace with which I opened and maintained it.

And it also depends on what your idea of success is. We were incredibly successful in creating a place where everyone felt immediately welcomed. We were not a dive bar. We were a neighborhood bar. I was successful in having my day-to-day work also parallel my values.

Lazarus: You live a block away from where you worked, so it’s harder to walk away.

Reynolds: I’m processing it every single day. Your heart breaks, so you have to remind yourself that you did good. I’m allowing myself to feel every single emotion. You can’t give so much to something and then all of a sudden that's gone. I’m human. I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. I’m motivated. I’m hopeful, excited for what comes. That’s just part of my DNA.