Durham business owners sit front row at presidential debate in Nashville

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Zweli and Leonardo Williams

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – At the beginning of the year, Zweli’s in Durham was thriving but that would soon change.

One of the only Zimbabwean restaurants in the country, Zweli’s was a place for owner Zweli Williams to share the food she grew up eating.

A way of visiting Zimbabwe without leaving the country.

When the pandemic hit, the owners said they lost 51 catering orders along with 80 percent of their revenue.

“The first two days it was like ‘Oh my gosh. What are we gonna do?’ We were so nervous,” said Zweli Williams.

A few days with their doors shut turned into months.

“Maybe the third month, we didn’t know how we were gonna make it. It was tough but being innovative, on our part, you’re trying to think out of the box,” Zweli Williams said.

That out of the box thinking led them to come up with a new business model.

“It’s hard to assess how challenging it was because we didn’t have a choice. We made a pivot and it was a necessary pivot,” said Leonardo Williams, co-owner and Zweli Williams’ husband.

Leonardo Williams said all they were trying to do was stay afloat and they’ve been able to.

They focused on increasing their online presence, offered online cooking classes, launched a cooking channel on YouTube, and expanded delivery options through Durham Delivers to include taking food with local neighborhoods and apartment complexes.

Special guests to the vice president

That out-of-the-box thinking gained the attention of Joe Biden’s campaign.

The owners had met the vice president in the past and started paying attention to what vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris was saying.

They felt that for the first time, a campaign saw and understood them.

After setting themselves up as an example about innovation and self-sufficiency, the Biden campaign invited Zweli and Leonardo to be their guests at the presidential debate in Nashville.

“We just got the call. We’re here tonight to learn more about how the Biden (Build Back Better) plan is going to helps us build our country back to normality and beyond,” said Leonardo Williams.

The couple learned Wednesday night asking how fast they could get to Nashville. They rented a car, taking turns driving and sleeping all through the night.

They went to a rapid COVID-19 test when they arrives and tested negative within 18 minutes.

“It’s really big. We’re about to be in the room with the two people who are going to determine how the next four years of our lives and our livelihood and our colleagues and friend and families lives will be,” said Leonardo Williams.

They learned they would sit front-row while on a Zoom call with CBS 17.

Leonardo Williams said they never asked to be recognize. They just wanted to get people out to vote.

“Our story is just one example of survival. (What we did) may be template for someone. We are normal, everyday hardworking folks,” he said.

Building each other up

After finding success in their new business model, the owners teamed up with other businesses to start the Durham Small Business Coalition.

“We started that because we realized we didn’t have federal leadership,” Leonardo Williams said. “We feel it when one of our colleagues lose their dream. So, we couldn’t take it anymore.”

With support from the city, they were able to come up with $3 million to save small businesses in Durham.

The Facebook group for the coalition now has 200 business owners involved. It now serves as an information resource group.

“We’re calling other fellow business owners, asking how they’re doing, how they’re sustaining,” said Leonardo Williams.

He hoped their opportunity to be on a national stage of the presidential debate will start a dialog about what business owners of color can so to be self-sustainable and supported.

“Now, this is showing us that we can build bigger, better things,” Leonardo Williams said. “At first it was depressing, now its encouraging. Like yes, we can do this.”

Zweli Williams said, “We are absolutely hopeful for the future especially with this election coming. We are very, very hopeful for the future and looking forward to the Biden administration.”

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