One couple's small business journey during the pandemic
COVID-19 cost them one business, but Jamila and Akino West used their pandemic pivot to reinvest and reinvent their entrepreneurial ambitions.
The business journey for Jamila and Akino West began in a parking lot of the now-closed Johnson and Wales University in North Miami. Akino made a presentation in class that day and Jamila approached him in the parking lot afterward.
Nine years later that relationship has grown professionally and personally, even as their entrepreneurial journey in South Florida's hospitality industry has been shaped by the global pandemic.
They were hit hard by the restrictions put in place two years ago to slow the spread of COVID-19, forced to pivot their business plans and even got married during the pandemic.
The Copper Door
In the summer of 2018, the couple was in their mid-20s and had recently gotten engaged. They launched a traditional bed and breakfast even though neither a hotel nor opening a business in Overtown were in the original plan.
“A restaurant concept was very much ideal and what we had in mind. It would need a lot less initial capital to get off the ground,” Jamila told WLRN in 2018.
But The Copper Door came together in a way Jamila described as fate: "It was one of those situations where all the stars kind of aligned.”
They partnered with the owner of the old Demetree Hotel to start the small hotel. The building owner shared in the revenue. The Wests couldn’t get any bank loans because they didn’t have a business track record yet.
The building dates back to 1942, during the neighborhood's economic and cultural heyday. Black musicians like Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Nat King Cole would perform in segregated Miami Beach and then stay in Overtown — then known as the "Harlem of the South."
The Wests renovated the hotel's 22 rooms while keeping the original terrazzo inlay spelling out “Demetree Hotel” just outside the front door, which wasn't copper. The Copper Door name was a placeholder that just stuck.
In the global markets, copper is known as Doctor Copper — a metal with a PhD in economics. The nickname comes from the widespread uses of copper in factories, energy and electronics — so when it's in demand, that’s seen as reflecting a strong economy, and when prices go down, it signals a downtrend.
The Copper Door B&B held true to the metal it’s named after. Business was strong since before it officially opened.
About a week before opening day, the Wests and family members were getting ready for their first day of business. They were eating take-out in the lobby and there was a knock on the front door. Jamila remembers it was a man who said he had a reservation.
"He might have been our first actual guest. It was a funny scenario, but it was like, it's working," she said. "This is going to work."
By 2019, the hotel was profitable. Most of the time it was at 100 percent occupancy. The Wests were cooking as many as 50 breakfasts each day in what was a residential kitchen, not a commercial kitchen. "It was a very pivotal point in our business. We were ready and prepared to reinvest in the business," said Jamila.
"It definitely was pretty solid," said Akino.
"We were very close to putting down big deposits on some some major changes to really like bring the copper door to to the next level," added Jamila.
But business came to a halt as the economy all but shut down in the early weeks of the pandemic two years ago.
'Phones didn't stop ringing'
On March 21, 2020, all hotels except for those housing essential personnel were ordered closed. It was a Saturday. Many of the Copper Door's guests were out at sea on a cruise. Others were international travelers facing the uncertainty of how to return home. There was little guidance for how hotel owners should handle the unprecedented move.
They had a little heads up a couple of weeks earlier when music festival Ultra canceled, citing the building pandemic.
"The phone didn't stop ringing. 'Book me next year. Can't believe this is happening. We're so disappointed.' I'm telling you, for like two and a half months, the phones didn't stop ringing and I didn't know what to tell these people," Jamila said.
Some wanted to rebook for a few months in the future. Others asked to postpone for a year. Guests were asking for credit, refunds and discounts. "We were hit with every emotion and still trying to maintain a business," she said.
As the number of guests dwindled, they gauged occupancy by the number of breakfasts they were making. And soon, it was none. "I remember most vividly there was no one coming in and going out. This is it."
That's when Akino said they got some good advice from their lawyer. "She said, 'Hey guys, you make excellent food. Why don't you start selling food," Akino recalled. "I was like, 'I guess so. That sounds like a good idea.'"
These were some of the first meals of what would become Rosie’s.
'Hidden restaurant everyone wanted to try'
When the hospitality industry took a gut punch, the Wests turned to comfort food. Akino started cooking from a trailer outside The Copper Door and serving on a slender patio next to the hotel's lobby. People would line up at noon, on a Sunday, to eat Akino’s hot fried chicken — putting up with the Miami summer humidity.
The pandemic regulations came with such speed it was impossible for businesses to plan for them. The Copper Door had plenty of food. They had stocked up, expecting to start more food service for their B&B guests. Then COVID-19 meant no more guests. "We started just thinking about food. It was super-comfortable for us and a menu that we already had a plan for. So we kind of started with our Rosie's menu," Akino said.
It started small with just a few meals each day. "It was all we could do. We didn't have another choice," said Jamila. There were no more hotel guests. Travel was still very uncertain and the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the virus remained. Two months in, they were hustling through the uncertainty, and questioning why they were doing it.
"It was very, very difficult — super-emotional — because we put all our money into The Copper Door and into Rosie's. It was our personal funding. We didn't go to any bank and ask for money. We took our money out of our account," said Akino.
And then business started to pick up. Word of mouth and social media helped spread word of Akino's fried chicken and waffles and other dishes. "It became this hidden restaurant that everyone wanted to try to find. It became super-successful. That's a story that we can't just make up," Akino said.
As a pop-up at The Copper Door, Rosie’s had been one of those “if you know, you know” kind of spots. And the Wests had decided to dedicate their business energies to the restaurant.
"For the bed and breakfast to be successful we needed that other round of money," Jamila said. "I wasn't interested in going at the rate it was going without this type of funding being necessary."
The Copper Door closed in late August 2021, but not Rosie's. It moved to the first floor of an office building in the Jackson Health District. Rosie's was named after Jamila’s mom, Rosa. The concept was inspired in part by her paternal grandmother, who was originally from South Carolina. “My grandmother raised me to some degree as an infant and child… So my personal relationship with soul food definitely streams from her,” said Jamila.
At Rosie’s, Jamila greeted customers and checked in throughout their meals. Akino was usually in the kitchen. He was the chef behind the soul food menu, which also featured specials that skewed Italian –– like carbonara.
The smell of fried chicken filled the room. Shrimp and grits, cheddar grits with sausage and eggs were on the menu. Waiting for a table on the weekends was not unusual.
The Wests have paused Rosie's for the time being. They’re working on a permanent home in Little River with hopes of expanding the menu beyond breakfast, including cocktails. In the meantime, they’ve started a new restaurant called 7th, focused on what Jamila called "New York-style" comfort food, in its location.