Name: Michelle Berry
Business: Shelley Delight/ Shelley Cares Foundation
Industry: Food service/ food pantry
Tanya: Where do we even start? I mean, you have like 4 companies. (Although I’m one to talk)
you have the catering arm, you have the restaurant and you have the charity.
Michelle: We focus on the restaurant and the charity. The catering requires a whole different set of work and well… pandemic
Tanya: Right. How has it been opening a restaurant during the pandemic?
Michelle: I was talking to a friend (restaurant owner, Chef Kareema) and said I know what it is to try to just get your business going, and you still have that overhead at the end of the day, that could run a restaurant owner $15,000 a month, that you still have to cover before you start, paying everybody.
Tanya: I’m sorry, did you say $15,000? Like one five zero zero zero? Per month?
Michelle: Yep. There’s rent, equipment, insurance, food and payroll. $5,000 a month will just cover the basics. If you’re lucky. But I’m not stressing.
Tanya: Whew. We’ll definitely get back to that. So, what was your path to entrepreneurship?
Michelle: Well, my journey to entrepreneurship is that, “Hey girl, you like nice things, you want to travel, you want to be able to make your own hours, you want to spend time with your family? Well, and you don’t like people really telling you what to do.”
Tanya: (laughs out loud) THIS IS REAL TALK!!!
Michelle: I had done the corporate event and catering thing for so many years. I built other organizations, and then I got really, really ill. I had to ask myself if I wanted to continue to build other organizations, or try my hand at making a living on my own terms. I didn’t want to go back to it, so I just didn’t.
And that was one of the toughest decisions for me: giving up that luxury paycheck every two weeks, benefits and knowing that there’s a guaranteed income coming. Those first two to three years, I cried. I had so many days that I cried, I was like, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know how my bills are being paid, what am I supposed to do?” It was tough, but I don’t regret making that decision because I ended up saving my life physically and mentally. It was just, “Okay, I don’t have this burden of trying to please this organization and meet numbers and doing that.” Anything I did I was making my own hours, still spending time with my kids. I had a newborn, an older kid, and then I had a nephew I was raising at the same time. So, it was like, “Damn, can you just give me a break or something? I just need a little five-minutes…”. That break didn’t come until 2020.
Tanya: Hey universe, can I get a break? Sure, I’ll put the whole world on pause. So, 2020 is your fault is what you’re saying. All right.
Michelle: At the end of the day, it’s like, is this going to make me happy, is this going to stress me? I go into things now like, “If you’re going to stress me, I don’t want it.” I can’t do it. I’ve literally been working since I was like nine, 10 years old. I’ve been doing catering because living with your grandparents, who had a baker shop, and then on weekends, we’re going to the market to sell. Years later, when people ask if I’m cooking, I tell them the plan is for someone else to do the cooking. I just want to pop in on a Saturday to make sure it’s up to my standards.
Tanya: Work smarter, not harder. Plus, do you think all these high-profile chefs they’re in the kitchen every day? No. Bobby Flay, he’s too busy on Food Network to be actually in his restaurants. Bobby Flay is not cooking.
Michelle: Exactly. I also want to train the future of Black women chefs. My restaurant is a space where they can showcase their talent.
Tanya: I love that. It’s funny how cooking is a woman’s thing until it comes to the restaurants. You’ve been telling us our whole life that this is a feminine thing, this is a female thing, but all the lead chefs, all the top chefs are always men. Please make it make sense. So, what would you say is your boldest business move to date? Is it just leaving the corporate side to launch Shelley Catering or is it the restaurant?
Michelle: The boldest move to date is moving my foundation from my house into an actual office space. Because I didn’t realize how much it had grown since then. When I got that office space, I was just like, “Okay, you’re here now. I told you, your little small dreams are not going to work anymore.”
I also consciously made a change in the pantry, not to accept canned stuff, which has been challenging at times, because that’s the typical thing people like to donate, but that’s not typically what people like to eat. If there’s something you want to donate, I tell people, “Come into our pantry, let’s have a chat, let’s see why you want to donate. If you’re going to give us the expired stuff you don’t want, we will reject it. People aren’t used to that, and think our standards are too high. I tell them: yes, they are.
Tanya: It is insane that people think those dealing with food insecurity don’t deserve healthy, fresh foods. What was the biggest financial turning point for your business, your “I made it” moment?
Michelle: When I got my first grant for 50k, and I’m like, “Girl what?”. I was accustomed to the $5K and the $10K, the little $1,000 here and there. So, to be seen and validated for the work I was doing, was amazing. The money is nice, but sometimes I question why they are donating to me, is it to make themselves look good? But I have to slap myself out of that because I’ve been putting in the work, often a solo mission. And with a growing amount of people to feed – that $50K doesn’t last very long.
Tanya: What do you wish people would know about being a Black entrepreneur?
Michelle: Being a Black female entrepreneur, it’s fun, it’s powerful, it’s amazing, because we start trends that others take and profit off from. But we never run out of creative ideas, so we keep coming with more. I want to build my Black women first and foremost. I’m a Black woman, I’m raising two Black queens. So, my whole thing is to build them up for the next generation. So, what do you mean I want to have Black women chefs in my restaurant? Who’s going to stop me? You? I don’t think so.
People have told me that I am aggressive and other types of racist and sexist microaggressions, but those exact same qualities are celebrated in men. He’d be a go-getter who knows what he wants. Well, so do I. Unapologetically so.
Tanya: All right, last question and then I’ll let you go, how do you find balance between your personal and your professional?
Michelle: Personal, what is that? That exist? Personal. All jokes aside, I had to make a very conscious decision to book time off in my calendar. Because from January 2021 to last week, I was working every single day. Between the restaurant, the nonprofit, trying to get grants, doing the groceries, making sure that things are okay for the volunteers when they come in to pack. Every single day. And then I got to the point where I was like, “I’m going to burn out if I keep doing this the way I’m doing it.” I had set me-time aside in my calendar, so I booked it off. I’ve had people call, it’s like, “Oh, you’re not open today?” “No, I’m in my bed sleeping, or I’m watching reality TV.”
It’s hard, because I feel as if I need to be doing more. And then I keep saying to myself, “No, you don’t, you’re doing enough. And if you continue down this path, you’re going to end up back where you were 10 years ago, when you ended up in the hospital.” I’m not trying to do that at all. So that balance is asking for help. That word, “help”, for some reason, it makes me feel as well: “then why did you start this if you’re just going to be asking people for help? I thought you could do everything”. And that imposter syndrome keeps trying to make her way in. But asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of growth.
Tanya: Amen. That’s quotable right there. Thank you. For all that you do and are!
Where to find Michelle
Bold & Black is a monthly interview series conducted by entrepreneur and Canada’s Top 25 Women of Influence Honouree Tanya Hayles. Tanya is the founder of Black Moms Connection, an online global village of almost 20,000 and a non-profit providing programs and financial tools through grant programs generously supported by BMO.