Nia Grace used to drive past the new LightView building on Northeastern University’s campus every day on her way to Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, the famed Roxbury restaurant she took ownership of in 2018. But she never imagined she might occupy it herself.
“I can’t compete with a Tatte or a Panera,” she thought whenever she let herself contemplate expanding into the space.
But this month, thanks to a new initiative launched by the university and the building’s developer, American Campus Communities, she’s doing just that. Grace’s new restaurant, The Underground Cafe + Lounge had its official opening Monday. It’s a cafe and event space in the ground floor of the luxury dorm, catering to both students and the surrounding Roxbury community.
The restaurant came together through ACC’s new Neighborhood Business Nurturing Program, an effort that promises to help bolster local businesses, especially those owned by women and people of color. Northeastern administrators say it’s a recognition that the university needs to use its deep pockets to support neighboring communities. And it’s one of several similar small business initiatives being rolled out at the region’s universities this fall with diversity and inclusion in mind.
The $153 million LightView dorm — among the first in a wave of privately financed student housing projects in Boston — had been a flashpoint in Roxbury for years. With 825 beds that start at around $1,300 a month, many neighbors worried that it would bump up rents and result in displacement. The university counters that creating more dorms lessens demand for existing housing in Roxbury. Either way, the first floor retail would inevitably become the face of the building to the surrounding community.
Finding the right “dance partner” that would work both for students and for Roxbury was tantamount, said John Tobin, the university’s vice president of city and community engagement, especially after last summer’s racial reckoning prompted by the death of George Floyd and a push for local institutions to support communities of color by diversifying the people they do business with.
“Everybody in light of the events of last year individually did a self-reckoning, especially institutions like Northeastern,” said Tobin. “Sometimes you say, ‘How can we do better here, and how are we truly helping our neighbors and working with our neighbors?’”
Grace — who along with owning Darryl’s also cofounded the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition — was an inspired choice, Tobin said; everyone at Northeastern knows her food. But it was Grace who helped shape the partnership, which eventually led to the creation of ACC’s small business program, which is being piloted in Boston.
That’s because when Northeastern first approached Grace, they proposed a pop-up restaurant, one where she’s prepare her food down the street and serve it on-site in the dorm.
“It was like OK, we run a full-service restaurant, and what you’re asking us to do is not realistic, especially if you’re asking us for seven days a week,” Grace said. She pushed the university to invest in her, and then do the same for other women and BIPOC business owners.
Ultimately Northeastern and ACC agreed, connecting Grace with developers and designers to build out a permanent space. Working with Grace led ACC to create its new small business initiative, said Rae Pearson, a regional manager for the developer. She said they intend to use a similar model to slot other local small business owners into a second dorm project they have planned at Northeastern.
“We assembled a team of resources: planning, project management, marketing, and mentors, you name it,” Pearson said. “The conversations we were having directly with Nia led us to this epiphany that we needed to do more to help small businesses to help support generational wealth and spending” in the neighborhoods they build in.
The company designed a lease that allows Grace to operate with free rent at the outset, and then will ramp up as her business gains footing. Jessicah Pierre, communications director for Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, said it’s the type of support that institutions like Northeastern should be doing.
“These universities have a responsibility to invest in our communities economically and culturally, too,” she said. “Especially for students of color who are looking to stay connected to people who look like them.”
Now, they’ll be able to snag Grace’s cajun tomato flatbreads, red velvet waffles, and seafood gumbo for breakfast and lunch. The venue will host events in the space throughout the week, and its walls will serve as a rotating exhibition space for teen-art nonprofit Artists for Humanity.
Grace said she’s delighted to serve both her community and the university.
“I watched the neighborhood drastically change without being able to ask the powers that be the true agenda or reasoning,” she said. With Northeastern’s outreach, “I designed my first restaurant in this project. We went from pop-up to true new brick and mortar.”
And other local universities are launching similar programs.
Across the river in Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology is taking a similar approach in its new Launchpad dining hall in the Stratton Student Center. Through a partnership with food incubator CommonWealth Kitchen, the university is now hosting three immigrant-owned food businesses: Bibim Box, Las Palmas, and Carolicious. Together MIT and CommonWealth worked with student representatives to pick the kinds of food they wanted. MIT is renting the dining hall space to CommonWealth, which then subleases to restaurants, with rents tied to their gross revenue.
The university said the move stems from the July 2020 announcement by President Rafael Reif that MIT would work with more minority-owned businesses as part of its effort to fight systemic racism on campus. The school plans to host as many as seven businesses through the partnership as it grows.
Jen Faigel, the executive director of CommonWealth Kitchen, said having a turnkey operation on a college campus is an incredible opportunity for the small business owners she works with.
“Basically, they walk in with their pots and pans and the space is fit out and there’s a built-in customer base,” she said. “There’s an enormous opportunity for these business to build a strong business and team and operational capacity to launch them to the next level.”
Faigel has put an emphasis on tapping into institutional funding as a way to help support small businesses, and has worked with Harvard, University of Massachusetts, Boston College, and other local schools to put mole and peanut sauces made by her immigrant chefs into their menus. She said she’s now working with Sodexo to do the same for the Colleges of the Fenway, and anticipates a rollout of the incubator’s products on menus and campus convenience stories early next year.
Faigel said the confluence of COVID-19 upending campus dining contracts, the struggle to hire workers, and the reckoning with structural racism have all led universities to ask how they can do better, and she’s glad that as an established nonprofit she’s been able to step in and help.
“We see this as being a really powerful model for economic development on the recovery side to support these businesses,” Faigel said.
For Grace, opening The Underground with Northeastern as a partner is significant, she said, in that it’s a model for how other schools can better support the communities they’re in.
“If I didn’t drive by this space, I would have never know about it,” she said. “We were never on each other’s agenda.”
Now she’s looking forward to building a restaurant that brings both worlds — students, and the city around them — together.
“This is one of those places that truly bridge that gap.”