The entrepreneurs behind a stretch of Black-owned shops in downtown Mount Holly

These business owners are staking claim in Mount Holly, the growing city less than 30 minutes from Charlotte.

For most entrepreneurs, the journey begins with seeing a need – then having the courage and resources to pursue that vision.

To see that concept in action, visit Central Avenue in downtown Mount Holly, where a stretch of Black-owned businesses – a meeting space, a gourmet popcorn shop, and a seafood restaurant – are staking their claim in the growing city.

Located about 25 minutes west of Charlotte, Mount Holly is one of Gaston County’s fastest-growing cities. According to the latest census data, about 16,257 people lived there as of July 1, 2019, a 19% increase from 2010. Black residents make up 15.7%, according to census estimates.

A Saturday afternoon visit to one of those Black-owned shops turned into a meet-and-greet with others. Although each business is different, the owners tell stories with a common theme — vision followed by action.

The Venue at Central Avenue

118 E. Central Ave., Mount Holly

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Denean Jackson struggled last fall to find the right venue for her daughter’s baby shower. The pandemic limited the welcome celebration of her twin grandkids to an intimate gathering of 25 people, and the Charlotte venues she found were either too spacious or didn’t have the aesthetics she liked.

She finally found a spot in downtown Concord for the October get-together but thought about others who may also face struggles finding affordable space for small gatherings. 

Jackson and her husband, Terrance, opened The Venue at Central Avenue last month, where they converted a former bookstore into a cozy event space that can seat 40 people.

The couple says they poured about $30,000 into the renovation — mostly spent on knocking down a wall, putting up drywall and replacing the floors — before pulling in Denean’s interior design skills and Terrance’s flooring background. 

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Denean and Terrance Jackson own several businesses, including their latest, The Venue at Central Avenue in downtown Mount Holly. Photo: QCity Metro

[Read more about the Jacksons’ journey as serial entrepreneurs.]

The finished product is a blank canvas “so it can be anything” for guests, she says. They also hooked up WiFi and surround sound to include with reservations.

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The Jacksons converted a bookstore into an intimate event space.

POP-Maize-N

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120 E. Central Ave, Mount Holly

It was uncharted territory for Mount Holly residents Samuel and Dominique Robinson when they established POP-Maize-N in 2016. The idea to sell gourmet popcorn began as a home-based business to provide jobs for their children. 

“We have kids with special needs, and this was a business we thought that 1) can employ them and 2) would be easier for them to do,” said the father of five. 

The opportunity also allowed Dominique a chance to try something new. She had been a stay-at-home mom for 23 years and was looking to fill her days now that the kids were older and moving out.

The Robinsons sold products online for two years before moving into a physical location on Central Avenue. It started slowly as they tried to drum up customers until Kerry Queen, co-owner of Queen Bee Bakery, stopped in to introduce herself. 

The popular bakery was located around the corner on Main Street and had won “Best of Gaston County” for consecutive years. After Queen posted about Pop-Maize-N to her Facebook page, the Robinsons said, “we had lines out the door for two months, at least.” 

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Samuel and Dominique Robinson. Photo: QCity Metro

In 2020, Sam and Dominique expanded their portfolio after another meeting involving Kerry Queen. That summer, Queen approached the couple to gauge their interest in buying her business. Seven years had taken its toll physically, and she was ready to move on. 

The turn-key establishment was a larger operation than Sam and Dominique were used to, but Dominique was excited because she loved to bake. Sam thought what better time to expand into a new business — he wouldn’t return in-office to his day job at TIAA until 2022. 

In November, the couple became the new owners of Queen Bee Bakery.

Dominique oversees most of the day-to-day operations for both businesses, while Sam helps with administrative tasks in addition to his day job. 

She says it’s been a huge learning experience working to keep up with demand and managing 15 employees. The couple overcame another obstacle when Dominique contracted Covid-19 in January and landed in the hospital for a week. Sam carried the weight of running Pop-Maize-N while store employees kept the bakery on track.

“It’s been a challenge, but I love it,” Dominique said, reflecting on the handful of years of entrepreneurship. “I love all the accolades we get from the community. I’m putting everything I have into it.”

Seafood Boil NC

114 E. Central Ave., Mount Holly

At 48 years old, Rex White took a chance on himself after getting laid off from his corporate recruiting job in January 2020. 

He thought about getting another job and holding on to his severance package, but by that time, the coronavirus pandemic was hitting the U.S. and job leads already had started to dry up. 

Seafood Boil NC started as a building where Rex housed the blue crabs he delivered and provided for curbside pickup. 

A friend who owned a seafood market in Wingate — about 30 miles southeast from Charlotte — mentioned the demand for blue crabs and how tough they were to find in Charlotte. White saw an opportunity to fulfill the need if there truly was such a demand.

To test that theory, he posed a question to his Facebook followers asking who’d be interested in getting live blue crabs delivered to their home.

“The post blew up, so I decided to make a website called [now-defunct] livebluecrabdelivery.com,” White said about launching last May. He’d registered the company as Mi Products LLC a month earlier.

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Rex White inside his Seafood Boil NC restaurant in downtown Mount Holly. Photo: QCity Metro

Blue crabs are the state’s most valuable commercial fishery, second only to shrimp, according to an article in National Fisherman.

Customers were ordering in advance, and White used the money to buy more blue crabs while they were in season from his friend who owned the seafood market.  

“It wasn’t something I saw happening this quickly. It’s something that came out of nowhere as an opportunity,” he said.

Meanwhile, White also was building out Seafood Boil NC as a take-out restaurant. He says he wasn’t deterred about starting a restaurant during the pandemic, even though many were fighting to keep their doors open.

The business held steady as he expanded the menu. Along with several types of crab, customers can also order other cooked items like fish, shrimp, mussels, clams and scallops for seafood boils.

For the customers who want to prepare the items themselves, White offers a weekly fresh market that includes live blue crabs (when in season) and a variety of fish and shrimp available for preorders.  

Looking ahead, White says he plans to add outdoor picnic tables to take advantage of the downtown location. Further down the road, he’s eyeing franchising. 

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