Behind the Red Door

Reign Free’s Black Culinary Collective emerges as the avant-garde in catering and cuisine

On her way to school, Reign Free used to walk by a lovely house with a red front door. Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she wondered who lived inside. Every time she passed by, she imagined “great parties” held there by a “cool family.” Free told herself, “One day, I’m going to have a red door.” The image has nothing to do with food, she says. It’s just a little girl’s dream.

Free, now the chef and owner of Red Door Catering, has fulfilled that dream for herself and, with the backing of the Oakland Black Business Fund (OBBF), is in a position to help other entrepreneurs launch their own food businesses. Although the “phoenix rising from the ashes” metaphor is overused, it is applicable in this case. During last year’s protests, the Red Door’s catering van was vandalized.

Free reached out to OBBF, which, at that time, offered support to businesses affected by the protests. “I submitted an application to repaint and rewrap our van,” she says. After the van was repaired, Damon Johnson, OBBF’s director of community relations, expanded the conversation from a check-in to see if they could find a way to collaborate in the future.

The conversations that followed led to the formation of the Black Culinary Collective (BCC). Led by Free, with the initial round of participants funded by an OBBF grant, the BCC is in the process of bringing 10 Black-owned food and beverage businesses together under one roof at the Red Door’s production facility. Free, who started Red Door Catering in 2006, isn’t new to playing the role of a mentor.

Some of the people participating had reached out to her in the past, to ask for practical advice or inspiration. But Free came to the conclusion that if a fledgling company was part of a more formal program, their business would have a better chance of establishing itself. “A couple of them are in their early stages, while others just need different areas of support,” she says.

Right now the collective includes four companies with clear proofs of concept and visions for growth—Baby Bean Pie, the Final Sauce, Pound Bizness and Teas with Meaning. Free adds that the collective’s intention is to feature a great product as well as to bring awareness of that product to the customer. Bean pies, for example, have a nutritional value and history that many customers will likely be unaware of.

There isn’t a set date, but at some point this summer the Black Culinary Collective will hold an open house. Free says that the front part of their production space will become a marketplace. They’ll display the 10 companies’ products and samples, with catering by Red Door, alongside other local, Black-owned businesses that aren’t yet a part of BCC.

Part of the open house will also feature the participants speaking to the guests about their backgrounds and products. Additionally, Free says, there’s a service component to being part of the BCC. They’ve partnered with City Slicker Farms, a West Oakland nonprofit whose mission is to “increase wellness and build community through equitable access to healthy food, thriving gardens, and urban green space.” As a group, the BCC will clean up a park in order to transform it into a children’s farm garden for the Prescott School’s elementary students. “Twice a month, all of the participants will go to the park in support of that program,” she says.

After the open house, the Black Culinary Collective plans to build out the front area of the building so that the products will be readily available for purchase. West Oakland, Free points out, is still a food desert, so there will also be fresh produce for sale. She feels it will be a great opportunity for their neighbors to have some “good, local options” nearby. Instead of standing outside the red door from her childhood, Free’s one of the cool people opening her own door, to welcome the community in for a great party.

The Black Culinary Collective (at the Red Door), 2925 Adeline St., Oakland. 510.459.6212. blackculinarycollective.com

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