Opportunities to meet forces of nature are rare, we’ve found. These people can take the shape of artist, entrepreneur, volunteer, coach, teacher, activist. You can probably add a handful of other titles. These folks share an ability to bring you into an orbit of humility, compassion, honesty, and generosity.
Reign Free, the heart and soul behind Oakland-based catering company The Red Door, feels like one of those people to us. She’s turned the success that she worked hard for at TRD and looked for ways to raise the fortunes of her community with The Black Culinary Collective.
Reign is the best of us and inspiring in all the most heartfelt ways. We had the opportunity to connect with her while working on the May issue of OAK & About, the monthly email newsletter we produce with our friends from Circa for the Oakland International Airport.
The Black Culinary Collective provides commercial kitchen facilities and services for Black-owned food and beverage companies. Professionals associated with BCC offer a supportive environment to help businesses grow.
When we talked with Reign, she was about to cater a lunch for executives from OAK and Southwest Airlines.
David: Reign, we’d pay the entire bill if you gave them a bag of pretzels and a half cup of juice!
Reign: (laughing) Oh, my God! That would be funny. This lunch is going to be a little snazzier than that! We are giving them the “We Love Oakland Snack Box” that includes products from Peter’s Kettle Corn, Ocho Chocolate, Cupcakin’ Bake Shop, Starter Bakery, and Teas with Meaning. Each of those companies is Oakland-based or minority-owned.
David: I’m sure, like many of us, these past months have not been easy.
Reign: We were about 50 team members pre-COVID. We went all the way down to four. I’m just so happy that we survived. We moved quickly to see what we could do to stay afloat. I received so much support from the community and clients. I call this Phoenix mode because we’re now doing things like virtual catering, a pop-up restaurant, and partnering with organizations like Eat. Learn. Play. and World Central Kitchen.
Reign: We also started a program called Black Culinary Collective. We currently have five members — The Final Sauce, Teas with Meaning, Pound Bizness, Baby Bean Pie, and TRD. They are using our kitchen space, and I’m working with them one-on-one to help them build their business. I received a grant to start this pilot, and we’re seeking funds to help grow the project.
David: Such a brilliant way to support this community.
Reign: It’s important for the people who work in the food and beverage industry to not only know how to cook but to understand the history and the cultural significance of those that came before us. We are doing our part to change the narrative of excellence being categorized as an exception for black makers. The companies that are a part of the collective have established the discipline that allows them to see their vision with clarity and purpose; having a beautiful space that supports learning, collaboration, and service will enable us to continue to scale in ways that will positively affect the next generation. The more we share our gifts & talents within our community, the more our communities will thrive.
David: I think a lot about World Central Kitchen and the work that José Andrés has done over the years. I would close the agency to go work for them.
Reign: Just the other day, I was thinking about how that organization almost single-handedly saved hundreds of small businesses while doing something good. If it wasn’t for them … On March 11th, I went to bed for three days. I was so depressed. I had never laid anyone off. I got a call, and this person asked about my kitchen capacity. I asked what they needed, and I said, ‘We’re on it.’ Just to be part of that community, even if I wasn’t making any money, I was making a difference in someone’s life. We continued to support our local vendors and made good food. I hope one day to meet him and thank him for his vision.
David: How did you get into this business?
Reign: Well, this is year 16 for us. I didn’t start this business with the idea of opening a catering company. I started cooking because it was healing. I was going through a troubling time, and cooking has always been my outlet. I helped a friend at a spa with some catering, and one of the guests said, ‘Oh, this is fabulous. Do you cater?’ My dad would always say, ‘Fake it until you make it.’ So, I met her at her office the following Monday and walked out of there with a contract for 600 people. I had no experience, just my passion for food. I nailed that event, and that was the start of The Red Door.
David: Fantastic. So, you have a story about our current Vice President that sounds kinda crazy.
Reign: Right. I received a call from an organization that helped me when I was just starting, and I’ll do anything to help them. They said, ‘We have a high profile guest who wants to speak with local business about CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institutions).’ They told me someone would call to do a site visit. One night I was pulling into my garage at 7:45, and my phone rang. The person, who hadn’t told me where they were from yet, said that they had just landed and if they could come over for a visit. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll see you in 15 minutes.’
David: Reign, this sounds fishy!
Reign: I know. I got to the office, and ten people piled out of the cars. They were looking around and asking questions. I had a space cadet moment and didn’t even ask where they were from (laughs). They called the next day and asked me some questions. I was like, ‘Who is this person?’ Then they told me they were from the Office of the Vice President. It was like crickets on my end. I was speechless. (laughs) I was flying back to Ohio for Easter with my family, and I got the call that Madame Vice President would be there on Monday! I dropped my son off on Friday and flew back right away! I got the team together and told them we had to…
Reign: (laughs) We had to clean like nobody’s business! That Monday, I came into work, and the street was closed down. When she arrived she asked about helping small businesses. We had a private conversation and I felt heard. I can already see some things happening after that meeting. It was incredible. Between that meeting and catering for President Obama, I’m pretty sure I could die right now and be cool. (laughs)
The conversation with Reign went on another 25 minutes or so. It was fulfilling in ways that are still resonating and inspiring us as an agency to do more where we can …
To that end, if you are a business that just wants to ask some questions, give us a call or drop us a line. Let’s talk.