Outbreak Wisconsin chronicles people’s journeys through the coronavirus crisis, exposes failing systems and explores solutions.
Growing up on the northwest side of Milwaukee, Adija Greer-Smith saw plenty of lemonade stands but knew they weren’t for her. She was a baker. So she opened a cookie stand instead in her grandparents’ driveway.
Now 40, and having just opened her bakery business in November 2018, Confectionately Yours, Greer-Smith was prepared for a lot of things to go wrong, but didn’t anticipate a pandemic.
“I have so many different emotions because I’ve poured my life into this business,” she said. “I really didn’t know what would happen.”
While baking has long been a central part of Greer-Smith’s family, the idea to open her own business is relatively new. She was one of the inaugural batch of almost 30 vendors and entrepreneurs to open in the 25,000-square-foot building now known as the Sherman Phoenix. The building, an old BMO Harris Bank building, was fire-damaged in the Sherman Park civil unrest of 2016.
The Phoenix is a space for businesses-of-color providing wellness services, cultural activities, event space and food — including Greer-Smith’s treats. She had seven employees when the Phoenix closed its doors to the public, whom she’s had to temporarily lay off, only two of whom have been able to access unemployment benefits.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” she said, “because I don’t have a way to help them meet their needs because I can’t meet mine.”
Greer-Smith was concerned about how she would pay the business’s rent without making a sale in the past two months. That’s when the owners of the Phoenix stepped in and offered tenants relief on rents.
“I’ve had to call my mortgage company and ask for relief,” she said. “I’ve had to call my bank that my car note is with and ask for relief, but I’m not the only one.”
Her family also celebrated her oldest son Xavier’s 13th birthday on March 15, two days before Gov. Tony Evers closed public schools statewide.
Greer-Smith became a teacher for Xavier and her other son Malik, 10 after their schools closed under the restriction. While her kids adjust to distance learning, she’s learning how to keep them engaged academically.
“It’s still hard … I’m not built to be a school teacher,” she said. “School teachers don’t get paid enough money.”
And while both of her sons’ schools have closed for the academic year, the Sherman Phoenix, home of Confectionately Yours, is planning to re-open by next week, offering its signature turtles known as “Marley Paws,” along with cakes, decorative cookies and brittle.
“I kinda have mixed feelings on the relaunch, mainly because I’m not really confident that everything going on with COVID is really under control,” she said. “And I know ultimately it’s going to affect my staff and how comfortable they are. It’s going to affect, of course, me, and my comfort level being around the general public on a regular basis.”
Last week, before heading into the Phoenix for a day of baking, Greer-Smith put on her mask, gloves, and grabbed her sanitizer to wipe down her work spaces.
“This is not how I planned for my year to go, but what do we do?” she said. “My grandmother always used to say, ‘You want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.’ ”
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The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.