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Woman opening cafe says she wants to 'inspire people who look like me'

Vanessa Braxton, owner of Black Momma Tea &

Vanessa Braxton, owner of Black Momma Tea & Cafe, stands outside her future flagship location in Wheatley Heights. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

When a community’s downtown consists of a single strip mall, having a business brand come in and take over three storefronts in that shopping plaza will cause a bit of a buzz.

And that’s what’s happening in the hamlet of Wheatley Heights where Vanessa Braxton, owner of Black Momma Tea & Cafe, is awaiting permission from Babylon Town to open a more than 4,600-square-foot cafe, bar and office on Colonial Springs Road.

“What she’s bringing is a different flavor into the downtown and it’s upscale,” said Chris Black, president of the Concerned Taxpayers of Wheatley Heights/Dix Hills civic association. “This is what we want in the community.”

Braxton, 50, of Dix Hills, began making Black Momma vodkas in 2013, and in 2016 opened a manufacturing facility in Wyandanch. That same year she began making teas, followed by flavored agaves, and now has 33,000 online and wholesale customers and has made $2.9 million in sales. She said she soon will be opening distribution centers in several states. The Wheatley Heights building will serve as the company’s headquarters and training facility for the nearly 300 interested franchisees, Braxton said.  

Braxton said she looked at many properties but favored Wheatley Heights, which according to census data has a population of about 5,100 residents, of which more than 60 percent are black and Latino.

“I have plenty of places I could go,” said Braxton, a retired MTA structural engineer who is black. “But I wanted to take the opportunity for people who look like me to see what I’m doing for the community so that they can step up and do the same thing.”

Along with the brand items, the cafe will feature “grab and go” food items such as wraps and muffins, with an emphasis on vegan and organic products. The cafe also will have meeting rooms available to the community, and Braxton said she plans to use partnerships with companies such as Microsoft for free classes.

The cafe also will showcase food and drink products from other local businesses, including craft beers, Braxton said.

“I’m using a lot of small, minority, women and veteran owned vendors, who never had the chance with larger places,” she said. “It’s economic inclusion for everyone.”

Braxton, who incorporated her cafe business in 2017, used Wefunder, a San Francisco-based equity crowdfunder site, to garner investments of more than $1 million. She said that based on Wefunder profiles and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules requiring her to verify her investors’ identities that the majority of them are also black. 

Braxton, who said opening a franchise costs from $250,000 to $550,000, said she plans to list the business on the New York Stock Exchange next year.

Black Momma is not the first minority-owned business in the community, said 46-year resident Sandra Thomas, but it’s the first national brand business to set up shop and a unique business for Wheatley Heights.

Kisha Fowlkes, who has lived in the community for 25 years, said she has seen “the rotation of businesses” that regularly come in and leave from the shopping plaza. The businesses that have been there, she said, are all service-oriented, such as a dry cleaners or takeout restaurant.

“This is an opportunity to bring in the type of business we would want to see where community members actually sit down and spend more time in,” she said.

Braxton said that if approval is granted, she plans to open early next year.

Black Momma brand items by the numbers:

  • 150 tea blends
  • 6 vodkas
  • 6 CBD oils
  • 3 flavored agaves
  • 1 tea/coffee steeper

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