Pandemic Pivot: Entrepreneur Turns His Nightclub Into Houston’s First Black-Owned Grocer Featuring Black Brands

Resiliency and passion are two of the greatest characteristics of any entrepreneur. With entrepreneurship, it is possible to quickly see the bigger picture during difficult times and then make a quick pivot. And in the midst of the pandemic, entrepreneur Robert Thomas made a serious 180-degree turn. 

In early 2020, Thomas was operating District 1960 Nightclub. But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, Thomas knew the end of his five-year run as the club’s owner might be coming. “This was a club before, and I renovated it. They shut me down with the pandemic,” Thomas told KHOU.

Robert Thomas turned his former nightclub space into the District Market Green Grocer in Houston. Thomas being interviewed by KHOU 11 (Photo: Video Screengrab)

However, Thomas, who is passionate about food and wellness, decided to do something different. He shut down the club, renovated the inside and then, opened a grocery store. 

An estimated 41 percent of Black-owned businesses shut their doors between February and April of 2020, according to a New York Federal Reserve study that looked at COVID-19’s impact on entrepreneurs across the U.S. The culprit: lack of savings and access to capital. 

But Thomas came out of the shutdown with a vision not only to save his business but also to help the local Black community maintain its health. 

On Nov. 26 Thomas opened the District Market Green Grocer, which he claims is Houston’s first Black-owned grocery story and juice bar, in the space where he had previously operated a nightclub.

Customers come to the store and are able to find fresh fruit, vegetables, and other products from Black-owned vendors.

“Right now I have over 30 Black vendors,” said Thomas. “Fruit, vegetables, eggs, vegan meals for the vegan community,” Thomas told FOX26 Houston. “We have Black-owned washing powder, herbs and spices, as well as sauces. I want to be in the running with Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. I want to get to that level, and I’m taking the Black vendors with me.”

Photo: Video Screengrab from KHOU11)

Most of the vendors are locals who have been unable to get their goods into other area grocery stores. Daranne’s, founded by Malcolm and Raven Wilson, tried countless times over 20 years to get it unique brand of egg rolls on grocery stores to no avail. But the product is now being offered by District Market Green Grocer.

“We bring a little soul to the egg roll,” Malcolm Wilson told FOX26 Houston. “This one here is our Soul Roll, which has our collard greens and smoked turkey. We have our Down South roll, which has oxtails, rice, and cabbage.”

The egg rolls aren’t the only innovative item at District Market Green Grocer. The supermarket also has its own juice bar that creates a variety of healthy, and customizable drinks. Customers can head to the juice bar after picking out their own fruits and vegetables from the produce section of the store. The juice bar will juice up the customer’s fruit selection and add in ingredients such as wheatgrass and turmeric.

“It’s quite special, actually, we don’t have this. Especially in this area, we only have Walmart and Kroger, and after that it kind of gets a little dry,” customer Travia Jones told KHOU11. 

District Market Green Grocer also offers non-food items such as Christmas wrapping paper featuring a Black Santa Claus.

Thomas hopes to expand and add in international products. But for now, he is focusing on his local community. 

“That is my vision, to vegetate the Black community,” Thomas told FOX26. “[You’ll find] fruit, vegetables, eggs, vegan meals for the vegan community. We have Black-owned washing powder, spices, herbs and sauces.” 

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