‘Am I going to be next?’: Madison’s Black business owners worry about their futures as more restaurants, stores close

Buraka's owner shares concerns & ongoing struggles heading into tenth month of the pandemic

MADISON, Wis. — Owning a business during a pandemic is a challenge for anyone, but Black-owned businesses in particular are disproportionately disadvantaged.

At the beginning of February, there were more than one million Black-owned businesses in America. By April, there were 560,000. Nearly half had closed.

Nine months later, many, like Buraka on Willy Street, continue to struggle.

Markos Regassa opened Madison’s only Ethiopian restaurant as a food truck in the summer of 1992. Named after his great grandfather, Buraka means ‘joy’ in the Oromo language. After five years, Regassa bought his first brick-and-mortar on Butler Street, and later moved to State and then Willy.

“What’s made me successful and kept me in business is pretty much not giving up,” said Regassa.

He’s persisted through tough times before: Regassa opened Buraka during one recession and survived another in 2008. But without hesitation, he calls this one most challenging, and he’s not alone.

According to Forbes, not only are black-owned businesses more likely to have closed during the pandemic than white-owned businesses, they’re less likely to have received help from the federal government.

“Every time I see a business close, I worry,” said Regassa. “Am I going to be next, or what? That’s always in the back of my mind.”

Regassa routinely consults with Madison’s Black Chamber of Commerce and reaches out to other Black business owners, too. After 30 years in Madison, he has a lot of wisdom to share and genuinely wants to see them succeed.

“Business has a lot of ingredients, not just opening the door,” said Regassa, with his signature sense of optimism. “I know we don’t know the end, but the vaccination is coming and, looking forward, spring will be a better time.”

Until then, Madisonians can find Regassa in Buraka’s kitchen, cooking up his own joy, eager to once again serve customers in-person.

“The hardest thing for me during this pandemic is I miss the people,” said Regassa. “Seeing a full house always makes you excited.”

Click here for a list of more than two dozen black-owned food businesses to support in and around Madison.

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