© 2022 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kansas City-based Black Pantry wants to create a national ecosystem for Black businesses

 Brian Roberts founded The Black Pantry two years ago, and has since expanded to a shared storefront in Midtown with Made In KC.
Channa Steinmetz
/
Startland News
Brian Roberts founded The Black Pantry two years ago, and has since expanded to a shared storefront in Midtown with Made In KC.

Frustrated by a gap in Kansas City’s retail space, Brian Roberts started curating a mobile pop-up shop of Black-owned and -made goods. After partnering with Made in KC to open a shared storefront in Midtown, The Black Pantry is now expanding nationally with an online store.

Kansas City’s premier boutique for Black-owned essentials always had its sights set on building a national identity, said Brian Roberts, but he needed to prove himself and his business on the local level first.

“A lot of people were pushing me in the beginning to go the website direction, but I didn’t want to do that. There was a lot I needed to learn about the business before I opened it up to the nation. I wanted to build a community of local, repeat customers, who could provide feedback and be my core audience. After that, I was ready to invest the capital into building a website,” said Brian Roberts, founder of The Black Pantry.

The Black Pantry’s website officially went live Oct. 19 and features a selection of products found at the shop’s brick-and-mortar location in Midtown.

Tapping into online retail comes just over two years since Roberts founded The Black Pantry in September 2020. Frustrated by the gap in Kansas City’s retail space between a high-end shopping experience and showcase of Black talent, Roberts purchased a trailer and curated a mobile pop-up shop of Black-owned and made goods.

In early 2021, The Black Pantry partnered with Made in KC to open a shared storefront at the revitalized Martini Corner in Midtown.

A black tote bag with white letters saying "Elevate Black," inside The Black Pantry location within Made in KC’s Midtown store.
Channa Steinmetz
/
Startland News
Goods at The Black Pantry location within Made in KC’s Midtown store.

“I have been able to move quickly because Kansas City has a great ecosystem where you can do that; it is an ecosystem of trust,” Roberts said. “People are willing to help you because they want to see you succeed. We love seeing each other thrive. … The best thing I can do for Made in KC, all the vendors at my shop and everyone who has helped me along the way is win. Because when one of us wins, we all win.”

To highlight the artists and entrepreneurs who have worked alongside Roberts on his evolving journey, The Black Pantry’s website features a “Featured Artist” tab. The featured artist will rotate on a monthly basis, Roberts noted.

“Adrian Franks from Smokey By Nature BBQ Sauce is our first featured artist; he’s been with me since I started,” Roberts shared. “With our website giving us a national reach, we wanted to highlight people from Kansas City so that their brand can extend outside of the region as well. That’s something that makes me very excited about Black Pantry as we continue to grow — having this omnichannel of ways to reach us and our partners.”

The further Roberts has gone in his journey with The Black Pantry, the more he views himself as an entrepreneur, he shared.

“I’m starting to see myself as not only a business owner, but as an entrepreneur because I’m finding problems and fixing them along the way,” he explained. “I’m doing that through Black products.”

Products on display — including Smokey By Nature BBQ Sauce — during a Black Pantry pop-up at Spark Kansas City during Startland News LIVE in September.
Channa Steinmetz
/
Startland News
Products on display — including Smokey By Nature BBQ Sauce — during a Black Pantry pop-up at Spark Kansas City during Startland News LIVE in September.

His method to success: watch and listen to other entrepreneurs.

“Before I even knew what I was doing, I listened in on virtual classes offered by The Porter House [KC],” Roberts recalled. “I listened to entrepreneurs talk about their circumstances and took notes. … I also strive to build relationships with people who I really respect. I ask them about their best practices and what not to do, and then do use those practices in my own fashion.”

One of those businesses that Roberts looked to emulate was Made in KC, which ended up becoming a close partner, Robert shared.

In addition to The Black Pantry and Made in KC shared storefront in Midtown, The Black Pantry has secured a booth within the Made in KC Marketplace in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. This location features Black-owned and made products local to Kansas City, he noted.

Building a Black maker ecosystem

The Black Pantry launching a website for online retail is just the tip of the iceberg for what Roberts has planned, he teased.

“The magnitude of what we are able to do is unlike other brands,” he said. “I’m looking to create a digital marketplace where we can buy and sell Black brands amongst retailers. Then I can go and say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to wait for The Black Pantry to come to your city. You can open one up in your neighborhood using the products from The Black Pantry’s wholesale website.”

Through a wholesale marketplace, Roberts would be able to build an ecosystem for Black makers across the United States, he said.

“We will be looking at financial backing to pull this off,” Roberts continued — adding that he is open to conversations with funders who want to be a part of The Black Pantry’s success.

A black sweatshirt with white lettering that says "Thank you for shopping Black," inside The Black Pantry location within Made in KC’s Midtown store
Channa Steinmetz
/
Startland News
Clothing at The Black Pantry location within Made in KC’s Midtown store

Along with its digital footprint, The Black Pantry is looking at expanding to another brick-and-mortar location in 2023, Roberts said — noting that more is to come. For now, he encouraged the community to check out the Midtown location’s newest line of wine and spirits, and follow The Black Pantry’s Instagram for announcements on future tasting events.

It’s difficult for Roberts not to think of the big picture, he admitted. He aims to set the bar for how all businesses, not just Black businesses, should operate, he continued.

“I want the next iteration of The Black Pantry to bring something cool to Kansas City,” Roberts said. “People talk about buying Black because it’s Black History Month or Juneteenth or Christmas, but I want to see people buying Black because it’s cool, not just because it’s a holiday. I feel like if I can make the experience cool and intentional and impactful, I don’t have to say ‘Buy Black.’ I can just be me.”

This story was originally published on Startland News, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.