Meet Imani White; 21-Year-Old Black Restaurant OwnerDec 09, 2021 08:00AM ● By Mac Johnson
On the section of West Girard Ave that passes through Fishtown, there are but a few constants; one being the hustle and bustle of cars, parents, and kids on the busy street, the noise that lets any visitor to the neighborhood know that Fishtown is alive and well. But a constant that could easily be overlooked by the untrained eye is a rather unassuming diner that sits on the corner of West Girard Ave and North 15th street, the Dew Inn.
The diner has served Fishtown for more than 50 years. In fact, just walking through its doors for breakfast may feel like stepping into a time capsule. Creaky bar stools, decor so outdated it's back in style, and music playing from no later than 1990--the place is true to its roots. But those same roots have suffered degradation. The pandemic has taken a toll on the Dew Inn much like most small businesses across the country. Extended closures kept doors shut and social distancing measures restricted a high volume of customers. Some of the diner's regulars chose not to return to the restaurant as a whole because of the risk of contracting COVID. To complicate things even further, the owner of the restaurant decided to close up shop and move on from managing the place. Gripped by uncertainty and locked into a change in leadership, the status of the restaurant was in limbo.
That is, until 21-year-old Imani White came along.
Ms. White joined the staff of the Dew Inn in February of 2021. While only an employee, she did more than wait tables and make omelets--she took pride and found joy in building bonds with her frequent visitors. White says her goal was simple, "make sure that you feel taken care of, that you feel better than when you came in."
She has been tied to the restaurant and the surrounding neighborhood for most of her life. Little did she know she was training to lead the Dew Inn before she was ever on staff.
"There would be times where my dad would be out of town and go to the former owners and ask them to feed me for the week," said White. "They would do it and hold the bill for him until he got back."
So it comes as no surprise that when she found out that the owners of the restaurant were looking to sell, she felt it was her duty to at least attempt to take the reins. If for nothing else, White says she wanted to maintain the integrity of the establishment. She stressed the importance of being one of the few places in the rapidly developing Fishtown neighborhood that provides accessible food for people who have been calling the place home their entire lives.
When I asked her about her place in the neighborhood, she said "I've watched this block change from having a lot of people just like me to very few," said White.
She loathed the idea of being another restaurant with "$13 egg platters."
For an undisclosed amount of money, she took on an unimaginable amount of stress and was given an unbelievable opportunity to become the owner of the very place that kept her fed as a child. In addition to being an overnight success, Imani White became a 21-year-old Black female restaurant owner overnight as well.
White quickly felt the pressure of the Inn's history. She had no choice but to succeed because the restaurant had been a success for twice as many years as she had been alive. She still finds herself sacrificing the fun of her youth for serving food, navigating the tradeoff between running a breakfast joint and enjoying all that Philadelphia's nightlife has to offer. Still, Ms. White sees every order filled as a service to her ever-changing community. White says she views her restaurant as a safe haven for those often left behind during city redevelopment projects. "I never saw myself as a restaurant owner and I still don't. But I see myself as the owner of the Dew Inn," she says. "It's not just a restaurant, it's a community space.”
For Imani White, making a personal sacrifice pales in comparison to fulfilling a greater purpose. Not only does she understand how vital her restaurant is to the Fishtown neighborhood, but she also understands the importance of her role as a Black female business owner.
"I just want to prove that there are people like me owning businesses and we're still in this neighborhood doing it. We don't just have to live here and be consumers. We can provide," said White. "We can be those who expand. We can be those who give back to ourselves. That's very important me that there are people of color on the upper ends."
White hopes to be an inspiration to both women and Black business owners in the future. While she admits to learning on the job, she acknowledges the many lessons that her neighborhood has taught her. She hopes to keep learning and growing day by day, but through the growing pains, she finds solace in the fact that every meal served fills a stomach, earns a smile, and continues to impact her community.
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