Sean Green is determined. Only as the very last resort, he said, would he return to working for someone.
Green, 41, has been his own boss since 2015, when he and his wife, Nikeah, created BBQ Unlimited. Not too long ago, they were living their dream — a good, busy life with what he calls “catering jobs lined up like crazy” as well as a lucrative arrangement with Fooda, a pop-up food-service contractor.
Then came the pandemic. Catering jobs dried up. Shuttered offices didn’t need Fooda setups. After a series of pivots — operating first from a ghost kitchen in North Philadelphia, and then from a restaurant in Old City — BBQ Unlimited set up two months ago in the mall food court at Willow Grove Park. “I have to work,” he said.
Still, the Greens, who have a teenage daughter and two younger children, have been cash-strapped. As they put their savings into the business, they fell behind in rent for their house in Newark, Del., where they had lived before the pandemic. On March 15, they were evicted.
First, they lived in a motel but last month moved into New Castle County Hope Center, a shelter in a converted Sheraton Hotel in northern Delaware.
Their former landlord filed a $9,000 judgment for back rent and repairs to the house, hurting the couple’s credit. They are working with New Castle County and a credit-repair counselor, hoping that with better credit, they can sign a new lease, move into permanent housing, and eventually remove the judgment.
“It’s tough, but I have a strong faith in God, so I try not to let it get me down because you can’t cry over spilled milk,” said Nikeah Green. “We’re in this position, so we’ve basically just got to keep grinding to make sure it doesn’t affect our kids and that they don’t fully know what’s going on.”
The Greens met a dozen years ago while working for soul-food entrepreneur KeVen Parker, the late owner of Ms. Tootsie’s and KeVen Parker’s Soul Food Cafe in Philadelphia. Parker was a cheerleader. “He told me when I decided that I wanted to go on my own: ‘Do it. What are you waiting for? If it doesn’t work out, don’t worry. You’re young enough. You’re marketable. You can go back to work,’” Sean Green said.
“I’m not there yet.”
At Willow Grove Park, the stand, along the back wall of the food court next to a Chick-fil-A, draws a stream of customers. One day last week, a worker from the Cheesecake Factory at the mall settled down to lunch with a platter of ribs, collards, mac and cheese, and corn bread from BBQ Unlimited.
Their 18-year-old daughter helps out at the stand on her days off from school. “We’re teaching her a work ethic,” he said. “You have to work in this world if you want something. If you want something, you have to work for it. Even our small kids. They have to clean up. When we were at our house, it was like, ‘you clean your room, you straighten up the toys, you get paid.’”
The Greens want to add a bigger sign and a clear glass partition to the steam table so customers can see the food better.
“I don’t need to make a million dollars,” he said. “I just need to make enough to be able to afford to take care of my family, to pay a rent, to pay a mortgage, to pay our bills. That’s it. That’s what I want. And I want to build a legacy for my family, for my kids. I want something to leave behind, for my kids to say that this is yours, this is ours.”