Lizette Apy worked three jobs in Chicago as a single mother, doing what she needed to put her children through high school and college. Yet even as she logged those long hours — Apy was a full-time retail manager, part-time retail manager, and part-time bookkeeper — she held on to her dream.
She yearned to open a coffee shop like the ones she worked while funding her way to a degree at the University of Illinois. But opening a cafe, Apy said, was quickly becoming “a fleeting dream” as the years flew by.
Then the company she worked for abruptly closed, laying off all the employees but providing a severance package. And Apy — who had recently became an empty nester — saw an opportunity to start fresh.
Apy’s daughter had moved to Philadelphia and persuaded her to follow. She made the trip and carried her dream with her, opening East Falls’ Thunder Mug Cafe in September of 2019. When the pandemic started six months later, she kept the dream churning — and that dream is now a thriving small business on Ridge Avenue.
On Thursday, Apy was selected by the Sixers to be this year’s partner in their Buy Black program, which “was developed to promote local, Black-owned businesses and provide them with expert marketing consultation, advertising value, educational programs and additional tools to succeed.”
“I look at the cafe and think, ‘Wow, I did it,’ ” Apy said. “I always tell people that I don’t just dream. I dream and then I put it into action. I always knew that this was going to happen for me. It’s just been a very long dream. I finally put it into action. That’s the cool part for me. If you follow your dream, it will never steer you wrong. Ever. Because it’s what’s in your heart. It’s your passion. Things that we feel and do from the heart, we do the best.”
The Sixers selected Thunder Mug from a pool of 350 applications as David Gould, the team’s chief diversity and impact officer, said not only will the cafe benefit from the partnership but that Apy’s “strong sense of community and a desire to give back is what we’re about as well.”
The Sixers will highlight Apy’s business on their digital and social media channels, provide advertising on their website and in the arena, promote Thunder Mug in emails to season-ticket holders, feature the cafe during TV broadcasts, and have radio commercials during every game. They’ll also arrange an in-person event to promote the cafe.
Thunder Mug will receive roughly the same treatment as the team’s traditional corporate sponsors. But it will be for free.
“We know that Black-owned businesses are under-represented, under-capitalized, and tend to be smaller than their counterparts across the region,” Gould said. “We want to do what we can to provide different tools and resources and platforms to help them grow and this seems to be a very natural way of being able to do that.”
A sign on Thunder Mug’s front door says “BLACK BUSINESS,” and Apy is proud to be a Black business owner — “There’s just a few of us that are surviving and thriving out here,” she said — but getting there was not easy.
She held an 820 credit score but was denied a loan by three banks before finally securing the funding needed to help open the cafe.
“Being a black woman, it was so difficult to get a loan and to get started,” Apy said. “One bank even said that in order for them to give me a loan, I would have to ask a friend to put their house up as collateral. I was like, ‘What?’ You could have bought me for a penny. I was just so gobsmacked by that and disheartened.”
A loan secured, Apy designed a business plan before opening and outlined all the possible challenges she might face. But there was nothing in there, Apy said, “that said quarantine and pandemic.”
The cafe was forced to constantly pivot, Apy said, as they navigated the pandemic with online ordering and outside dining. Thunder Mug survived and now Apy hopes her partnership with the Sixers can inspire others.
“This program highlighted that I was able to stay open. I’m thriving. But it also is providing me with the tools to mentor and help future Black entrepreneurs come up and get open. I can be a resource,” Apy said. “I feel like when I win, we all win. I want to bring everyone up. I would like to see the Black Business community grow, strengthen, thrive. I don’t want the pandemic to daunt future Black business owners from pursuing their dreams.”
Apy’s cafe is named after a chamber pot as a homage to her great-grandmother, who lived to be 114 years old. Thunder Mug evokes “happy childhood memories” of visiting her great-grandmother in Mississippi.
The cafe’s proximity to the Schuylkill River immediately reminded Apy of Chicago’s lakefront, providing a slice of home in her new town. And a reminder of the life she lived when she was still clinging to her dream.
“My mom was a single parent and she worked two jobs and that’s all I remember is my mom working two jobs,” Apy said. “I know my mom was much, more than that. She was a friend. She was a sister. She was a mother. She was a colleague. She was so much more than just what me and my sisters saw of her because she worked so much.”
“I wanted my children to see me as more of an individual. I wanted them to not only see me as a mom but also as this person who wanted to make her mark on the world as well. They’re so proud.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.