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Group of Black San Antonio chefs find community in year of hardship | Together We Rise

A culinary collective with a focus on community, the Co-Lab provides these chefs with an opportunity to learn and teach each other.

SAN ANTONIO — 2020 was a tough year for everyone, but it was especially hard on small business owners. A group of Black chefs took that hardship and turned it into fellowship—creating a community to uplift their businesses and each other.

Inside a commercial kitchen in north San Antonio, a group of chefs is working to restack what COVID-19 shook down.

“I had to give a lot of refunds. Some people postponed, but they didn’t know when they would have to postpone it back (to), and I just thought it was fair to give them a full refund because we’re all in it together,” Chef Robin Balanciere said. 

Balanciere runs Boo Bear Bakes. Her company was up and coming before the pandemic shut down events across the country.

“It just evolved over time friends and family, word of mouth and everybody, and I just kind of grew my business that way,” Balanciere said. 

But working in the Co-Lab, she’s been able to find herself and her business again. The Co-Lab is a group of Black chefs, all impacted by COVID-19, who came together to work as one to improve their individual businesses.

“Iron sharpens iron. Coming in, I make good food, but Chef Kaius (Austin) is really good at plating, so I’ve learned a lot from him. Nomenia taught me a lot about the business aspect. I’ve even learned about baking from robin because I’m not a baker, and I taught them BBQ we learned from each other,” Chef Thomas Parks said.

And, yes, "Co-Lab" is a combination of co – meaning "together" – and laboratory, the place one experiments. 

“We’re in the Co-Lab because we’re always in the lab working on trends and to better ourselves every time,” said Chef Noymenia Lewis.

Chef Austin was barely in business before COVID-19 shut him down a year ago.

“Noymenia provided me with the road to get my license, my manager license, all of my certifications to become a legitimate business,” Austin said.

He believes Co-Lab accelerated the growth that was stalled before the pandemic.

“It was hard to believe in myself that I was capable of doing what I always wanted to do, but COVID-19 opened that door for me,” said Austin.

The pandemic wasn’t the only thing happening when the Co-Lab was founded. People across the country took the streets to protest following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

Chef Austin says the Co-Lab also dispels a stereotype about Black people— that only tragedy can bring us together.

“We don’t need to have the negativity to bring us together. We’re about uplifting and positivity,” Austin said. 

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out and restaurant capacity goes up, he believes the group will stay together thanks to the lessons they’ve shared.

“I changed a lot how I do my marketing. I even changed my outlook (with) how I handle certain situations," Chef Noymenia Lewis said. "I learned every day. I’m going to grow, and with growth there’s change, and I’m always going to climb the ladder."

You can visit the Chefs CoLab here.