Fontbonne students provide business boost for Ferguson burger bar

On a recent afternoon, Charles Davis sat behind the counter at his restaurant -- Ferguson Burger Bar and More -- and took advantage of the lull to catch up on some work.

Along with his co-owner and wife, Kizzie, Davis wears many hats. Business manager and floor sweeper. Marketing executive and server. Financial officer and cashier. You name it and he does it, sneaking in duties between customers in his 12-hour days, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

"Even when it's slow, there's always something to do," he said in a brief break from handling paperwork and working the phones.

At this time, after the lunch rush, the small dining area was empty, but customers soon trickled in and ordered carryout or dined at one of the five tables. It was slow but steady.

They ordered from a menu featuring not only burgers but also catfish, tilapia and shrimp, wings and chicken sandwiches, and sides of French fries, okra and more. The house special: a bacon cheeseburger with egg called "Garbage Burger" and a sweet tea called "Muddy Water." (Editor's note: Both tasty!) And breakfast, too -- served all day.

Then, several young people entered the establishment, but they didn't come solely to eat. Morgan Roering, Aaron Pavese, Celeste Herrman, Yuri Khechoyan and Paige McDonald came to work. Not the physical kind, but brainstorming with Davis and surveying neighboring businesses.

The students from Fontbonne University's Enactus Club have been working with Ferguson Burger Bar for the past six months to help Davis gain traction in a difficult business environment and location.

Ferguson Burger Bar occupies a storefront in a small strip mall on West Florissant Road, smack dab in the scene of unrest following the shooting death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. The shooting site is just a half-mile away.

Protests and violence hit the area the day after Brown's death, for weeks after and again in November following a St. Louis County grand jury's "no true bill" -- a decision not to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson. National and international media descended on Ferguson to bring the protests and violence into living rooms and on computers worldwide

The lucky businesses endured broken windows and looting. The unlucky ones were burned by arsonists. About two dozen businesses in Ferguson and the surrounding area were destroyed by fires -- one business in August, the rest in November. The survivors boarded up windows to cover the broken glass and to protect against the next wave.

Ferguson Burger Bar is unique among area businesses for several reasons.

• It opened Aug. 8, the day before Brown's death.

• Davis opted to stay open in the days and weeks following the shooting. "I didn't open to close right away," he explained, simply.

• He also decided to not board up as most every business around him. The message: You can see inside, we're open, so come on in. His business was unscathed.

"In some pictures, behind the protesters, you can see his shop," said Fontbonne professor Mark Alexander, the faculty adviser for Enactus. "If you look real hard, all the way back, you can see Charles behind the counter."

Alexander describes Davis as "a very optimistic person. He said, 'We're going to stay in business,' and he stayed in business. Charles dearly loves the area and believes it'll come back. He's proving that it can.

"He's in it for the long haul."

Enactus started working with Davis in September, just after the start of the school semester. The local group wanted a project to help a business owner for the national Enactus convention here in August. Alexander approached the St. Louis Chamber for a business to help, and within days, Enactus students began working with Davis.

Davis, a graduate of nearby Lutheran North High School, and the students meet weekly via a conference call, and students visit the restaurant every couple of weeks for updates, to canvas neighboring business or just to observe Davis interacting with customers.

"Charles has been very open to whatever," said Alexander, who called Davis "a very gracious and hospitable man. ... He's just a good guy."

Enactus' role primarily is advisory, with the club providing Davis with metrics or target profit margins for successful similar businesses in the area plus ideas for marketing and publicity. Ferguson Burger Bar already had Facebook and Twitter accounts, a website is in the works and Davis' establishment has been featured in local and national media.

Ferguson Burger Bar is a work in progress, but the future looks bright. Davis envisions expanding to another location in Ferguson, then perhaps elsewhere in the St. Louis and maybe franchising down the road. The Enactus group also intends to expand, using Ferguson Burger Bar as the first step in working with other Ferguson businesses to help rebuild the city's economic engine.

"We want to improve their livelihood," Alexander said. "We focus on the 3 Ps -- profit, planet and people. We want to empower business owners to improve their livelihood in these three areas.

"It's not, 'We're going to bring you fish every day. We're going to teach you how to fish.'"

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