RICHMOND, Va. — Ajay Brewer was all the way across town from his coffee shop, Brewer’s Cafe, when he got an urgent call from his wife about an unexpected visitor.
First lady Jill Biden, and her entourage of staff and Secret Service, had stopped in to get a cup of drip coffee.
It was such a surprise that no one in his family even thought to get a picture with her.
“We were so caught off guard, we did not do probably what we should have done in that regard,” he says, laughing. It was just one of an emerging pattern of unannounced dropbys at small businesses that the first lady has been making that seem anything but random. The stop on Wednesday was the third in recent weeks at a Black- or immigrant-owned small business.
Biden came to Richmond to visit Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University downtown. There, on a panel discussion, she acknowledged that communities of color have been “carrying a heavier share” of the country’s more than 500,000 deaths to COVID-19, and she spoke with doctors about ways to get more minorities into clinical trials and cancer research. “It’s time to address the health disparities in this country,” she said.
But just as resonant as her public remarks was her detour to Brewer’s Cafe, a Black-owned, family-run establishment located on a side street in Richmond’s Southside, a gentrifying, majority-Black neighborhood that Brewer likens to “Southeast D.C. 20 years ago.”
It was her third “casual” pit stop as first lady. The others included a trip to pick up Valentine’s Day treats at the Sweet Lobby, a popular D.C. bakery that happens to be owned by Winnette McIntosh Ambrose, who originally hails from Trinidad; and a visit to the Newsroom, a D.C. bodega and newsstand run by a Stephen and Ana Maria Bota, a husband and wife from Kenya and Guatemala, respectively.
So what did it all mean?
Maybe the first lady wanted to support small businesses. Maybe she wanted to signal to Black Americans that President Biden was serious when he said his administration would not abandon them. Maybe she just likes places that are touted as having some of the best French macarons and coffee in their respective towns. Her press office would not comment.
But Biden clearly knows the power of a photo op, like when she made an unannounced stop to drop off cookies to National Guard members when they had been unceremoniously kicked out of the Capitol, part of the contingent sent to protect the city from attacks by rioters. There were cameras in tow that day. Biden detoured while making her first press outing as first lady to visit the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which specializes in LGBTQ and HIV care.
Unscheduled stops like the one in Richmond are selected a couple of hours or maybe a day before she goes there, said a person familiar with the first lady’s routine who was not authorized to speak publicly about it.
And they happen because she has expressed wanting to buy a certain thing on her way to get somewhere else, like Camp David or back to her plane. Unlike announced visits that more sharply delineate a first lady’s agenda — supporting education, cancer research and military families — no press pool is present for the semi-stealth visits. The only photos usually come from shocked customers, owners and employees (who immediately make up for the lack of press by posting them on social media), or from the first lady’s photographer, who is almost always with her.
First ladies aren’t always explicit about their agendas and values, but just as Michelle Obama knew the impact she would have by wearing independent designers like Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung, Jill Biden seems to know the message she can send just by where she goes to satisfy her caffeine craving.
Gestures like Biden’s pit stops “can be genuine and political at the same time,” says Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University who has studied first ladies. It can be true that Jill Biden wanted to support a small, Black-owned business, and it can also be true that the Bidens saw the gains former president Donald Trump made among Black men in 2020 and want to shore up their traditional base either for the sake of themselves or other Democrats.
There is a clear debt that President Biden has said he owes to Black women, in particular, for his election. “And I think particularly since Black Americans felt they were so neglected in the previous administration, if not outright disdained,” says Jellison, “that this is a reasonable kind of thing for Jill Biden to do, to show, ‘OK, we’re different. We value a diverse society.’ “
Brewer was born and raised on the Southside. He came back to Richmond after a miserable stint working in finance in D.C., then opened a coffee shop, a couple of supermarket coffee stands, an art gallery and a waffle shop in the neighborhood, in part to be an example to other Black entrepreneurs.
Like so many other small-business owners, Brewer has been struggling. Revenue is 30 percent of what it used to be. He’s been late on rent and had to lay off employees. The waffle shop is closing down on Sunday.
The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered nearly half of the country’s Black-owned small businesses — well over twice the rate of their White-owned counterparts.
When Biden made her pit stop, around 4 p.m. on Wednesday after her panel, Brewer was 20 miles away helping to support friends at a Black-owned clothing shop that had just opened the day before. His wife, Joy, was at their house across the street from the cafe taking care of their newborn boy and 6-year-old son — two of their five children. By the time she found someone to watch the baby for a few minutes, the crush of people outside the door was too big for her to get inside.
By a stroke of luck, his mother, Pamela, 58, who works at the cafe, happened to be behind the register. “I was so nervous I couldn’t say anything other than, ‘Hi, welcome to Brewer’s Cafe,’ ” she says. “I was just like, ‘Oh, let me not stutter.’ I just wanted to make sure I got the order and pressed the right buttons.”
Biden’s visit was brief. She picked up two drip coffees, a Poor Georgie’s oatmeal cream pie, and a Mr. Baker lemon blueberry poundcake — both Black-owned local bakeries — that Pamela recommended. Her staff and security detail ordered goodies, too.
The impact, though, has been immediate. “The social media reaction was definitely the most traffic that we’ve ever seen,” says Brewer, and business has been heavier than usual every day since.
The Sweet Lobby on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, is still feeling the bump two weeks after Biden’s visit. She came by in the morning two days before Valentine’s Day, on her way to Camp David for the weekend, and ordered one of everything — more than $100 of cupcakes and macarons. “I was literally shaking,” says Donique Gentles, the manager who was working the register.
That night, Biden posted a photo of her visit to her Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts — and it went viral because women loved that she had pulled her hair back with a scrunchie. (“A relatable FLOTUS!” one article crowed.) The shop’s social media went nuts, and online orders (it ships nationwide) skyrocketed immediately. For the next week, Ambrose estimates business was up 40 to 60 percent, when usually it would see a steep post-Valentine’s Day drop.
Ambrose doesn’t know how Biden found her shop. “I’m sure it’s because she’s intentionally supporting small businesses. Of that I don’t really have much of a doubt,” she says. “Is it additionally because she is supporting Black-owned businesses? Possibly. And if so, that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
Ana Maria and Stephen Bota laminated the photo they took with the first lady in their Dupont Circle shop, the Newsroom, and keep it on a shelf behind the register for everyone to see.
It was Jan. 29 when the Secret Service, and then Jill Biden, came in to pick up $95.23 of newspapers and magazines. Bota points out that she easily could have sent an aide on the errand but chose to come herself. The first lady wanted multiple copies of Time magazine with her and her husband on the cover, the Vogue magazine with two different, controversial covers featuring Vice President Harris, back issues of The Washington Post from the Inauguration, plus several other women’s magazines, apparently for casual reading.
“It’s like I won the lottery, to have someone that important come into our store,” says Ana Maria.
The couple have had their own store in various locations since 2004 and are now one of the only newsstands left in the city. From talking to Jill Biden’s senior adviser, Anthony Bernal, they found out that Biden had asked him where she could pick up magazines, and he recommended their shop because he goes there himself.
Stephen then told Biden that the one time he closed the shop — which is open seven days a week, 365 days a year — was to take their entire family to Delaware to attend Beau Biden’s funeral on June 6, 2015. “I said, ‘We came all that way to give you the support you needed.’ And she was very touched,” says Stephen.
He says he believes Jill Biden’s aides “do their homework, and she is asking them to lead her to a place to spend her two dollars that means something,” he says. “She doesn’t take the immigrants and Latinos who helped her husband get elected for granted.”
Brewer, meanwhile, is still reeling — and grateful.
“I mean, hell, that probably will never happen again,” he says. Biden’s visit may mean that people who’d never venture to his neighborhood will now seek out his coffee shop. “And as a business owner,” he says, “that’s all you want, for people to know that you’re there.”