Joe Brown’s Carmel Corn has been a steadfast Lloyd Center presence despite the mall’s changing fortunes. A new location on MLK Boulevard marks an expansion, not a relocation, of the sweets purveyor that first opened in 1932 and has been in continuous operation since 1960.
For owner David Ferguson, the second location will anchor what he sees as a resurgence of Black presence and identity in a neighborhood struggling to maintain both.
“I’m trying to change the look back,” Ferguson, who grew up in Northeast Portland, told The Skanner. “It’s looking so gentrified from people that don’t necessarily look like us.
"We grew up in the neighborhood when it was a place they didn’t want to come.”
“I’ve been coming to the Lloyd Center forever,” Ferguson, 44, told The Skanner. “I never knew the name of the place, but everyone knows the carmel corn smell when you come here. I get my hair cut on Fridays, so in the last 10 years I’ve been coming by the Lloyd Center and usually stop every Friday and get some cheese corn.”
A commercial realtor, Ferguson reported a “really good year” in 2019, when he sold the Trillium School property on Interstate to The Ivy School for a reported $5 million, and also sold The Ivy School’s previous building. The looming taxes, he said, inspired him to buy another business, so his regular weekly stop at Joe Brown’s became a mixture of business and pleasure.
“I decided to spread my wings a little bit, get into another industry,” Ferguson said.
“Confectionery just kind of caught my eye.”
He also saw what he viewed as a couple holes in the business: its lack of online presence and its absence from grocery store shelves.
“The process took about six months with me kind of hounding the owner every Friday, and hounding his nephew, and finally I come in and the nephew says hey, my uncle said if you sign this NDA, he’ll give you everything you need to know as far as numbers to make a decision. I signed it the next week, I had all of the numbers and two weeks later I just pulled the trigger to purchase.”
Ferguson took possession of the Lloyd Center landmark in November 2019. Four months later, the mall shut down for four months.
“It was a little difficult, but it made me do the transition online that much faster,” Ferguson said. “And also, we picked up a lot of distributors in stores, like Whole Foods, New Seasons, a lot of the new age markets – that pretty much took the product all the way down the west coast, and all the way down to Pebble Beach.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic was forcing other Black-owned businesses to close for good. Geneva's Shear Perfection Barber & Beauty Salon (5601 NE MLK Blvd.) was owned and operated by the first African American woman barber in Oregon, Geneva Knauls, and her husband Paul Knauls Sr., for almost three decades. But with heavy regulations placed on barbers during the start of the COVID outbreak, Geneva’s stepson Paul Knauls Jr. made the difficult decision to close.
But Knauls Jr. acted as a steward of what had long been an institution in Portland’s Black community, and was selective about who moved in next.
“He told me I could just take over the whole building,” Ferguson said. “I pretty much negotiated purchasing the building from them. It just makes a lot of sense real estate-wise, as well as location.”
Ferguson has some changes in store for the beloved local brand.
“We’re going to expand the Joe Brown’s Carmel Corn menu,” he said. “We just expanded it with the jalapeno flavor, and we’re going to go into a couple of the sweet popcorns. We’re going to offer a couple more things that we don’t offer at the Lloyd Center, like ice cream. I teamed up with a couple bakeries to get some proprietary muffins and cupcakes going with our signature flavors.”
Ferguson isn’t stopping with a second Joe Brown’s Carmel Location, but extending the brand to a night spot located on the west side of the building: Joe Brown’s Lounge.
“The lounge has a totally different feel, it’s more of a kind of Harlem Renaissance, Black excellence type of feeling when you come in,” Ferguson said.
“The ambiance is going to be feeling eighties and nineties R&B, everything from Luther (Vandross) to Jodeci, that type of feel. It’s going to have its own identity.”
While the lounge won’t be adopting the familiar red, white and blue stripes of its namesake building's facade, there will be a notable connection.
“The play on it will be more of the menu: pick your proteins, everything from chicken, shrimp, fish, and we’re going to ‘popcorn’ it,” Ferguson said.
The new establishments will create at least 12 more jobs.
“I consciously hire people of color to do all of my business, so at least 90% of my work has been done by people of color, and it will continue to be that way,” he said.
Ferguson said that in hiring, he doesn’t hold people’s criminal pasts against them.
“Half of my staff has that encumbrance now that they deal with, that I overlook.
"I’m more about the worker and the person,” he said. “As a person who had his record expunged in 2003, I’ve been through the system myself. Not really anything tragic, just had a couple mishaps as a youth. So I totally understand, sometimes people just need a chance or some kind of direction, anything that can help them change the path.”
When Ferguson purchased the new building from the Knauls, he also purchased property from them two blocks away.
“I’m going to be developing that hopefully sometime in the first quarter of this next year to start,” Ferguson said. “The plan is to build a commercial ground unit with 10 residential units on top, all two-bedroom, two-bath. I’m definitely trying to revitalize the area with people who actually grew up around there.”
He also heads up The Poetic Justice Foundation, a nonprofit which supports Black businesses and individuals in Portland. The organization recently bought a building on 26th and Alberta.
Over the past year the foundation distributed $50,000 worth of $100 gift cards in the community, sponsored an estimated 10,000 meals and ran a clothing drive that purchased goods from local small clothing brands.
“We created low-rent spaces for DB Desserts and informally, Holy Beans Coffee, now a brand named Barbershop,” Ferguson said. “We have two for-profit ventures down below, so they do pay rent but it’s half of what people pay in that area. Up top we have a safe space for youth as well as other space for nonprofits, because a lot of nonprofits lost space during the pandemic. The mission is not just to take back MLK for me, it’s also Alberta. ”
The new Joe Brown’s Carmel Corn location is scheduled to open Jan. 1.