By Casey Murray | OBSERVER Staff Writer

MacQue’s BBQ family is shown, left to right, Janet Thomas-Green, Michael Thomas, Ethel Gary (grandmother), Mack Thomas (co-founder), and Charlie Thomas (co-founder). The restaurant opened its Elk Grove location in 2019. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

Elk Grove is littered with many of the typical markers of suburban life — big box stores, chain restaurants and large, attractive neighborhoods. But it flips suburban stereotypes in one important way: diversity.

Last year the city made Travel Noire’s list of 10 places where Black people are the most successful.

Its brag points include a median income for Black families that’s more than double the national median and a rate of Black homeownership that’s also above average.

“For seven years, I’ve had a chance to be able to really get a sense of the community, and to find things that really made it a wise choice, even before I realized how wise it was,” said Edward Bush, president of Cosumnes River College and an Elk Grove resident. He said he was drawn to the city because it was affordable and close to his work, but has grown to love Elk Grove’s diversity, its small town feel, family-oriented nature and beautiful outdoor spaces. He said he also appreciates that it’s a city that wants to “evolve and grow.”

However, as reported by Travel Noire, there is one catch. The rate of Black entrepreneurship in the greater Sacramento area, including Elk Grove, remains low.

According to a 2021 study by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, only about 4% of business owners in the area are Black.

It’s something Bush, co-chair of the Elk Grove Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Equity Task Force, is trying to fix. The task force was started after the murder of George Floyd when, like many organizations, the chamber was examining its role in equity.

“I really challenged the chamber. … What is going to be our response? Not just in terms of making a statement, like everyone was doing at that particular time, but how can we look at our mission and purpose as an organization to see how we can help further the fight towards social justice and equity?” Bush said.

The task force has since started its work to try and close gaps in entrepreneurship across different communities in the city. But before the task force can begin to help those business owners, Bush said, it has to identify them.

The task force succeeded in having a question about race and ethnicity added to the application to start a business in Elk Grove, but the work doesn’t stop there.

Local entrepreneur Michael Thomas has joined Bush and the chamber’s effort to help minority business owners. He said trust also needs to be built.

“For minority-owned businesses, to get a form that you fill out and there’s always a checkbox that says, you know, ‘Are you a minority-owned business?’” Thomas said. “It’s been very difficult to check that box because you don’t know how that information is being captured, and is it being used to your benefit, or to your detriment?” 

But he and Bush want to help build that trust and increase the task force’s visibility to minority business owners. The task force has held public meetings where entrepreneurs can voice concerns.

Bush said a common theme has emerged: minority business owners have said they feel left out of the loop and struggle to access resources that could help them succeed. During the pandemic, they didn’t feel they could get clear information on how to access aid.

“One of the things that we’ve heard loud and clear, during our town halls, our listening sessions, was that you don’t know what it is you don’t know. And many businesses fail because they don’t have access to information,” Bush said.

In response, Bush said the task force is working to set up a mentorship program so new business owners can more easily access advice.

Thomas, who owns MacQue’s BBQ, which was started by his parents, opened a location in Elk Grove in 2019, but his ties to the city date much earlier. What he has seen has given him hope that Elk Grove will continue to become a more inclusive community. 

Edward Bush, president of Cosumnes River College, is co- chair of the Elk Grove Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Equity Task Force. Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER

“Back when my parents moved out here in 1987, it was a completely different Elk Grove. Not a lot of diversity,” Thomas said. “(Now) there’s a lot more people of color, different cultures, different religions moving out.”

The city has changed a lot since 1987. Its population has exploded, from around 76,000 residents in 2001 to more than 170,000 today. About 34% of the city’s residents are White, 28% are Asian and 11% are Black, according to the city.

Mayor Bobbie Singh-Allen sent a statement in response to the city’s success and its attempts to engage the business community.

“Elk Grove is proud to be a diverse city that is welcome to all,” she said. “As a relatively young city, we know there is still more work to do to support local and minority-owned businesses. Our economic development team has introduced new programs to support homegrown start-ups and is working with the Elk Grove Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Equity Task Force to increase the number of African American and Latinx entrepreneurs and business owners in Elk Grove.”

Thomas echoed that.

“We still have a ways to go, just like any other city. I think we’re further along than a lot of cities, as well,” Thomas said. “I’m excited to see what the city looks like in another five to six years.”

The diversity task force holds open meetings on third Tuesdays monthly.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Casey Murray is a Report For America Corp Member and a Data Reporter for The Sacramento Observer. 

Casey Murray

Casey Murray