Alvin Lee Smalls was a professional baker at New York Hospital for 27 years before he started his own business in 1988. He recognized that the food industry was shifting toward more processed foods and wanted to continue giving his community whole and fresh ingredients. Smalls, who was raised in the South, used his pension and savings to open Lee Lee's Bakery in Harlem.
"Baking is an art that is perfected over time," Smalls said. "It's an up-early-work-long-hours type of job. You have to love coming in and mixing a few key ingredients that make little miracles that delight."
But even though Smalls is an established baker, he faced obstacles with starting his business.
"Systemic racism in banking meant I wasn't able to secure a business loan, so aside from my savings and pension I had to rely on street loans," said Smalls.
Nevertheless, Smalls opened his bakery and Lee Lee's became a community staple. People lined up for his Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies, Sand Tarts and Babka. Smalls even supported young entrepreneurs by allowing his store to be an incubator space for start-ups.
"We served our community by supporting homegoings, graduations, and birthday celebrations, even when customers' funds were non-existent," Smalls said. "We provided our baked goods to community organizations whose main goal is to support students, the elderly and other entrepreneurs.
The pandemic hurt the bakery financially and Lee Lee's received some property damage during the protests. Smalls said the BeyGOOD grant will help him train another baker. He also wants to open a food manufacturing facility to help preserve whole ingredients in baked goods.
But most of all Smalls said he hopes to leave a legacy. He wants to preserve his baked goods as Black cultural recipes long after he is gone.