Marie Janisse-Wilkins stands with her dog Gris-Gris at a yard sale of her belongings in Arcata | Photo by Shawn Leon

Sweet Mama Janisse hit hard by COVID-19

Local owner of Sweet Mama Janisse, Marie Janisse-Wilkins struggles to make up losses
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Local owner of Sweet Mama Janisse, Marie Janisse-Wilkins struggles to make up losses

The Arcata community came together to save Marie Janisse-Wilkins, owner and operator of the local, soul food catering business, Sweet Mama Janisse, Inc., from eviction as COVID-19 has wiped away all her revenue for this year.

During a garage sale Fri. Oct. 23, Janisse-Wilkins explained how she used her own money to start her business and when the business got into financial trouble, she refinanced her house to keep the business afloat, then COVID-19 struck.

Janisse-Wilkins said she had paid all her bills before COVID-19 hit. Without the money from catering, she struggles to pay her mortgage.

“[The banks] have no sympathy. They want their money. They want their money,” Janisse-Wilkins said.

The Federal Reserve reported COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black owned businesses. Janisse-Wilkins is Louisiana Creole, which includes a diverse heritage of European, African, and Indigenous America traditions.

Shelter-in-place orders began in March and wiped away Janisse-Wilkins yearly schedule of catering for weddings, special events, graduation celebrations and the annual Independence Day celebrations in Eureka.

The Federal Reserve said in a report titled “Double Jeopardy: COVID-19’s Concentrated Health and Wealth Effects in Black Communities” that while the national average of active small business owners dropped by 22 percent between Feb. and April, Black owned businesses saw a drop of 41 percent, almost twice the average, and the biggest decline of any racial group.

This disparity is the result of historically unequal relationships to banks, increased likelihood of not being able to qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program and the higher rate of COVID-19 impact on Black communities.

An online GoFundMe fundraiser started by Janisse-Wilkins’ friend, Julie du Bois, raised about $7,000 in two weeks. With a goal of $50,000, her friends have helped her host yard sales to sell off her possessions.

Bob Dorn, friend of Janisse-Wilkins and writer of The Hum, a column that runs in the Mad River Union, received about 2000 of her books, mostly cookbooks, and decided to offer them in exchange for donations outside his storage unit at Arcata Bay Self Storage.

“What she has going for her is she is an incredibly generous woman,” Dorn said.

Nearing retirement age and without an income from her business, Janisse-Wilkins fears being homeless. She is currently unable to afford her rent, forcing her to ask for help.

“It’s hard when you have to ask people to do something like this for you,” Janisse-Wilkins said.

Oryan Peterson-Jones, Arcata City Council candidate, unloaded Janisse-Wilkins’ books from a storage unit and stated how he grew up in Arcata, and his first job was with Janisse-Wilkins as a dishwasher.

“It was the best job I ever had,” Peterson-Jones said. “Marie was such an important person on my early development as a musician.”

Peterson-Jones explained before Janisse-Wilkins moved to Humboldt in the 1990s, she worked at the Topanga Corral, which was a hot spot for rock and movie stars in the 1970s in Topanga Ca., just north of Hollywood.

“She had all these stories and pictures of her with George Harrison, and the Rolling Stones,” Peterson-Jones said.

Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, the multi-Grammy award winning musician known as Taj Mahal, is Janisse-Wilkins best friend. Fredricks even wrote a song, “Sweet Mama Janisse,” about her which tells of how good her cooking is. She even did two cruise gigs with Fredricks, called the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, where he sang and she did catering.

Spencer Kennedy, another former dishwasher of Janisse-Wilkins, volunteered to help host a yard sale and recalled how Janisse-Wilkins made the restaurant feel special.

“I hope we can get a lot of customers to make some money to make a difference,” Kennedy said. “I haven’t seen anyone walk out of the kitchen and talk to everyone in the restaurant. But Marie did that with every table.”

Jannise-Wilkins said while she is able to cater during COVID-19 and sells a line of sauce, finding work is tough as clients are not booking very many events and employees are harder to find.

“I just hope everything gets better and I can cook food for people again,” Janisse-Wilkins said.

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