By Amber V. Smith | August 1, 2023
I had the opportunity to chat with Veteran and Navy Federal Business Member Chris Sweat for National Black Business Month. During our conversation, he shared how he turned his love for Texas BBQ into a business and how he overcame the unique challenges of being a Black small business owner.
Going Back to Where It Started
After hearing his story, it’s clear that Chris was destined to be a BBQ pitmaster. The Dallas, TX native grew up watching his father cook on the BBQ pit wondering when he’d get his turn. At just 8 years old, Chris was finally allowed to start the fire and throw on his first slab of meat.
He’s been hooked ever since.
The dream was on the backburner for about two decades, though, while Chris served in the Navy. Once it came time to transition to civilian life, he knew exactly what his next step would be: opening his very own Texas-style BBQ operation.
“That was the beginning and the end—the beginning of leaving home and becoming my own man, and then the development of who I wanted to be once I left the Navy,” reflected Chris.
His business, Oak and Anchor BBQ in San Diego, tied those two parts of him together. It’s named for both his childhood Texas neighborhood, Oak Cliff, and his time in the Navy.
Oak and Anchor BBQ launched in 2017, with Chris tackling a few command functions and catering events. Two years after that, he was invited to operate outside a local brewery along with another local BBQ restaurant. The brewery owner loved Chris’ food so much that he chose to exclusively work with Oak and Anchor BBQ from then on.
“That’s when I knew I was really on to something,” he shared.
Now you can find Chris selling out of his praise-worthy brisket, pulled pork and tri-tip at food markets and festivals throughout San Diego.
Overcoming Obstacles Big and Small
Small business owners often face many challenges when starting a new business, including high market competition, effective marketing and customer retention. For Black small business owners, specifically, those same challenges can be exacerbated. Many Black business owners say they also struggle with lack of access to capital, lack of resources, higher startup costs and racial discrimination.
In fact, reports have shown that 57% of Black business owners were denied business loans at least once when starting their business compared to 37% of their non-Black peers. Additionally, more than 30% of Black business owners say they found it difficult to access new capital and financing, while 45% of Black business owners say they had to dip into their personal savings in order to keep their business afloat in comparison to 33% of all small business owners.
Whether or not a small business can be successful depends on the owner overcoming these challenges.
Chris shared his own struggles with securing funding for Oak and Anchor—he was no stranger to rejection in the early days. His longtime personal relationship with Navy Federal was the solution, though, allowing him to get what he needed to get off the ground through a Business Solutions membership.
“I already had my own personal account and then later opened accounts for the kids. I said, ‘Let’s see how I can start a business account with Navy Federal.’ I took advantage of everything that was available to me, and now here we are,” says Chris.
Despite these obstacles, Chris has been able to find success with Oak and Anchor. He quickly learned there was a desire for his quality Texas-style BBQ in an area considered a BBQ desert.
“Turns out good food sells. I don’t care where you take it. Good food sells. All it takes is word of mouth for it to spread like wildfire.”
Momentum was building for Oak and Anchor until the emergence of COVID-19. Like many restaurant owners, Chris had to quickly pivot his business model. He was still able to operate outside the brewery but could no longer sell at markets and festivals since they were all shut down. So, he decided to bring a little bit of Texas to his customers’ front door by acting as his own delivery service. Making that pivot kept his business alive when so many restaurant owners had to shut down for good.
Sharing Words of Wisdom
Now a successful business owner in his own right, Chris is happy to share what he’s learned as a Black small business owner.
First, he says it’s important to decide if you’re passionate about starting a business. Most small businesses aren’t profitable within the first 2-3 years, and Chris says that often deters a lot of small business owners.
“Are you willing to say, ‘Yeah, I’m passionate about this one thing, and I know for 2 months, I’m not going to get paid. Do I still want to do it?’ That's what wipes out a lot of business owners,” he said. As Chris tells it, there were some days where he only made enough money to pay for gas but knew he had to keep pushing.
He also advises to never take no for answer. “As a business owner, you’re going to hear the word ‘no’ a lot. But the one thing I learned from the Navy is that everyone has a boss. If that first person says no, find their boss, present your idea until it’s a ‘yes’.” He stresses this even applies when looking for funding. If you’re denied for a business loan, Chris advises finding out why and researching other banks or credit unions to build a relationship with.
Lastly, Chris credits providing his customers with a personalized experience as the reason for his success. He did it during the pandemic and he does now with every customer he meets. From how he greets them to the quality of smoked meat he serves, Chris says he wants his customers to have the best of the best.
“I want them to have an experience like they’re in Missouri, Texas or Louisiana. That home-cooked feel. Everything we do is homemade. You can feel it. People can actually feel it,” he shared.
He claims it’s the reason 60% of his clientele are returning customers.
Building a Family Legacy
Chris is now focused on continuing the family legacy of business ownership. Just like he learned from watching his father start a recycling plant after retirement, he wants to do the same for his daughter.
Oak and Anchor BBQ is not just a Black- and Veteran-owned business, it’s a family-owned and operated business. His wife Adrian and daughter Cathleen, 21, are both full-time employees. Chris proudly boasts that Adrian is the boss while Cathleen is the face of the company.
He says his daughter working for the business has been one of his proudest accomplishments. It’s a daily reminder for him that the lessons he’s taught her are paying off.
“My daughter is learning the business piece and the personal piece, and how you can bring both together. She knows the name and order of every regular customer. Before they can say their order, she’s shouting it back at me to prepare. Every market, every brewery, she remembers them.”
He also says that it was important for him to show his daughter she could build and operate a business from the ground up. And, it appears as though Cathleen plans to continue the family legacy as well. Chris says she’s already started her own business.
Chris eventually plans to expand so he can spend more time crossing off items on his bucket list. But for now, he’s happy at the pit and running the business with his wife and daughter.
“You truly learn to live when you can turn your hobby into a living. I get paid to do exactly what I love.”
Author Bio: Amber V. Smith has been with Navy Federal since 2017 and serves as a writer for the Marketing Communications team. She helps craft messaging and communications to help members better understand and navigate their finances. She lives in Northern Virginia and spends her time exploring and at brunch.
This content is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.