By: Ezra Wheeler
On his classic track “Love and Happiness,” Al Green croons that love is “walking together, talking together, singing together, praying together.” With all due respect to the good Reverend, we’d suggest that he add “working together” to the list. Of course operating a business always comes with its challenges, particularly during a global pandemic, but many Memphis couples are relying on their unique bonds to thrive in these challenging times. In honor of both Valentine’s Day and Black History Month, here are three of our favorite Black-owned Bluff City businesses operated by couples.
Ken and Mary Olds, Muggin’ Coffee House (1139 Brownlee Rd.)
“When we opened Muggin’ Coffee House last year, our main motivation was bringing the Whitehaven community together,” says Ken Olds, who co-owns Muggin’ Coffee House with his wife Mary. “We really wanted to make a space for everyone to feel comfortable and connect, and while the coronavirus has made that harder in some ways, we feel like we’ve already accomplished that mission,” he says. “We’ve only been open for six months, and we already have regulars who come nearly every day and look for us,” says Mary. “The vision is definitely being realized.”
Ken and Mary, who first started dating back in middle school, had discussed opening a business together often during their 18 years of marriage, but the right idea always seemed elusive. “Anybody that knows us knows that I am always coming up with ideas and that Ken is the one who is always pushing the brakes,” Mary says with a laugh. “But one day I said, ‘we should open a coffee shop’ and to my surprise, Ken actually said ‘yes!’”
Despite proposing several other ideas before, Mary knew from the beginning that a coffee shop was a good fit for the couple. “I had worked in coffee before, and we both genuinely love coffee, so it felt like the perfect entry point into entrepreneurship. It’s also a sector that we both felt passionate about, which is important” she explains. Ken also points to the lack of existing coffee shops in Whitehaven as another motivating factor. “When we moved from Chattanooga to Whitehaven, we both noticed that the area didn’t have a neighborhood coffee shop, so we decided to stop talking about it and just be about it,” he says
From the business’ name to their pun-filled drink selection, it’s immediately obvious that Muggin’ Coffee House is steeped in Memphis culture. “We actually came up with the name Muggin’ on the very first day,” says Ken. “It’s a word we used a lot back in the ‘90s here in Memphis. We also have some drinks that reference that time period, such as the Zippin Pippin, Flickin’ on Beale, and Looking for the Brewin’,” he adds.
Having spent the majority of their lives together, Ken and Mary say that their transition into business came naturally. “We both just easily fell into roles that played to our strengths,” says Mary. “I’m more on the H&R side, making sure that everyone feels good about the culture here and that employees are well-trained and comfortable.” Meanwhile, Ken, who has a background in banking, handles the financial and technological side of the business. “It’s crazy that we never officially discussed what our roles were going to be, but it just happened organically and it has worked out great so far,” he says. “We definitely worried a bit in the beginning about what effect this would have on our marriage, but keeping the communication open has definitely worked for us.”
Riko and Tiffany Wiley, Riko’s Kickin Chicken (1329 Madison Ave.)
Although barbecue will likely always be Memphis’ culinary claim to fame (and for good reason!), Memphians know that our true gift to the food world is hot wings. And although the competition is stiff, arguably nobody does wings better than Riko’s Kickin Chicken.
While the popular Madison Heights restaurant first opened its doors in 2017, the story of the couple behind it begins years earlier. “We first met at Trezevant High School and our first date was actually at a hot wing restaurant, so wings are something that we’ve always shared,” says Tiffany Wiley, who co-owns Riko’s with her husband. “Riko and I started going on dates every other weekend, and we ate hot wings nearly every time. Now look where we are nearly ten years later!”
Riko originally honed his skills as a chef while at Memphis institution DBo’s Wings N Things, where he worked for nearly a decade. “I learned a lot at DBo’s and had even thought about franchising one for a while,” he says. “But when Tiffany and I were on our honeymoon, I got a call from the owner who told me that they wouldn’t be able to pay my salary anymore. It was hard to look into her eyes after that if I’m being honest,” he says.
Determined to bounce back, Riko and Tiffany began working on a game plan, one that eventually led them to purchasing a food truck. “Basically, we just started hitting the pavement and had quick success,” says Riko. Soon enough, the couple had a dedicated following and decided to take the next step into opening a brick-and-mortar location. Since then, Riko’s has quickly become a neighborhood favorite, especially amongst the nearby medical community. “The support from the community, especially folks from the medical district, has really been amazing and overwhelming,” says Riko.
While delivering exceptional food will always be at the heart of the business’s success, Tiffany works hard to ensure that guests feel comfortable while visiting. “I’m responsible for the marketing and catering side of the business, but making sure our guests are taken care of and satisfied is my most important role,” she explains. “Our guests are like our family.”
While running a business with a romantic partner may seem risky, Riko and Tiffany say that it comes with plenty of advantages. “I think the biggest bonus is that we both know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which has really allowed us to bring out the best in each other and spend more quality time together. The biggest thing we argue about is how many ketchup packages to give out,” Tiffany says with a laugh. “She’s definitely been a big part of getting this business off the ground and I think we help shine a light on each other,” agrees Riko.
Whitney Washington and Ashley Padmore, We Tight Knit
For Whitney Washington and Ashely Padmore, who launched their custom embroidery venture We Tight Knit last July, the confluence of romance and business occurred early on. “We actually met at work in New York, where we were both doing embroidery for Nordstrom’s,” says Washington. “I had just really started getting into it, and when I discovered another Black girl who did it too I was instantly excited. I think my vision has always been to make a small business with another Black woman that can bring a heightened awareness of embroidery to the Black community.”
After relocating to Memphis from NYC last year, the couple decided to turn their shared passion into a joint business. “Back in New York, we each had our own separate clients, but we decided here that we’d meld our skill sets together, which includes embroidery, sewing, design, and customization. That’s the basis of the business,” says Padmore. With their arrival in Memphis, We Tight Knit became the city’s only business specializing in hand-made chain-stitched products. “It’s really exciting to be able to introduce this art form to a whole new community,” says Washington.
While both women are skilled seamstresses, they’ve come to depend on each other’s unique strengths to leverage their business. “I’d say we both have similar backgrounds, which means we’re both comfortable with garment construction, embroidery, and pattern making, but I have a background in graphic design, so I feel like I’m more involved with the digital side of things and the initial design,” says Washington. “And I tend to work more with the color schemes and laying out a vision before we begin sewing, but it definitely feels like a fifty-fifty process,” add Padmore.
At its core, We Tight Knit is a collaborative venture, both between Whitney and Ashley, but also between the couple and their clients. “The consumer coming up with an initial idea and then entrusting us to make it a reality is a major part of our business,” explains Washington. “I’d say that eighty to ninety percent of what we do is in the spirit of collaboration with our customers.” In general, clients will provide a piece of clothing and an idea to We Tight Knit, and the duo will work to make it a reality. “Because it’s a vintage craft, we tend to stick to fabrics like denim and cotton or anything else on the thicker side,” says Padmore.
As of now, We Are Tight Knit is primarily working on commissioned pieces through their website wetightknit.com, but have also hosted several pop-up shops at stores such as Arrow Creative and Stock & Belle. “We are always looking to work with other small businesses, so if you have an idea, let us know!,” says Washington. “Once again, the spirit of We Tight Knit is always going to be collaborative.”
Although both Whitney and Ashley seem genuinely excited to be in Memphis, they each speak candidly about the challenges that the LGBTQ+ community still faces in the South. “I will say that it was a lot easier in New York to just be who we are, and now that we’re in Memphis I think we’re a bit more self-conscious,” says Washington. “But I think once people see how connected Ashley and I are and how undeniable it is that we make a good team, they come to embrace it. I just want to bring relationships like ours to the forefront and show people that it’s okay to be who you are and to live your best life.”