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10 questions with J Hackett and Bruce Waller

Meet the dynamic duo behind Asheville’s Black Wall Street.

Black Wall Street Founders J Hackett and Bruce Waller

J Hackett and Bruce Waller, founders of Black Wall Street AVL.

Photo by AVLtoday

This piece is part of our AVLtoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.

To put it mildly, J Hackett and Bruce Waller keep a busy schedule. Since the duo opened Black Wall Street AVL’s headquarters in the River Arts District last November, the space has bustled with comedy shows, award ceremonies, board meetings, listening sessions, markets, and beyond. Not to mention, they’re both co-owners of Grind Coffee and several other businesses in town.

This month, we played 10 questions with this powerhouse duo to learn about the future of Black Wall Street, what to expect at this year’s Grind Fest, plus a few fun personal questions. Keep reading to find out their favorite diner, local leaders who inspire them, and their vision for entrepreneurship in the River Arts District.

1. Describe your perfect day in Asheville in the length of a Tweet.

J: Breakfast at Five Points, Golden Girls, and then I’d eat some lemon cake.

Bruce: I’m most definitely starting off with Five Points, that’s my jam. Then I’d have everything done and finished on my computer by 2 p.m, and I’d watch my favorite anime show Attack on Titans.

2. What’s something that every Ashevillian should know about?

J: Grind Fest. We want people to come here and connect and celebrate the progress of the Black community.

Bruce: Yep. I second all that. Everyone should be here at the Grind Fest locking and loading. We are so excited about Grindfest 2022! Go to our website and learn more. Make sure you register, we love to see community members have fun.

3. Name 3-5 other local leaders, influencers, or movers + shakers you’re watching.

J: Desiree Adaway, Kit Cramer, and Vic Isley.

Bruce: I watch Vic Isley too. She has a lot of insight on place-based destination marketing and what it takes to mobilize and move people into a space. I’d add Clark Duncan to the list too… he creates these projections of where we will be in 10-20 years and the opportunities Buncombe County creates. He’s a futurist who knows how to think ahead.

4. What do you think Asheville will be known for in 10 years?

J: We intend for Asheville to be known as a mecca for Black business. We’re trying to make that top ten list.

5. You can only choose one local restaurant menu to bring with you to a deserted island — which one is it and why?

J: Believe it or not, I’m not saying Five Points. I’m going with Pack’s Tavern because they have everything. You can’t go wrong. I like their deviled eggs, Brussels sprouts, King Kong wings, and lobster macaroni. And I like all of their desserts.

Bruce: Since I’m a pescatarian, I’m picking Laughing Seed Cafe. I need to bring the dragon bowl and the cauliflower tacos with me.

6. What were the last 3 things you did locally?

J: I had a crab boil at my house yesterday. Saturday, I went to Bone and Broth. And I also recently went to Hemingway’s Cuba rooftop, where I ate some arroz con pollo.

Bruce: I went to the new West Asheville kava spot. It was really interesting and really bitter — but I liked it. I’m always exploring different spots. Over the weekend, we went to Brasilia Churrasco for seafood. And then I walked the Wilma Dykeman Greenway with my wife.

7. Who are a few other local leaders you’re inspired by? Why?

J: Tracy Greene Washington.

Bruce: I second that. She understands people well enough and their needs, but she knows how to organize in a way that’s a sweet middle ground. She hears and empathizes, but stays focused on the mission. She can be focused on relationships and missions while understanding structures, systems, and people. She can pull people into a vision no matter where they come from and make everyone feel like they’re included. And Matthew Bacoate. That’s my other hero for sure. He’s sharp as a blade. He ran AFRAM, which was the largest Black-owned company in Asheville.

8. In 2021, Black Wall Street was given a $50,0000 grant from NC Idea and an economic development incentive to launch Black Wall Street AVL at 8 River Arts Place. How is that development going?

J: We’re really glad about the momentum and the interest. We get calls everyday to use this space. Course we’re careful to honor the history of the building, and so that makes us think a few different times about our purchases. So that’s a challenge. But we’re really really pumped about Black-owned businesses having a place, especially for people that are new to Asheville and don’t know where to land and where to connect. We’re really stoked when we meet someone new and they want to know where things are.

I know another big thing on the horizon for your team is the second annual Grind Fest. What should folks expect at this year’s festival? What are y’all most excited about?

J: First of all, it’s gonna be a four-day festival not at three-day festival. We’re doing it in collaboration with Asheville Beer Week. We’re highlighting Black businesses and entrepreneurs in every industry. Brian Hamilton is coming for the entrepreneurs luncheon. And then a poetry slam, last year was standing room only, this year we want to double it. Saturday morning we’ve got hip hop aerobics with Rico Suave and then the opportunity tent opens for people to make partnerships, deals, jobs, funding — anything to make business happen.

We’ve got family reunion-style outdoor games, food trucks, including the Slutty Vegan coming from Atlanta. Highland brewing is doing a beer garden. There will be a drag show on the greenway. Plenty of vendors the whole time. And then on Sunday the gospel explosion, a BBQ, fish, and wings competition. Folks can have permit to tailgate. We’ll honor Black veterans at noon that day since it’s Memorial Day, plus there will be DJs and music all day long.

So Grind Fest, it’s a celebration of Black business and entrepreneurship — and we don’t want people to think that celebrating Black business is only for Black people. Black business is everyone’s business, it always has been. We have to begin to celebrate each other as if we are our own. I say often that money in the economy is like blood in the body, as long as it keeps moving, the whole body is healthy.

Bruce: Most of all, it’s gonna be a fun, jam-packed four days of amazing celebration of everyone coming together and honoring history and being able to work together. It’s really a showcase of what Black Wall Street is doing in community and how people can connect at large.

As Black Wall Street continues to grow and thrive, how do you hope the River Arts District will evolve?

J: We’re intentional about it. When we got this place we looked at the city’s plan for next 20-30 years and we planned intentionally for this to be a business hub where Black folks can get their start. Brian, who is building the apartment complex across from Ultra Coffee Bar, we’re meeting with him because he’s interested in offering below-market brick and mortar spaces to members of Black Wall Street. The forthcoming Radical Hotel wants to partner with Black Wall Street on how we can be present inside their building. These are opportunities for Black businesses looking for space. All movement is movement. If RAD is growing, it should grow inclusively. We’re experiencing that in real time, right now.

Bruce: We’re also really in alignment with RADBA, the River Arts District Business Association. They’re aware of our work and making space for the evolution and change that needs to take place.

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