More Than a Meal
Alum Sees Positive Power in Family Food Businessby Liam Farrell | Photo by John T. Consoli
The chicken and waffles come with a side of optimism at Connie’s, be it through a warm welcome from staff or a happy face scribbled on a take-out box.
Named for the mother of owners Khari Parker ’04 and his brother, Shawn, the burgeoning business aims to not only serve crispy, savory and sweet meals but also to help build a positive community.
“Food is the draw, but there is so much more to get,” Parker says.
Those qualities have served him and Connie’s well before, as the operation expanded in three years from a stall in Baltimore’s Lexington Market to locations across the city and in Delaware. And they will be needed now, as the family business faces the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“The biggest thing,” Parker says, “is remaining hopeful and optimistic.”
Parker grew up in Baltimore and graduated from UMD with a degree in electrical engineering. He was an engineer and manager for Sprint and Verizon but was always interested in becoming an entrepreneur. When the federal government contract he was working on shifted to North Carolina, he took the leap.
Inspired by the family gatherings of their youth (“Everybody’s welcome,” Connie says. “We always have enough food.”), Parker and Shawn, a 2009 graduate of Coppin State University, opened the first Connie’s Chicken and Waffles location in 2016.
It took time to understand the ebb and flow of inventory and get used to the “full-time weight lifting” sometimes required, but they loved being part of a market with dozens of vendors committed to a city often overwhelmed by negative news. Their most ambitious project is still to come, and being worked on while the coronavirus halted regular operations in public markets: managing an entire food hall in the new Walbrook Mill development near Coppin State.
“We’re hoping it’s a transformative project,” Parker says. “It’s a really big opportunity to help people.”
The brothers are figuring out ways to do that by dipping their toes into consulting, making sure they are accessible to their employees and training them to start their own business.
“They are going out and finding folks who really need those opportunities,” says Allie Busching, who works in business development for the Baltimore nonprofit Civic Works. “Having basic respect and dignity in the workplace makes a big difference. It has ripple effects.”
Parker says it’s part of his duty as someone who grew up in the city and has gotten a lot back from it—a responsibility reinforced by the society-wide challenges of coronavirus.
“It’s a hard time for a lot of folks right now,” he says. “But we’re in this as a community.”
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