NIKEISAH NEWTON’S FOOD-FOCUSED BUSINESS IS ON TRACK TO REACH A WIDER AUDIENCE WHILE STILL SERVING HER ORIGINAL NICHE CUSTOMERS IN THE SEX WORKER INDUSTRY
When Nikeisah Newton decided to start Meals 4 Heels, her goals for the business were two-fold.
She wanted to create food that tasted good but also served a greater purpose. So, she decided to focus on providing and delivering healthy meals to a niche community neglected by other food and delivery businesses in Portland: dancers and others in the sex worker industry.
For dancers looking to eat healthy while at work, for example, food options can be slim. Because the clientele of clubs is approximately 90% men, the in-house menus usually focus on food for that demographic. In many areas where clubs are located, the only other food choices available are from fastfood restaurants. In addition, because most adult sex workers and dancers in clubs work late nights, ordering healthy food for delivery from restaurants in other parts of the city isn’t usually an option.
Newton, however, felt dancers and other sex industry workers deserved to have access to healthy food during their work shifts. In January 2019, she took a $2,700 tax return and started her own business.
“We’re the only late-night delivery service in Portland — and possibly in the world — that caters to dancers and sex workers,” Newton told Opportunity magazine. “I think we’re something special.”
A lot of other Portlanders seem to agree that Newton has come up with a winning combination. At a time when many restaurants, food trucks and other food-based businesses have struggled to keep their doors open, Meals 4 Heels is expanding. Originally started as a home-based business before moving to a commercial kitchen, Newton’s business recently was selected to ll the space at Powerhouse Cafe, an incubator space that’s part of the campus of Ecotrust’s the Redd on Salmon Street.
With a walk-up window to serve customers and access to a full list of resources and business development support at the Redd, Newton is now able to provide Portland food lovers from all walks of life with Meals 4 Heels’ healthy, innovative fare from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
While the expansion is allowing Newton to share her creative menu items with a wider audience and provide her newly expanded staff with a living wage, it’s also providing a chance to increase her ability to continue to serve the clients that helped Meals 4 Heels establish a foothold in Portland’s competitive food scene in the first place. A consistent area for food prep and the promise of increased revenue from the Powerhouse Cafe walk-up window means Newton will be able to expand service to Portland’s adult sex industry workers.
“Food with a purpose and a cause, that’s the whole (mission) and basis of Meals 4 Heels,” Newton says.
Nikeisah Newton, owner of Meals 4 Heels, prepares a customer order in the business’ new brick-and-mortar space at the Powerhouse Caf on the campus of the Redd on Salmon Street.
Powering up Meals 4 Heels isn’t the first food business to fill the space at the Powerhouse Cafe, and it won’t be the last.
Located at the Redd on Salmon Street, the cafe is an integral part of an innovative approach to connect food producers with farmers, ranchers, and fishermen throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Ecotrust, a Portland-based nonprofit that describes its mission as working toward an “equitable, prosperous and climate-smart future,” created The Redd on Salmon by turning two former warehouse spaces into an event center and working food hub. The Redd has flexible workspaces and infrastructure to support food-focused entrepreneurs and small micro-businesses.
The Powerhouse Cafe concept furthers The Redd’s focus on creating a more equitable, sustainable food system.
Powerhouse Cafe is a 150-square foot brick-andmortar space with room for food preparation, a walk-up window for placing orders, and a small outdoor dining space.
very two years, space opens to a new food business tenant, prioritizing BIPOC, non-binary, and women food entrepreneurs.
Each tenant rents the space for two years. During this time, the business owner has access to the full roster of resources provided on The Redd campus as well as ongoing business development support.
At the end of the two years, the tenant business will be at a point where it is ready to move into a regular commercial, market-rates space. The Powerhouse Cafe space then opens up for a new food business tenant.
Newton was born in California, but because her father served in the Air Force, she lived in several countries, including Japan and Portugal, as well as throughout the United States. Her family eventually settled in Portland, and Newton followed her interest in a culinary career by working in kitchens in some of the city’s restaurants.
After her father passed away, she decided to move to North Carolina to improve her skills as a chef and found a position at a golf club and resort that provided her with a resume’s worth of experience.
She eventually returned to Portland, only to find that despite her expertise as a chef, she was unable to move up the industry ladder.
“I felt like the culinary scene in Portland had changed,” Newton says. “I was being paid well, but I wasn’t moving up. I wasn’t getting promoted.”
She decided to strike out on her own. Newton’s partner at the time was working as a dancer to pay for her full-time schooling. A schedule filled with studying for classes, completing an internship and working, meant she had little time to sit down for a meal. So Newton would often prepare a healthy meal and drop it off for her partner at work. The meals always drew a lot of attention from the other dancers.
“She said to me, ‘You know, other dancers would pay you to bring them food,” Newton recalls. She was able to tap her experience as a chef to develop a unique menu. In creating bowls such as “I Like to Cha-Cha, which features a bed of “green” brown rice topped with citrus slaw, two kinds of cheeses, avocado and no-heat-hells-savory Salsa Lizano, she focused on making dishes that were vegan or vegetarian while also offering the option to add animal protein.
She soon found the niche sector she was serving required some special considerations that most chefs don’t encounter when creating dishes. Newton learned to avoid items that might make customers bloated or gassy. She also realized she needed to avoid certain ingredients such as garlic and onions because their strong scents can actually be emitted through the pores of someone who eats them.
Although the earliest days were slow for Meals 4 Heels, word eventually spread about her about the unique service — and the unique menu — especially after she added event catering to her services.
“It was meal-to-meal for the longest time,” Newton recalls. “That first year, it slowed down in the clubs in November, but it picked up in catering. That was the last time I had to worry about whether I would be able to pay the bills.”
Before too long, she had picked up Pride Northwest, Join PDX, APANO, and similar groups and events with social justice and equity focuses as repeat catering customers.
“They were coming to me, and that’s amazing. They wanted to make the right choice where they spend their money.”
Nikeisah Newton says the healthy bowls on the Meals 4 Heels menu were influenced by the many places she lived while growing up with a father in the military. The fare at Meals 4 Heels leans toward vegan and vegetarian, but animal protein can be added. At the new brick-and-mortar location for Meals 4 Heels, owner Nikeisah Newton is planning weekly specials in addition to the regular menu items. JAIME VALDEZ/PMG
FINDING A NEW NORMAL
As the business headed into March 2020 and Newton tackled six events in four days, all signs indicated that her business was on track for a successful year. But the day after she provided 100 appetizers for a small business legal clinic event, Gov. Brown issued a stay-at-home order and businesses found themselves forced to abruptly close down, including the clubs where Meals 4 Heels customers worked.
All of a sudden, the future of Newton’s business didn’t look secure — or bright.
“I found myself to be very lost, very confused,” she said, describing how she suddenly found herself with more time on her hands than food orders or deliveries.
Newton had enough money saved up to handle about one month without work, but she worried about the future of Meals 4 Heels even with that cushion. She also decided she had worked too hard to make Meals 4 Heels a success to sit idly by and watch her business die out. So, she turned to her network.
She received a $3,500 grant from the Portland-based MRG Foundation. She also turned to Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon (MESO), where Newton found business education and technical assistance when she first started Meals 4 Heels. Working with MESO business specialists, Newton decided to start offering meal kits with ingredients that would allow people to make items from the Meals 4 Heels menu at home. She also began providing meal kits for grocery food boxes that the Oregon Food Bank provided to trans Portlanders.
Newton then decided to temporarily woo a new clientele and began marketing Meals 4 Heels healthy menu and delivery to health care workers at hospitals and other health care facilities. She also received a regular contract from Frontline Food, a Portland effort that popped to provide meals to frontline workers.
Her plan to pivot worked better than she anticipated.
“All of that definitely kept me afloat. Then, after April, it was busy, busy until October, when it slowed a bit.”
Rather than take a breather during the temporarily quiet time, Newton began looking for new opportunities. She found one when she came across a Request for Proposals for a small food business to become a two-year tenant at Powerhouse Cafe at the Redd at Salmon Street. In addition to serving customers through a walk-up window five days a week, Meals 4 Heels will provide catering for some events to be held at the Redd. Newton also will be able to develop branding and marketing for Meals 4 Heels with support from a social media specialist and creative director at Ecotrust and the Redd. She’s also looking forward to collaborating with other food entrepreneurs who participate in a farmers market held at The Redd twice a month and is focused on BIPOC vendors. “I want to work with them to highlight their products, maybe make a special menu item.”
Other opportunities also have been coming her way lately as well. She recently picked up a paid gig speaking at a food symposium on the hospitality industry and underpaid economies. She’s also making herself more visible through an online cooking class where people can join her to make food from the meal kits she sells.
“At one point, I just wanted to stick with delivery to clubs, but I was just thinking small,” Newton says. “I didn’t know how big this would get. Now, it’s almost like I’m building a brand and selling myself as a chef.”
In addition, as media outlets around the world are picking up stories about Meals 4 Heels and its mission, Newton is starting to receive calls from organizations and individuals interested in replicating the business model in their communities.
“I’m a college dropout, two-time formerly incarcerated. I’m Black and I’m gay. I’m grateful the city, the world has shown up.”
CONNECTING WITH COMMUNITY
The industry that offered her little opportunity when she first arrived is slowly changing, Newton says. While there’s still system racism in the restaurant culture, she’s seen a new community rise as Black- and Brown-owned food businesses gain traction.
While many might expect the economic impact of the pandemic to have created competition for customers among those businesses, Newton says she’s seen the opposite. In addition to their common passion for food, restauranteurs are also united by the murders of Black and Brown individuals like George Floyd and the calls for an end to police brutality.
“It’s a learning process,” Newton says. “I’m not the best chef. I’m not the best business owner. But I feel like I’m making the right choice and the right business decisions. I have a support network of the people I meet and interact with, all of the people helping this business. It doesn’t feel competitive with other food businesses. It’s been a lot of collaboration and support.
“I think what’s linking us is a common bond. It’s giving the community a common goal of ending white supremacy and police brutality. Families are a part of our businesses. It’s kind of extending that, making our family and our community bigger. I feel like everyone is happy to see everyone doing well.”