Leonardo Williams, Owner of Zweli’s Kitchen talks about serving the community
Since March, COVID-19 has ravaged families and the job market alike. However, small business has fallen especially victim to circumstance. In Durham, North Carolina, small businesses act as the heartbeat of the community. In fact, Durham has been named one of the top 10 cities in the United States to start a new venture (Eanes, 2017). Unfortunately, said heartbeat has been experiencing cardiac arrest in the preceding pandemic-filled months.
We recently had the chance to sit down with community servant, educator, and entrepreneur, Leonardo Williams. Williams is co-owner of Zweli’s Kitchen, a Zimbabwean and South African restaurant located in Durham, North Carolina. Williams alongside his wife, the restaurant’s namesake and creator, has founded the country’s very first Zimbabwean restaurant right in Bull City. And they did so against all odds. With just $30k in the bank, Leo and Zweli hand made tables, bartered for used kitchen equipment, and painted the walls. They, quite literally, built their restaurant from the ground up.
Before entering the restaurant industry, Williams was a two-time Durham Teacher of the Year Award winner. Although he is undoubtedly passionate about education, Leo recognized the need to marry his heart and mind while providing that same opportunity to Zweli. As such, Leo made the decision to invest in his wife’s dream, and together they established Zweli’s Kitchen.
Zweli’s isn’t just a restaurant offering a welcoming atmosphere and delicious food; it also provides opportunities for locals, specifically local young black men. Leo and Zweli take many young people under their wing, give them a job, and help them figure out what’s next. Leo may no longer be teaching in a school, but he’s still an educator at his core.
When asked about the impact of COVID-19, Leo seemed cautiously optimistic. While Zweli’s has taken a revenue hit, like most if not all Durham businesses, he was sure the community would have his back. This surety is just one of the many benefits that has resulted from Leo and Zweli’s investment and involvement in their local community. When several families in Durham were displaced in January due to carbon monoxide concerns at a local housing community, Zweli’s fed all 630 people for free with the cooperation of the city government. They spent hours collecting donations and driving around town in a borrowed food truck making sure the community was fed. As Leo always says, it’s all about the people. If you have your community’s back, they will have yours.
The above instance was far from the first time Leo and Zweli jumped in to support the local community. As Zweli’s was approaching their first anniversary in the summer of 2019, they had a difficult decision to make. Cash wasn’t flowing in at an expected rate (common for many first-year restaurants) and they were preparing to close their business. In an effort to save their restaurant and support the community, Leo thought up Zweli’s “10 days of giving” initiative. The premise was that if people came out to the restaurant and Zweli’s raised enough money, the restaurant would commit to feeding 1,000+ homeless people on the 10th day. Leo never expected such an amazing turnout – the restaurant was packed every day and Zweli’s raised more than enough money to stay afloat. Zweli’s was able to feed all 1,000 homeless people promised, and in turn, created a new tradition to repeat annually.
Leo’s community impact doesn’t stop there. Lately, he’s been acting upon his call to serve the community further and is even considering running for Durham’s city council. Since COVID-19 hit, Leo has partnered with 4 other men to create the Durham Small Business Recovery and Relief Fund, an initiative they deemed necessary to launch in the wake of the city’s minimal response to the impacts of COVID-19 on local business. Leo is projecting to raise $3MM from Duke University, the city, and the county with all funds to be injected into small businesses in Durham.
When asked where his motivation comes from, Leo reminisces that it all goes back to education. Growing up in the country in Halifax County, NC, Leo joined any organization and any sports group at school he could. He would play football and at halftime, come out and march in the band still wearing his football uniform. Although it was not uncommon for students at his high school to take on multiple activities, his teachers knew there was something special in Leo – he possessed a certain drive to make a difference so it was no surprise that Leo is going places and seeing much success. Leo’s motivation comes from fulfilling these prophecies and following through on the vision his teachers had for him.
When asked what’s next, Leo is ever the optimist. His vision of the future includes a comfortable home, a few more restaurants, and an institute called Egocivic (economically growing our own to be civically engaged). His goal is to prepare young black men to be civically engaged in some type of political capacity, as well as help them to create wealth. Leo has big ideas for the future of Durham and the surrounding community.
To keep up with Leo, you can visit his website at LeonardoWilliams.com, follow his Instagram at @Articlesofme, or follow his Twitter at @Leonardo_NC.