Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, Keitra Bates has lived in Atlanta’s Westside for nearly a decade. As an entrepreneur and mother of five children, Bates used to own Westview Pizza Cafe, where she sold pizza and fries made from fresh potatoes.

But one day, the building was sold and the new owners’ vision for the property didn’t fit Bates’ plans or budget. So the Savannah State University graduate cast her eyes on different sights and didn’t limit her dreams to bricks and mortar.

“You can’t be mad at people exercising their right to do what they want with what they own,” she tells NewsOne. “But I felt like their vision wasn’t necessarily in line with my business, and the culture I wanted to represent.”

Even as her own business was about to be affected, one of Bates’ main concerns was for local cooks and vendors, and what effect ongoing development would have on the local business ecosystem and food culture.

With the building of the new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons and an influx of people moving to the city, long-time residents of West Atlanta are facing the tide of gentrification. Bates knew she wanted to make a bigger impact on her community, and set out to discover how.

Bates took leave from Westview Pizza Cafe to enjoy time with her newborn son, but also to reflect on how the new interests in the area would affect it. She traveled around the neighborhood, interviewing and surveying both old and new residents about what businesses they supported.

She also asked local business owners if the development had helped bring in new customers, but they reported just the opposite due to raises in rent and newer residents having different tastes. This helped her brainstorm ideas on how she could help.

“I want to speak for those who aren’t spoken for,” Bates said. “We are trying to erase all barriers and create bridges.”[/pullquote]

With mentorship help from Village Micro Fund (which helps small businesses with business plans, connection to banks, and other key support), Bates pitched a plan to use an under-utilized restaurant space to house a shared kitchen called “Marddy’s”–short for “market buddies”– to the Westside Innovation Lab, which finds and supports community-driven and community-built ideas ranging from programs for West Atlanta youth to sustainable agricultural development.

The idea caught on, and Bates became one of eight fellows, receiving $10,000 for start-up dollars to create Marddy’s.

Bates’ vision for Marddy’s is for it to be the “Amazon of the Local;” a social enterprise where independent food vendors and home chefs can receive training and proper certification to sell their food.

Customers, whether local or visiting, can come “taste the neighborhood.” One requisite for being a vendor at Marddy’s will be to cook “real food with honest ingredients.”

Some of the folks Bates hopes to give a platform to include Mrs. Crowder, a home cook who bakes sweet potato pies that her husband sells at various spots around the neighborhood; Mama Asiah, who makes kale salad; and Yinka Winfrey of Ayaresa, who runs a business buying and selling food in bulk to families.

There are many stories like this in her neighborhood, but one of Bates’ favorites is the “Cookie Lady”– a mother of twins who moved to Atlanta, had difficulty finding a job, and sold cookies. These are the types of local enterprises Bates would like to amplify.

“People like her are inspirational,” said Bates. “This type of economic self-determination is worth promoting.”

Over the last six months, Bates has made repairs and renovations to a space she has set her sights on. Though the fellowship was good seed money, Bates said the initiative is about $9,000 away from giving Marddy’s a storefront home. But as she and community partners move closer to their goal, Bates is committed to empower entrepreneurs and promote the sustainability of the local culture.

“I want to speak for those who aren’t spoken for,” Bates said. “We are trying to erase all barriers and create bridges.”

*Click here to learn more about Marddy’s. 

Joshua Adams is a writer and arts & culture journalist from Chicago. He holds a B.A. in African-American Studies from the University of Virginia and a M.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California. His writings often explain current and historical cultural phenomena through personal narratives. Follow him on Twitter at @JournoJoshua.

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