Wearing pearls and “chucks” in support of fellow Howard University grad and Vice President Kamala Harris, Ashley “Elbi” Elm walked past the potential location of The Culturitst Union coffee shop geared towards Black creators and entrepreneurs.
Slated to open tentatively this summer, and hopefully on the corner of 35th and Bull Street, Elm smiled from ear to ear while construction workers worked in the background cutting pieces of wood.
“Savannah is ripe and ready for this,” Elm said.
THE CULTURIST UNION
Exclusive to people of color, The Culturist Union (TCU) is a hub for creative empowerment for Black entrepreneurs and creators that was created by Elm in 2018, and licensed in 2019.
Elm’s idea for a Black coffee shop centered around Black entrepreneurs and creators began after she saw a need for a space.
“It was birthed out of the problem here in Savannah, that creators who are people of color didn’t have a place to gather, commune or come together,” Elm said. “I wanted to fill that void by creating a safe space for us.”
Elm was born in Pontiac, Michigan and moved to Savannah in 2017 after retiring from the U.S. Air Force after ten years of service in order to be closer to her parents who live in Richmond Hill.
She enrolled at Savannah College of Art and Design as a performing arts major for two years before transferring to Howard University.
After changing her major to theater management, Elm got to see the Black community enrichment by attending a historically Black college and university (HBCU).
“I had already fell in love with Savannah, and wanted to cultivate change here,” Elm said. She left her non-profit job and moved back to Savannah to create TCU.
At first, Elm wanted it to be a co-working space, but due to lack of capital, she had to put those plans on hold.
“I decided to pivot from a co-working space to a coffeehouse after winning BizPitch Savannah in 2019 and realizing how much capital it would be to actualize that concept,” Elm said.
After deciding to go digital, The Culturist Union began having entrepreneurship summits, yoga retreats, political information sessions and much more.
“Everything you would get out of a traditional co-working space, we’ve been able to adapt and create it into a digital space,” Elm said.
With about 42 members, TCU recently went from paid memberships to non-paid memberships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elondia Harden owns ElonWick Candle Company and has been a member of TCU since 2020. Harden said she joined after meeting Elm two years ago at an event and saw her vision.
“Just learning what she was doing for millennial Black entrepreneurs was exciting,” Harden said.
Harden attended the week-long entrepreneur summit TCU held over the summer and said the membership has helped her business with brand awareness and getting customers outside of the Savannah area.
“It really broke a barrier for me and what Elbi is doing with TCU is encouraging us to take up space,” Harden said. “And that’s exactly what I am doing.”
TCU recently had a Black artist series that connected artisans to the TCU vendor market and allowed the artist to showcase their products and services.
Work is underway to remodel the former Butterhead Greens. Ashley Elm plans to open a coffee shop and art market in a portion of the building.
In November, Elm received a $25,000 grant through the American Express 100 for 100 program that will help with marketing, branding, money management, and more as she prepares to open TCU Cafe.
The name isn’t official yet, but Elm is leaning that way.
Elm was already looking for spaces for a year when her realtor Clara Fishel found a location on Bull Street in the Starland District. Elm is currently in negotiations with the property owners to secure the location.
“The location is great because of the history of Bull Street and you have awesome businesses like 520 Wings and Back in the Day Bakery that cultivated the neighborhood,” Elm said.
“Starlandia is a growing and expanding neighborhood and I want it to grow and expand with black entrepreneurs.”
Ashley Elm plans to open a coffee shop and art market this summer in the former location of Butterhead Greens on Bull Street.
Elm’s goal with the TCU cafe is to create a brick and mortar space where people can come and gather to have coffee or tea. They will also be able to buy products from local Black artisans in the shop.
“Collectively we can work together and I also think that it’s important to empower economic prosperity in the black community,” Elm said.
Elm plans for TCU Cafe to host events like trivia night, small entrepreneurial summits, and Black millennial roundtable discussions all centered around Black empowerment.
“What I’m here to do is to create a space where people can be empowered and be seen.” Elm said.
“I want people to see Black-owned products in this store and know that their neighbor created this and they can buy it.”