(Fayetteville, N.C.) — Last February, just as the pandemic was taking hold, Portia Grady quit her job to devote full time to growing her catering business with her close friend Mahalia Robinson. Though COVID-19 put a halt in some of her business plans, the forced pause gave Grady a chance to reset and focus on two passions: diversity and good food.
FRIENDS Upscale Comfort Food, founded in 2018, was at first a side-hustle for Grady and Robinson. Potluck gatherings and plate sales for friends, family, and locals in the Fayetteville, N.C. area quickly became upscale dinner parties, weddings, and even a catered event for the mayor of Fayetteville.
Being from coastal North Carolina, Grady learned how to shell crab and shrimp before learning how to fry an egg, she explained with a bubbling laugh. Good food and home-cooked meals were natural to her as her family rarely ate out.
“I never took it [cooking] seriously at first,” said Grady. It took a boost from her friend and future business partner. “Mahalia saw that it was a passion of mine. I later presented the catering business idea to everyone, and Mahalia was the only one who was 100 percent committed to it.”
Starting a catering business was completely different from selling plates to her dorm mates in college or organizing potlucks. Catering and hospitality were new to Grady — who studied education, business, and marketing in school—and Robinson, who is currently in medical school.
When she went full-time last spring, Grady dreamed of doing the kind of events she and Robinson are doing now. “Except back then, we didn’t have a plan,” Grady said, “So that time of shutdown allowed me to analyze the company internally and really hone in and focus on our goals, development, strategies, marketing, and Mahalia and I to work on ourselves. It allowed us to stay creative in preserving our company during COVID-19.”
Since the start of the pandemic, FRIENDS Upscale has catered about 20 events.
Grady said that if she had the knowledge she had now and implemented it two years ago, FRIENDS Upscale would be much more successful than what it is now.
“The first two years we never saw a profit. We didn’t plan properly and that was my fault. My mindset was, ‘We’re just getting our name out there right now, we’re just XYZ’. Totally the wrong mindset to have. We’re a business.”
“Being a Black business owner, the hardest part is understanding our value,” said Grady. “I can’t tell you how many times we encounter different people who have seen us, seen our stuff, and say we are good at what we do. They’re like, ‘Why are you offering amazing quality stuff, amazing service, but you’re charging pennies?’ I wish I would’ve known our value sooner, and sought counsel and guidance way earlier.”
Grady said she and Robinson connected with mentors who gave them advice on growing Friends Upscale, and a personal life coach who helped her understand who she is as she continues to grow as a person.
“We really had no idea what we were getting into at all!” Grady explained with a laugh. “We are just now getting to a point where we’re able to take on multiple events a week, we have the staff to accommodate that, we have a team to execute that and delegating tasks to other people. Whereas before it was just she [Robinson] and I doing everything.”
Angela Robinson, a longtime supporter of FRIENDS Upscale, and Mahalia’s mother, always believed in the company’s growth.
“Portia really has a go-getter attitude,” said Angela, “She is the type of person that takes lemons and really turns them into lemonade. I know [FRIENDS Upscale] will really grow into something nationally known.”