Liz Rogers is celebrating the first anniversary of her restaurant Mahogany’s in a big way this weekend, with a street party in front of the restaurant on The Banks and a free concert at Sawyer Point with the S.O.S. Band and other R&B acts.
Lasting a year is a cause for celebration for anyone in the restaurant business, notorious for how quickly openings can be followed by closings. But it has a special satisfaction for Rogers, who opened Mahogany’s under extra pressure. After receiving a loan and grant from the city of Cincinnati in 2012, it became known that she owed $49,000 in back taxes, making her fodder for news and talk radio.
A year later, Rogers talked about what it was like to be the first African-American woman restaurant owner to be part of The Banks, and to open a restaurant under scrutiny and criticism.
“People bet money I was going to shut down in six months,” she said. “I got death threats, hate mail. My home address was mentioned on TV. I was scared for my child. I had to get the Butler County sheriff involved, when all I wanted to do was expand my restaurant, my dream.”
“Making history is never easy,” said Sean Rugless, president of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce.
“I’ve been proud to support an entrepreneur of her strength.”
Far from closing, said Rogers, Mahogany’s has served more than 100,000 customers in the last year.
Evenings such as Friday karaoke nights are packed, and the crowds are diverse, said Rogers.
“It is good for Cincinnati when all people can feel welcomed at The Banks with a variety of offerings,” said City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr., who worked with Rogers for a year to bring Mahogany’s to The Banks.
“I’m pleased Liz has continued to do well.”
“People drive from Detroit, Indiana, Tennessee, just to eat here,” said Rogers.
She said sales are three times original projections, although she would not share specifics.
She employs 65 full- and part-time employees.
She said she’s been approached about bringing her restaurant to other cities in Ohio.
“I like giving people the opportunity to take care of their families, send their children to college. And giving people a chance. I’ve hired people who wouldn’t otherwise get hired,” she said. “What makes me feel good is inspiring people. There are so many people who have dreams and need a chance to try them out.”
She has expanded her menu since opening to include new items such as a soul sushi roll, a sweet potato bread pudding, a tempura-fried salmon roll and a section of simply grilled items.
She is working with Aglamesis Brothers to create a line of ice cream inspired by her desserts, such as red velvet cheesecake and peach cobbler.
A year ago, on the basis of the restaurant that she owned in Hamilton, also called Mahogany’s, she was asked by the city to open at The Banks, giving the project some needed diversity and local ownership. Just before City Council voted on the package, news surfaced that she owed back taxes and that she had a disputed amount with a vendor.
“I didn’t mind anyone voting against the project, but I objected to my personal information being leaked to the press. I felt betrayed by that,” she said.
Said Rugless: “I learned a lot about Cincinnati in the course of Liz’s opening. And I think we can do better. If we’re going to attract and retain small businesses, expand the tax base, we have to be more welcoming. I think having her presence on The Banks is important to the whole city.”
She still finds it strange that owing money was considered so scandalous. “All Americans owe money,” she said. “I was on a payment plan, I filed my taxes and made the effort to pay my bills. I didn’t declare bankruptcy, I kept my businesses going and people employed.”
Rogers said it’s not as if she ever had a million dollars in hand. The city provided $684,000 to the developer to build out the restaurant, then gave her a $300,000 loan for fixtures. She put $184,000 of her own money into further improvements, she said.
The street party in front of the restaurant Friday will feature a diverse lineup of local bands.
“We’ve got an all-female salsa band, and old-school R&B, alternative rock,” she said.
The Saturday night concert will please those who attend the Macy’s Music Festival, with 1980s and 1990s artists the S.O.S. Band, Al B. Sure and The Rude Boys.