Jacksonville businesses receive tens of thousands from community

Murray Hillbilly co-owners Rafaella DeGracia and Lindsey Cooper are excited about what the future could bring to their business after a successful investment crowdfunding campaign.

“We are planning to upgrade our back patio,” DeGracia said. “We want to make it a space to have events and additional seating. Our building is really old so we need our electricity updated so we can run more efficiently.”

If there is enough left over, Murray Hillbilly plans to get a mobile trailer, too.

These expansion and upgrade options came with the success of the restaurant’s campaign, which ended Aug. 8, DeGracia said, when they surpassed their minimum goal for a total of about $45,000 raised.

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Honeycomb Credit facilitated the campaign, said Topiltzin Gomez, Honeycomb’s chief of staff. Honeycomb is a crowdfunding platform to help local businesses get money from their community.

“The reason we exist is that small businesses [can have] trouble accessing bank loans,” Gomez said. “The borrowing rates are getting increasingly higher. If banks won’t lend to businesses, community members will.”

Gomez described the system as being similar to a kickstarter or a GoFundMe but where community members “become the bank” instead.

Honeycomb has launched loan crowdfunding campaigns in about 26 states and has a growing presence in the mid-Atlantic region in cities including Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Washington and is starting to see more interest in the South.

In Jacksonville, four businesses launched and completed campaigns — Kravegan, Murray Hillbilly, Irie Diner and Cultural Kitchen & Catering.

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Regard Libations recently launched its campaign, Honeycomb’s fifth in the area, with a minimum goal of $20,000. It was halfway to that minimum goal in the first three days of its 45-day campaign.

“Honeycomb works really well for retail businesses, restaurants [and] breweries,” Gomez said. “[These establishments have] a community that has people more eager to invest in and also more traditional lenders stay away from them.”

Kravegan was the first Jacksonville campaign to launch in early May and raised over $51,000 from 35 investors, according to the campaign’s results website.

LaTasha Kaiser, owner of Kravegan in Orange Park, said she wanted to use the funds to expand the vegan sauce line her company offers.

“I didn’t want to do a GoFund Me,” she said. “It’s not what I thought was professional for my business.”

When Honeycomb Credit contacted her, she said she thought it would be a good platform to ask community members to help her grow the business through investments rather than donations.

“Instead of paying a loan back to a bank, we are paying back to the community and our followers and supporters,” Kaiser said.

Kravegan didn’t hit its maximum goal of $200,000, but like all the other local businesses that have used Honeycomb for a campaign, it did hit its minimum, which was $40,000.

“We will be able to meet our goals to redesign the labels and get the capital to order the sauces and get them on shelves,” she said. “I appreciated the intentionality of them supporting my brand. I can create as much as I want, but if the people don’t come and partake, it’s just an overpriced hobby for myself.”

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Gomez said there tend to be three types of Honeycomb campaign: expansion campaigns, working capital or refinancing campaigns or business line campaigns, like at Kravegan. Especially with the current economy, Gomez said he has seen small businesses having plenty of great ideas but not enough money or no access to a bank loan to make them a reality. He called the local investment way of conducting business a “win-win” for the community.

“A lot of businesses want to lock in fixed-rate loans and avoid variable loans,” he said. “We’re seeing investors wanting to lock in these higher, elevated rates, too. If their money is sitting in a bank account, this is a way to generate some income in their investments.”

Honeycomb investments start at $100, making it more accessible for the average person to be an investor in a small business.

The average investment is $1,000, Gomez said, and people are seeing this as part of their investment portfolio. Many investors are in their late 20s or early 30s and “love Jacksonville and want to invest in the area.”

“If you might be nervous about the stock market in the coming years, this is a good way to diversify away from that,” Gomez said. “At the same time, many local folks love shopping in their local economy. There is a big shop local, eat local movement, but there is a limit to how much we can consume locally, and there’s not too much available in the local investment economy.”

There is a third type of investor, too.

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund has created a fund to make five-figure investments in small businesses running Honeycomb campaigns.

Chris Crothers, director of impact investing at the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, said in Northeast Florida in particular there has been a gap in the lending ecosystem which the organization is working to reduce.

“There is data out there that says too many folks out there aren’t able to access fairly priced loans,” he said. “Fintech lenders have blown up, so people aren’t qualifying in these traditional programs, and often they are going to more predatory places, which are often placed in neighborhoods of color on purpose.”

As a result, Crothers said his organization has been working to pitch a bigger tent in Northeast Florida to increase impact investing — which directs endowed, traditionally invested capital to high-impact local opportunities that align with grants and mission.

Crothers said the JAX Microfinance Fund is meant to draw capital for small business owners, and Honeycomb was at the top of the list for online platforms with which to partner.

“Although we’re not restricting the fund, we want to emphasize loans made to women and people of color,” Crothers said. “They are also out looking for businesses that meet the criteria we are looking for. Our agreement is that the JAX Microfinance Fund is the first one to support those businesses once the campaign kicks off.”

He added that “having an organization like Honeycomb that understands where we’re coming from [to protect and improve our communities] was hugely important.”

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DeGracia said the biggest surprise of the campaign was the quantity of investors rather than how much they actually raised for Murray Hillbilly.

“It was really reassuring that they believe in our restaurant and our concept and our movement enough to back it with their own money,” she said. “We have a couple of other projects in store. We are actually looking into opening a second location, too.”

For now, Murray Hillbilly is trying to get the back patio fixed up by late fall to kickoff with some events in the milder weather.

Gomez said this was the first batch-launch of Honeycomb campaigns in the area but won’t be the last.

“We are looking to source more small businesses that want to grow,” he said.

Kaiser added that this partnership opened up opportunities with two different equity platforms.

“Our horizon has been broadened, and for that I’m extremely grateful,” she said. “I have a lot up my sleeve for 2023, and we’re going to need a lot of support to make that happen.”

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