Fare Share: Ohio Restaurant Association member Letha Pugh proves perspective matters

John Barker
Guest columnist

Recently, I spoke with Ohio Restaurant Association member and small-business owner Letha Pugh, who won the 2020 ORA Industry Awards Celebration Rising Star award.

Pugh is the co-founder of Muse Hospitality LLC, co-owner of the Bake Me Happy gluten-free bakery and Preston’s: A Burger Joint and treasurer of Service! A Relief Effort for Hospitality Workers.

John Barker is president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.

We discussed her outlook on the pandemic and how she recently weathered being the target of threats. Pugh's Bake Me Happy location in Merion Village closed briefly in early January after Pugh received racially charged threats of violence via two phone calls, which she reported to the Columbus Division of Police and other authorities, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Letha Pugh (left) and Wendy Miller-Pugh own the Bake Me Happy gluten-free bakery, which has locations in Merion Village and Dublin.

During Black History Month, we thought it was important to highlight Pugh as a successful and prominent figure among central Ohio small businesses and the restaurant industry, especially as a Black woman who works hard, gives back to the community in more ways than one and speaks up for Black people when a voice is needed.

The results of our conversation are presented in a question-and-answer format.

Can you share what your thoughts are since the incident in January at Bake Me Happy?

Pugh: I’ve talked to a million people since then, but I think a discussion with my mom had summed it up: I don’t know why I was chosen to experience this, but, in the grand scheme of things, it was a gift. Look at the big picture of systemic racism and where we are today from a historical aspect. Incidents like this could easily be swept under the rug, but I chose to stand up and call them out and call it what it was.

As a Black woman, what role does systemic racism play in your experience as a small-business owner?

Pugh: Systematic racism is alive, and it’s a mentality. And it looks different than it did 60-70 years ago. We’re in the modern-day era, so it isn’t just that Black people can only live on a certain side of town. It’s a mindset that Black people deserve less, should be treated a certain way and, if they are given opportunities, there would be less for “us” (dominant culture or white people).

As a Black person who owns successful businesses after working hard for seven years, I feel like I have a responsibility to speak out and be honest about what happened. I’m very open to sharing with people what I learned from it ... to be a better business owner, and part of that was looking at our safety plan. What did I have in place for the staff should something happen? For a Black person to have to get up every day and go to work or try to build a business with minimal capital, to be exposed to an environment that is not welcoming or safe, is a hard spot to be in and to try and be successful.

Were you surprised at what happened to you?

Pugh: I was not surprised. It’s not the first time someone has called me the N-word. What was a surprise to me that the community said, “This is not OK.” I was going to speak up anyway, but the community has been amazing. Having them behind me made me feel so much more empowered to stand up and speak out and not feel so alone. But not everybody gets that kind of love and I’m aware of that. I would hope that anyone who dealt with something like this would have that kind of support. I’m not sure that would happen. ... That’s something to think about.

Letha Pugh (third from left) won the won the 2020 Ohio Restaurant Association Industry Awards Celebration Rising Star award. Also pictured are ORA president and CEO John Barker (left), former ORA board chair Roy Getz of Top Notch Restaurants and ORA board immediate past chair Sam Lindsley of Michael Symon Restaurants.

You won the 2020 ORA Rising Star award, and then the pandemic hit. Share with us what the last year has been like for you.

Pugh: 2020 was a very strange and a weird year for me and extremely difficult for restaurants. Regardless, I helped open Preston’s and a second Bake Me Happy location within three months of each other. On top of that, I had the honor of winning three major awards in three completely different categories.

I’m a Black woman, my wife and I are open and out, I’m a small-business owner, a community activist and a parent. I do carry a lot on my shoulders. I’ve had to stand and look at myself in the mirror and ask, "How do you take this in a way that you continue to put good out there?" I’m very committed to the community and give and give and give, but I also work on balancing everything out. I think that makes a difference.

I often hear, “How do you do all that?” I try not to think about it because I don’t want to get overwhelmed. I continue to check my lists off each day with my goals and keep moving.

What’s something you want to leave with readers to ponder?

Pugh: It’s key to support small businesses, especially restaurants. You see how essential food has become during this pandemic and to have the ability to feed the people is a gift. People have to eat!

Also, we’re in a movement as humans, and as Black person, I do feel like the needle is moving. You look around and there are some very tangible ways people can help and be a part of this movement, both as individuals and in corporate America.

There are white people saying this current way of existing together shouldn’t and can’t continue, and we want to speak out about it. They’re reaching out when they know something in their soul doesn’t fit right and they can’t quite figure it out, and I see that as a positive thing.

We should give people room to explore, and the younger generation is pushing us to do better.

John Barker is president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.