By Keyia Yalcin,
Special to the AFRO

I remember the first time that I met Ernest “Ernie” Hall.

It was several years ago and he strolled up to the counter full of energy with a ready smile. He ordered what would be the first of hundreds, of Fishnet sandwiches and we struck up a conversation. 

He told me about his new business, Lighting Quick Fit, a boutique Boxing Gym in Mount Vernon and introduced me to his friends and fellow coaches. It was an absolutely unique, yet familiar, moment in the life of two small business owners who are simply getting to know their community.  

I was happy to see Ernie return in the following days. He always brought first timers, but mainly, he brought his positivity.  

We were in the first year of the pandemic when Ernie began coming to Fishnet, so to see him jog around the corner in between classes and sessions at Lighting Quick Fit was a welcomed sight. His dedication gave us hope during the uncertain times of 2020. And Ernie didn’t just come to Fishnet every now and then– he came all the time! 

The entire Fishnet team knew Ernie and his order: one grilled salmon sandwich, no tomato, mac and cheese and old bay mayo.  

He would always encourage the staff – even if he had just offered an encouraging word the day before in his sometimes-daily visits. It seemed like we were all doing our part in those days to stitch the community fabric back together, which is something small businesses facilitate acutely well. I soon realized that these visits were about more than a fish sandwich for Ernie. 

Ernie believed in the power of investing in one’s community and he saw entrepreneurship as a path to lift the community, which is a perspective we should all adopt.

According to a report by the Small Business Administration, small businesses create two out of every three new jobs in the United States. Not only is a small business a job creator, but it creates a social fabric that is an important safety net for the community. Ernie understood the power of “main street” and worked to strengthen the community along Charles Street. 

In small businesses, we have conversations with people every day and serve as a touch point of humanity. Clients from Lighting Quick Fit would often come after a work-out and get a salad at Fishnet. This was a beautiful cycle of supporting businesses in the local community and it was something easy; any citizen could do it. As a result, the community became a little stronger. New businesses felt confident enough to try and open, people were bustling through the streets and running into one another. Ernie surely did his part in creating and encouraging neighborly familiarity with the people along his path. 

When I went to Ernie’s gym and worked out, I would see a diverse group of people coming together, united by boxing. A cross section of Baltimore’s neighborhoods brought together by one man’s entrepreneurial dream. In those moments, we were learning how to exist and persist together. Every time a person would ask Ernie how he was, he would say, “I’m Strong.” 

Over time it became more than just his affirmation– it became a community’s mantra. 

Small businesses are often underestimated, but they can be powerful change agents if citizens make a conscious effort to support them. Ernie knew entrepreneurship could change a community and embodied that belief day in and day out. He truly felt that there was enough room at the table for us all to achieve the goals that we wanted if we worked hard. He had an endless belief in those that showed even the slightest belief in themselves.

Ernie had many wonderful traits, but at his core he was a thoughtful leader and encouraging supporter of the people in his community. He was the best of entrepreneurs because he linked his success to that of his community and as he grew, he elevated everyone around him. As I continue my entrepreneurship journey, I will always keep the lesson of Ernest “Ernie” Hall in mind and remember how one man’s beliefs about creating change through entrepreneurship rippled through a community and made it better.  

Keyia Yalcin is the owner of Fishnet, a “community restaurant” located at 520 Park Ave. in Baltimore.