Carole Ann Taylor is walking through Miami International Airport’s Terminal E on her way to security wearing a colorful tunic dress and matching jacket in a one-of-a-kind African print by Brooklyn’s Tribal Truths Collection. She returned the day before from a 24-hour business trip in Atlanta and is off to Martha’s Vineyard the next day, followed by Harlem and possibly Barbados for Carifesta, the island’s annual arts and crafts festival. Today, she’s visiting one of her four Miami To Go souvenir shops at MIA.
“There she is, Miami’s merchant to the millions,” says chief of Airport Concessions Adrian Songer, giving her a warm embrace as they pass each other in the terminal.
Taylor’s stores have been a mainstay at MIA since 1994, selling logo T-shirts, key chains and sun hats, along with Beanie Babies, neck pillows and bottled water. The concept, as she puts it, is “anything in and of Miami.”
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This year, she’s celebrating 30 years in business. Bayside To Go, her first store at Bayside Marketplace, opened when the shopping center debuted in April 1987. Since then, in addition to her airport stores, she has also created Little Havana To Go Marketplace, which she co-owns with her son Jaesyn Mixon. Her latest venture is CulturesToGo.com, a project promoting artisans of the African diaspora, the Caribbean, Central and South America.
Taylor is a woman driven by passion. At age 72, she has spent a lifetime championing women’s rights, civil rights and economic opportunities for minorities. As a young jazz singer with a degree in sociology from Ohio’s Central State University, she turned down a five-year contract with Duke Ellington to work for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s Women’s Unit in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
She was part of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 and attended both the Republican and Democratic national conventions at the Miami Beach Convention Center in 1972. She can rattle off the leading names of the women’s movement as her contemporaries — Shirley Chisholm, Roxcy Bolton, for instance — and she has memories of organizing in Gloria Steinem’s living room.
Taylor landed in Miami again in 1980 on the heels of the race riots that scorched through Liberty City, Overtown and the Black Grove upon the acquittal of four white police officers in the death of African-American Arthur McDuffie. As a traveling loan officer with the Small Business Administration, Taylor helped communities recover from natural disasters. After dealing with floods, fires, mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes and droughts, this was the first time in her career that human plight was the cause of disaster.
When asked what drew her to the front lines, Taylor doesn’t hesitate. “Service,” she says. “I’m from a family of volunteers, my mother and my father, so I was fascinated with it. What better way to be able to help somebody than to start all over again?”
After four years on the road with SBA, it was realizing Miami’s enormous growth potential that led her to lay down roots. “From this man-made disaster, I had to really dig down deep into this community to find out who, why, how, what…” Taylor says. “I saw so much opportunity in Miami for people of color, for me. There were so many more opportunities because there were so many more gaps. You could basically name your field and become the only one in it. When I realized that, I said I’m staying here.”
To nurture these opportunities, Taylor recognized an immense need for education, advocacy and legislation to support Miami’s black community. In 1981, she began working as special assistant to Mayor Maurice Ferré, who held office from 1973 to 1985.
“That’s when my life really began,” she recalls. “The blessing of that was that Ferré was such a visionary. There were no boundaries, so I was in all the neighborhoods. I was able to use the mayor’s office as a facilitator.”
With Ferré, Taylor served as liaison to the Bayside Marketplace contract. The city struck a deal with developers The Rouse Company to ensure that 50 percent of the businesses at Bayside be minority-owned. They also worked together to create the Miami Bayside Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting minority owned businesses through small business loans, education, scholarships and technical assistance.
As of 2016, MBF has awarded more than $2.1 million in loans to Miami’s minority-owned businesses creating more than 300 jobs. “That is the legacy of Maurice Ferré,” Taylor says.
When Bayside opened for business downtown in 1987, Taylor made the transition from public servant to entrepreneur. With the urging and guidance of Rouse, they sold her the Bayside logo license for one dollar and she opened Bayside To Go, the marketplace’s dedicated merchandise and souvenir shop.
“I opened that store not knowing one thing about being in business and that store was a smashing success. It was one of the highest-grossing stores at Bayside.”
When asked to what she attributes her early success, Taylor says, “Enthusiasm, creativity, technical assistance from Bayside, a loan from Southeast Bank and the will to make it work. It made me realize that there was another way to be the welcoming mat for Miami, from the mayor’s office to the logo store.”
Determined to grow her business and pave the way for other minority entrepreneurs, Taylor soon learned the ins and outs of the Department of Transportation’s Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, which is designed to provide opportunities for economically and socially disadvantaged people (including African Americans, Hispanics and women, among other groups) to participate in contracting opportunities at the airport. To qualify as an ACDBE, 51 percent of the small business must be owned and controlled by an individual or group from a disadvantaged demographic.
With the idea of opening “a Miami concept destination store at the airport,” Taylor bid tenaciously for the contract and faced rejection three times before being awarded four stores at once in 1994: “Here I am, a single business owner, how am I going to build four stores when you have to spend millions to get these open. How am I going to do that? But I was not going to say, no thank you.”
The key to Taylor’s success has always been in securing strategic partners, and she most recently aligned herself with Peter Amaro Jr. of MasterConcessionAir. They own two Miami To Go stores at the airport with Taylor and struck a licensing agreement in 2014 to operate the other two stores.
In 1998, she had the foresight to sell Bayside To Go to a vendor when she noticed big retailers at the shopping center moving to Coconut Grove and South Beach. Inspired by the role her stores served in welcoming visitors to Miami, she set her sights on a vacant storefront on Calle Ocho next to Máximo Gómez Domino Park and opened Little Havana To Go in 2000.
The store became a cornerstone of Little Havana’s tourism boom, benefiting from its location near the tour bus stop. “There were all these people coming and going and no stores,” Taylor recalls. She created the Little Havana Merchants Association “to try to bring everybody on the street together to take advantage of this potentially huge opportunity.” And she played a hand in founding Viernes Culturales, the neighborhood’s monthly art, food and cultural celebration.
Today, Taylor continues to volunteer on the boards of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. A woman born with an artist’s soul whose life has been guided by breaking boundaries, Taylor recently got back to her roots. “I missed performing,” she says. So she started taking voice lessons again and booking gigs. This renaissance woman can currently be seen singing jazz standards at venues like The Betsy Hotel South Beach, Little Haiti Cultural Center and Casablanca on the Bay.
▪ Bayside To Go, founded in April 1987, sold in 1998.
▪ Miami To Go, four stores at MIA founded in 1994.
▪ Little Havana To Go Marketplace, founded in 2000.
▪ CulturesToGo.com, founded in 2013.
▪ MasterConcessionAir, a certified ACDBE company, has been Taylor’s partner at Miami To Go since 2014 at MIA where they co-own two stores and have licensed the other two.
▪ Her son Jaesyn Mixon co-owns and operates Little Havana To Go Marketplace, which closed for one year and reopened in December 2016 with a new look.
▪ CulturesToGo.com is a mother-son partnership with Mixon, as well as CPA Diane Sugimoto and her son Ghen Sugimoto.
Products: Miami merchandise and souvenirs including T-shirts, toys, hats, beach bags, key chains, magnets, snacks, beverages, travel accessories and gifts.
Employees: About 14.
Revenues: $4.9 million in 2016, combined stores revenues.
Outside view: For Peter Amaro Jr., CEO and co-founder of MasterConcessionAir, Taylor’s Miami To Go stores were his first ACDBE partnership. With over 20 years in business, MasterConcessionAir owns and operates a wide portfolio of retail stores and dining concepts at seven airports across the country including MIA.
“It’s always about the vision,” Amaro says of his partnership with Taylor. “She had the vision for the Miami-tailored gift store. That, combined with our relationships with vendors, plus our infrastructure to be able to operate efficiently added a lot of value. We saw that and decided there was an opportunity and a partnership to be made.”
Competition: When it comes to competition and operation of stores at the airport, Amaro says, “You’re competing against everyone. No matter what, you’re all targeting the same customer. The competition is really at the request for proposal level where the decisions are made about who gets the contract. Once you’re out there, you’re really just fighting for the customer to get them the right product at the right cost.”
Growing pains: “It’s not necessarily a good thing to start at the top because you don’t know what you don’t know,” says Taylor of diving into the deep end of business ownership when she opened Bayside To Go in 1987. “You might be making the money, but you don’t have the base. You don’t have the experience. That’s what I found in my business life and I had to catch up to what I should know to stay in business.”
Best decisions and strategy: From learning on the job as a loan officer with the SBA to taking a risk with Bayside To Go and crafting winning bids for her contracts at MIA, Taylor has always created her own opportunities. The key to her success has been in forging strategic partnerships. When she was awarded the MIA contracts, she recalled a store at the Curacao airport from a previous trip that was “selling the essence of Curacao.”
She researched the store’s ownership and cold called their customer service line. “The same day, I got a call from the owner who flew to Miami the next day. It wasn’t a hard sell,” Taylor recalls. “They knew more than I did about what this opportunity was.”
The difference: More than simple souvenir shops, Taylor has approached her role as entrepreneur to help develop both Miami’s tourism industry and economic opportunities for minorities.
Advice to others: “Don’t take no for an answer,” Taylor says. “Faith in God. You absolutely have to have patience. Nothing happens overnight. And persistence. Get yourself a good attorney and a good accountant. You cannot make it without them.”
On mentorship: “I get great joy from trying to mentor young people, and young women in particular, to become good businesspeople,” Taylor says. “I have so much access because of how long I’ve been here, who I’ve worked with, the reputation I’ve created. That access needs to be their access. I get a lot of joy out of opening doors.
“That didn’t used to happen. I was fortunate enough to have a black woman in Gov. Rockefeller’s office who guided me, as well as all the black women in Harlem who I worked with. There was no hesitation of, she’s too young or she’s too inexperienced. They took me along. That is our job.
“I get great joy out of bringing people along in any way I can. If I can open a door, I want it opened, to watch the economic development of young people being their own businesspeople. When I came here there were no black businesses. Everybody who should have been in business was a government employee, a teacher or a social worker. We lost our business class and now it’s back. It’s here.”
Future vision: Since licensing two of her Miami To Go stores and handing over the operation of Little Havana To Go Marketplace to Mixon, Taylor has more time to work on her passion projects: CulturesToGo.com and her singing.
While currently an online-only concept, Taylor wants to create either a permanent culture store in Miami selling artisanal goods or a series of pop-up shops. “All of these artisans from all of these islands are underexposed,” Taylor says. “Miami is the perfect location to be able to expose them to other retailers in the United States that would perhaps pick up their lines.”
She’s also thrilled to be performing once again at venues like The Betsy Hotel South Beach, the Little Haiti Cultural Center and Casablanca on the Bay in Miami.