How a grant for budding retailers is helping populate empty storefronts in downtown Memphis

Early next year, a new coffeeshop will be opening in the South Main District downtown, thanks to the partnership between a local entrepreneur and the Downtown Memphis Commission.

Jerald Sanders will be opening the doors to the MidSouth Coffee and Tea Company’s first brick-and-mortar establishment in the spring of 2024 at 20 Mina Ave. in Memphis, between Tennessee Street and Front Street. 

[Related: Read “What I’ve learned: A Memphis entrepreneur shares some wisdom after first year in business” on High Ground News.]

This 1,100 sq. ft. coffee shop will offer a variety of the company’s coffees and teas, as well as pre-packaged snacks from other small businesses in the area.

Jerald Sanders, owner of MidSouth Coffee and Tea Co. (Photo: Aaron Brame)“We’re looking forward to meeting everyone,” says Sanders, who has so far been operating the coffee service company mostly through online orders at, while also selling some of his product by the bag at local mainstays such as Cordelia’s Market in Harbor Town.

But now, with the help of a Downtown Retail Tenant Improvement grant from the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), Sanders has secured $30,000 to offset startup costs that otherwise would have prevented him from seeing this part of his dream come true. The DMC has helped nearly two dozen retail spaces open in the area, with dozens more either under construction or in the pipeline.

Sanders says his goal is to create a safe and intimate space that people can call home.

“We don’t want you to just be a face. We really want to know your name. We want to know people — that’s what’s at the core of all this.” 

New faces in familiar places

The purpose of the Downtown Retail Tenant Improvement grants is to encourage businesses to open new ground-floor retail locations in high-traffic areas downtown. The hope is that the funds that these grants provide will make it easier for property owners to work with tenants who want to start their own shops but face high pre-operation and organization costs. 

“The grant money will be spent on things you cannot take with you out of the shop,” Sanders says. “Electrical, outlets, drywall, lighting; things like that.”

As an added benefit, this grant will fill vacant spots in priority corridors of downtown’s retail areas. The lot that Midsouth Coffee and Tea Company will be occupying on Mina is a space that has been vacant for some time.

A destination for great coffee and company

“I’m excited about all the work that’s being done in that neighborhood on South Main and just off South Main,” says Sanders, who spends a lot of his day in and out of the establishments there.

He envisions his space to be “comfortable and informal,” a place where people like himself, a busy business owner, can stop in to have a drink and do some work or meet with friends over an espresso.

And he thinks the spot at 20 Mina will be perfect for what he is looking for. With attractions like The National Civil Rights Museum, Malco’s Powerhouse, and The Blue Monkey nearby, he hopes to see overflow traffic come through his doors. And he likes the area for its bustling neighborhood feel, with tourists and business people mingling with residents of the nearby condominiums.

Even closer to his coffee shop are The Tennessee Brewery and Fanni Lou’s Gourmet Chicken & Waffles, found just around the corner. And most exciting perhaps is its proximity to Tom Lee Park, which has just undergone a $62 million renovation that is bringing positive reviews and attracting visitors from all over the area.

“The new park opens us up to a lot of people who normally wouldn’t be down in that section,” he says. 

“We are right at the top of the Butler Street stairs. Walk up the stairs and take a right, and you will see us.” 

Building relationships, building community

Both the DMC and Sanders hope to accomplish the same goal: to include many other local businesses in lifting up one another.

That’s why the grant stipulates that, per the DMC itself, “Downtown development projects receiving our financial incentives [must] adhere to a best-faith effort to achieve at least 25% minority participation level.”

Sanders says he naturally looks to other local, minority-owned businesses to help him build a community.   

“We’ve partnered with Ms. Heard over at Butterific [Bakery & Cafe], so we’ll have a vegan and non-vegan option for muffins. We’ll have prepackaged snacks that go really well with coffee and tea — butter cookies and tea cakes.”

On encouraging other entrepreneurs to apply, too

Sanders suggests other local entrepreneurs look into what the Downtown Memphis Commission has to offer their business.

“They’ve got a great team over there,” he says, adding that the DMC is clear about their vision for what they want the Central Business District to look like, and that he shared the same values of outreach and diversity. 

Asked about his advice to other business owners with big dreams, he says simply, “Reach out.” 

“After you speak to someone [at the Downtown Memphis Commission] and they find out if it’s a good match, they’ll share the application with you. They’re people-people, and they don’t overcomplicate things. They make it a smooth process, and if there was ever anything I didn’t have, I knew I could come back.”

For now, he is ordering drywall and wiring his space so that his guests will have enough electrical outlets to charge their devices. But soon it will be time for customers to arrive and start placing their orders for drinks from the first Midsouth Coffee and Tea Company coffee shop, in the heart of Downtown Memphis. 

More information about the Downtown Retail Tenant Improvement grant from the Downtown Memphis Commission is available online, as are additional development incentives available to interested businesses.

Midsouth Coffee and Tea Co. will open at 20 Mina Ave. in downtown Memphis in spring 2024
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