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One On 1: B. Smith Holds Keys To Style Empire

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by Budd Mishkin, NY1

bsmithEntrepreneur B. Smith says she’s gone by her first initial from her early modeling days, when she would try to speed things up on the phone with her bookers and hasn’t stopped since — creating a multifaceted business that includes television, books, home furnishings, fashion and restaurants. NY1’s Budd Mishkin filed the following “One On 1” report.

Welcome to the fast paced, can do, what’s next world of B. Smith. From a small office in the Central Park South building where she lives blooms a multi-million dollar empire.

B. Smith is credited with being the first black woman to have a national lifestyle brand and furniture line, working with companies like Bed Bath and Beyond, and Betty Crocker.

In her modeling days, she graced the covers of magazines at a time when black women were rarely given that type of exposure.

For a decade, she had a syndicated television show “B. Smith with Style.” But New Yorkers know her primarily for her restaurant, initially at 47th Street and 8th Avenue, now on restaurant row on 46th Street.

She says when she first took the name long ago, she didn’t know anything about building a brand. She does now.

“When you decide that the restaurant is called B. Smith’s and it’s your name, I think you’ve made the decision that we’re going to sell me,” Smith says.

She also has restaurants in Sag Harbor and Washington, D.C. There is a sense of perpetual motion around B. Smith and a spirit of preparing for the next big thing. A bad day? Yes, she has them. But she also has a nightly antidote.

“I can have a terrible day and I can walk into the restaurant and I can start walking around the tables and talking to people and all the stress of the day, negativity of the day it just sort of you know, vanishes away,” Smith says.

Her catch phrase is “do it with style,” and she can make it look effortless. She assures, it is not.

“People think it’s easy, they look at me and they think oh it’s easy. You know modeling was easy, it wasn’t easy. It was hard work. And not all models had to work as hard as I had to to get the jobs,” says Smith.

She met her husband Dan Gasby at the first restaurant in the early 90’s. He helped bring her work into the worlds of television, books, design and home furnishings, long ago establishing a successful brand. But as a black woman in business, Smith says there are still occasional, and hidden road bumps.

“I’ve had a major retailer say to my husband, ‘Uh, what about her hair?’ Uh, excuse me? What does my hair have to do with my products,’ says Smith.

And then there was the suggestion she says she received in the early days of her first restaurant, with its big windows looking out on to 8th Avenue.

“The bar was you know eight deep with African-American men and women in the window and people were like maybe you should put up drapes. And I’m like, I would be denying who I am, who my father, my brothers my family, and the community who supports me,” says Smith.

And then there was the suggestion she says she received in the early days of the first restaurant, a place with a big black professional clientele and big windows looking out on to 8th Avenue.

There is no denying her insider status. Her restaurant in Washington, D.C. hosted one of the Obama inaugural events. She was invited to the White House for an economic summit.

And she has connections — enough to know that the president and first lady were going to see “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” when they came to town in May. So Smith and her husband got tickets too.

“Very exciting. So it was good to be there. Afterwards we went for a little romantic dinner. See we were on a date too,” says Smith.

Early on, B. Smith learned the love of good food and furnishings.

“I lived in a home that was comfortable, you know, they made a beautiful home,” Smith recalls. “I always tell people that my parents were the original Bob Villa and Martha Stewart only they were African-American and married to each other. Because they cooked, they canned.”

She was Barbara Smith when she was growing up, a young black girl in the ’50s and ’60s in a small western Pennsylvania town. She says certain doors, like modeling and the group “The Future Homemakers of America” were shut to her. So she created her own opportunities.

“I remember asking my mother if I could work at the local car hop she said, ‘No and they won’t hire you anyway.’ Um, I own restaurants now,” says Smith. “I’ve stood on a mountain of nos for one yes. It’s true.”

One of those nos came from her father when she asked if she could go to John Robert Powers’ modeling school in Pittsburgh. But she convinced him it was a finishing school.

“He said I’ll send you to John Robert Powers but that’s all the money I have for any education for you. I said, ‘Dad if you do that for me, I’ll do the rest’,” says Smith.

Early on, she was a model who was, as she puts it, “preparing for the revolution.”

“I used to wear combats,” Smith says. “Buy all my clothes from uh, Salvation Army and things like that. You know I was preparing. But still I was modeling and you know, I had a lot going on. Like anybody at that time.”

She worked briefly for TWA at the Pittsburgh airport. Her modeling eventually brought her to Europe and New York and the covers of magazines. But her first home in New York, a women’s residence on West 34th Street, could not have been more different from her current Central Park South digs.

“It was good. No guys were allowed upstairs, it was good,” says Smith.

Smith took acting classes and singing lessons. But she always had the restaurant bug. And so she worked at huge restaurant America on 18th Street.

“My friends would come in and they would say ‘Why are you working here?’ And I would say ‘Well I’m going to open a restaurant.’ They’re like ‘Ah, you’ve been hitting those drugs have ya,’ ‘No I’m gonna open a restaurant’,” says Smith.

She convinced the owners to partner with her on a place which opened in 1986 at 47th and 8th.

“Oh the neighborhood. Pimps, prostitutes, uh, you would see drug paraphernalia. And you never saw a suit,” recalls Smith.

But that changed, and again, B. Smith had turned an obstacle into an opportunity.

“I can remember the Friday and Saturday nights it would be so busy and I’d be like counting dollar bills at like 6 a.m. in the morning and things like that, it was like crazy. But great crazy,” says Smith.

After a brief first marriage, Smith met her current husband Dan Gasby at the restaurant, where they had their wedding party. And suddenly Smith was a step mother.

“I have a five year old. It was great. I thought I was going to have lots and lots of kids, and I do because of my employees, you know pass through my life, Dana was a gift,” says Smith.

The restaurant led to television, books, fashion and home furnishings. The pictures on the wall at the restaurant reflect the clout she’s accumulated, interacting with the brightest lights in pop culture and American history.

“But to be in a photograph with Rosa Parks, somebody who helped change history in her own way, one person at a time can change history, I’m very proud of that,” says Smith.

B. Smith turns 60 this year. Her surroundings, living and working on Central Park South, are a world away from the small Pennsylvania town of her youth. But there is still the tendency to downplay the roadblocks in her journey, to look forward and think positively.

“In life you can be who you wanna be. It may not be exactly the way you dream it, but I think you can have any piece of a pie that you wanna have if you work hard enough,” says Smith.


Written by Symphony

July 28, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Posted in Business

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. Thanks for posting an awesome and inspirationl story.


    July 28, 2009 at 6:04 pm

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