This business profile ran as part of Motif’s Black History Month issue, centering the experiences of Black business owners.
For BJ Murray, owner of Blaze Smith Hill, the business started with a building.
“207-209 Douglas Ave. It’s a very old building, from 1892. The Hennessy Building,” she says, offering to send me more information on it. Murray purchased it from longtime owner and resident Tony Demings, and saved it from the wrecking ball when it was planned to become a parking lot. “There are other places to park,” Murray reasons.
By then Murray was already the owner of IT staffing firm Business Focus Inc., and was looking for commercial space. She had been there before, for a gallery opening – Demings opened it for performances and shows. Murray put her firm on the second floor and decided to open a cafe on the first, dedicated to artists, performance, and community, keeping with the spirit of the previous owner.
After COVID-19 forced her to restrategize, Murray fortuitously was connected with the chef at what had been her favorite restaurant before it closed: Phyllis Arffa, formerly of Blaze East Side. The two decided to join forces, and now the two operate Blaze Smith Hill, the newest iteration of Arffa’s old digs. “She always made my favorite food,” Murray says wistfully, as Arffa’s meals dance through her mind.
Murray is very community-minded. Her businesses team up twice a month with a local organization called Street Sights and Brown University to feed the hidden homeless around town, stopping under bridges and looking out for fellow Providincians.
“Phyllis and I come from the same cloth,” Murray says. “We like trying to bring the youth along, BIPOC people along, with the idea that if they can see it, they can do it. We make sure that people see that there are opportunities out there.”
When Motif asks about a mentor, after a few contemporary advisors, Murray’s mind flashes back to her high school teacher. “I grew up in an area where we did not know ourselves, and she showed me everything about Black history, who I was, and an appreciation for art. I was a C student, but she believed in me, and I became an A-player.”
“Everyone has to struggle, but there’s a path for everyone,” Murray continues, “All you have to do is try.”
Blaze Smith Hill, 209 Douglas Ave, PVD, blazesmithhill.com