Robb Smith stacks baked foods from Long Beach Creamery into a freezer bag for delivery Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Photo by Cheantay Jensen.

After being put on hold for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA) has once again recognized members of the community going the extra mile with the Spirit of Downtown Awards.

The award program started in 2012 to posthumously recognize several individuals who were pivotal to the development of the Long Beach community. Long Beach Post founder Shaun Lumachi, community advocate Mark Bixby, former Long Beach Redevelopment Agency Chair Bill Baker and former Long Beach Press-Telegram editor Larry Allison were the initial recipients of the award.

The DLBA has since made the awards a tradition to recognize local businesses, organizations and individuals who represent the same spirit as its first awardees.

This year’s ceremony, held Thursday evening, honored Mayor Robert Garcia alongside local business owners and community organizers.

“It’s an honor to receive this award from the Downtown Long Beach Alliance,” Garcia, a longtime Downtown resident, said in a statement. “The work they do with the city, our downtown businesses, our residents and our visitors is at the core of what makes Long Beach the best beach city in the country.”

“I love how diverse, fun and community driven our community is. It’s also great to see how far we’ve come in the last decade,” he added. “The new business and residential developments have brought new life to Downtown—which bring new life to the entire city. I’m excited to see what’s next for us and I will continue to do all I can with DLBA to build a stronger downtown and stronger Long Beach.”

Here’s a glimpse at the other five winners of this year’s award.

Jamaica Aali, Black Everywhere

Members of Black Everywhere pose during one of the group’s organized hikes. Courtesy photo.

There are many reasons to come to a book club meeting, but most of them have nothing to do with books.

That’s what Jamaica Aali realized when the members of her newly formed book club met for the first time. There was a catch: No one had actually done the reading.

“I decided, ‘Well, we didn’t come together, because we needed help with reading, we came together because we wanted to connect with other people,’” Aali told the Business Journal.

That idea planted the seed that would become Black Everywhere, which has now grown since its 2012 founding to include more than 8,000 members in 11 cities across the U.S.

Black Everywhere hosts events that range from happy hour gatherings to international trips, which serve as a way for Black people to foster a community together. Currently, a trip to Italy is scheduled for May 2023.

And yet, Black Everywhere is a lean organization. It doesn’t charge for memberships or events. Instead, Black Everywhere organizers rely on the generosity of the community to host their events.

One of Aali’s goals is to put more money into the organization, but that’s easier said than done. She has enlisted the help of a business mentor from the nonprofit SCORE—one of the largest networks of volunteer business mentors in the country—and is looking into options to generate revenue.

“That’s really been the focus now into the next year,” Aali said. “How do we make this something that’s financially responsible, but still stays true to the fact that we want to build a happier, healthier Black community?”

Sheila Gibbons and Alan Giomi, Willmore Baking Company

Sheila Gibbons, left, and her husband, Alan Giomi, work to give those in need a chance to develop skills through baking. Courtesy photo.

Whenever a student walks through the doors at Willmore Baking Company to participate in the company’s eight-week baking program, Sheila Gibbons knows to never ask for their address.

“Many times, [they] don’t have addresses,” Gibbons said.

The program is geared toward adults with low or no incomes, many of whom are homeless. The goal is to teach baking skills and, ideally, land students a job after they graduate.

It started in 2018 when Gibbons was volunteering at a nearby soup kitchen. While she was happy with the food being served, she remembers the desserts being not quite up to par. She enlisted her husband, Alan Giomi, who’s a retired baker, to bring in better offerings.

Soon, Gibbons and Giomi were teaching the patrons at the soup kitchen how to make their own desserts, an undertaking that Gibbons considers the first trial run of Willmore Baking Company.

“We had eight graduates. And out of that eight graduates, five of them got jobs right away. So we were inspired.”

In the years since, Willmore Baking Company has been intentional in how it serves students.

“We buy them clothing that they can wear to go to interviews,” Gibbons said. “We teach them interviewing skills. We have people sign a contract that they will complete the classes. It’s a system that really works.”

Joaquin Nunez, Downtown Runners

Downtown Runners centers its runs around restaurants in Long Beach where members can have a post-run meal and drinks. Courtesy photo.

Downtown Runners, formerly known as Dog Haus Runners, is not a running club that will help you train for a marathon. What you’ll find instead is a social club where people come together and run—and then drink.

“It’s just hanging out with great people on Wednesday night,” club head Joaquin Nunez said. It’s a “good excuse to get out and have a beer. And I don’t feel guilty about it, because I just ran 3 miles.”

As its previous name suggests, the club originally ran out of the Dog Haus Biergarten in Downtown. But members have since decided to branch out to other restaurants.

“We started reaching out to a lot of the local restaurants and everybody was really open to the idea,” Nunez said.

Some bars and restaurants will even extend their happy hour and other discounts for the runners, Nunez said, as a way to not only incentivize them to stay, but to thank them for their patronage.

But Downtown Runners isn’t just about running and drinking; members of the club also give back. Runners have participated in a wide assortment of community service projects, from collecting toiletries for the Long Beach Rescue Mission to helping Habitat for Humanity build a home in Long Beach.

“I do want to focus on the philanthropy side a little bit more and gain a little bit more recognition from the community,” Nunez said. “I guess getting our name out there and being able to see what else we can do to give back…that’s the one thing that I hope we can do better.”

John Tully, Evan Kelly, and Graham Baden, Pedal Movement

Pedal Movement works with the city of Long Beach, businesses and residents to make biking easier and convenient for all. Courtesy photo.

Pedal Movement was born in 2009 when John Tully and a few of his friends came together to offer bicycle programming of all kinds: valets, rodeos and classes.

“It was very much oriented around empowering our local community,” Tully said, “and providing various programming to make that decision to ride a bicycle to an event or to work easier.”

But a decision to offer bike valets at the Long Beach Farmers Market—and learning that customers were willing to pay for the service—would set the organization on a new path.

“Slowly, but surely, we started creating a professionalized workforce around various bicycle transportation programming,” Tully said.

The group’s biggest milestone came in 2016, when Pedal Movement took over operations at a bike center that would later become Long Beach’s GoActive Hub.

“At that point in time, [we] were like, ‘Wow, we can probably really turn this into a business,’” Tully said.

Today, Pedal Movement employs a staff of about 40 people. In addition to overseeing the GoActive Hub, the company also helps manage bike fleets for companies like British Airways, which has a 15-bike fleet.

Education still plays an important role as well, with free classes held monthly at the Hub. Pedal Movement is still very much involved in creating community programming, from roller skating on the beach to educational seminars.

“It’s a mixture of creating community” with free programming, Tully said, “and empowering the community with various educational seminars.”

Robb Smith, Alley Cat Deliveries

Robb Smith, owner of Alley Cat Deliveries, unloads bags of cereal boxes to AIDS Food Store as part of its annual cereal drive Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Photo by Cheantay Jensen.

When Robb Smith started Alley Cat Deliveries in 2018, he faced a question: How would he differentiate himself from other delivery services?

The answer, it turned out, was simple. Smith didn’t charge the high commissions that the major services did. Instead, he set on a simple flat fee for all of his deliveries.

“That’s what set me apart,” Smith said. “And that’s why people loved it, because it was honest.”

But when the pandemic hit, Smith lost a great deal of business as many of his customers temporarily closed their doors.

Smith, though, was undeterred. Rather than shutting down, he expanded his delivery offerings.

“We’re much more than [just food delivery] now,” Smith said. “We do prescriptions, we do alcohol, we do weed. We do food, we do airport runs to LAX and Long Beach and John Wayne. I really expanded it to just more than just food delivery.”

Even outside of his work with Alley Cat Deliveries, Smith puts in the extra time and effort to help his community. When businesses he worked with were affected by the riots that followed the George Floyd protests, for example, Smith worked to help get them back on track.

“I really do care about my community,” Smith said. “That’s what makes us different.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from Mayor Robert Garcia.

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.