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Scaling Up: How a CSB Graduate Used a Santander Grant to Transform their Small Business

By ICIC | June 18, 2024

Darlene Jones, Chef & Owner, Star Fusion Brand

Darlene Jones, the culinary mastermind behind Star Fusion Brand, a series of restaurants in West Philadelphia that beautifully blend American and Thai cuisines. The establishments are famous for their selection of 17 delicious chicken wing flavors, such as Red Curry Papaya, Peach Cilantro, and Hot Honey Garlic. They also offer locally inspired spring rolls, including the Philly Cheese Steak and Buffalo Cheese Steak varieties, as well as other popular dishes like seafood mac and cheese. Like many small business owners, Jones’s journey into entrepreneurship began after she left a successful corporate career in sales. Nearly two decades of experience helped to hone her skill set, especially in marketing, which Jones used to launch her brand in 2015.

Built for Business

With no prior ownership experience, Jones faced an uphill climb. However, throughout the process, she felt that she intuitively knew some things. She discovered the source of this inner compass within her family.

Jones grew up without any contact with her paternal relatives. That changed about five years ago when the family found her and reached out. Since then, she has learned that entrepreneurship is in her DNA. Her father owned a dozen mechanic shops and her half-sister opened a restaurant the same year that she launched Star Fusion.

Jones shared, “Figuring out who you are can have a major contribution to your future.” In honor of this revelation, Jones is planning to open a second restaurant. “My new restaurant is named Star Fusion 2.0. It is a tribute to the second edition of me, because now I know who I am. It will be a rotisserie Haitian style restaurant which will honor the cultural roots of my father’s family.”

The Santander Difference

Jones has been able to learn important skills in the Santander’s Cultivate Small Business (CSB) program, and graduated from in 2022. The program is designed to provide early-stage woman-, BIPOC-, and immigrant-owned food businesses in under-resourced neighborhoods with industry specific education, networks, and mentoring. Jones shared, “I enjoyed this program. It was one of the best programs I’ve taken because it was geared towards food businesses. It connected all the dots. I was able to turn the action plan I created in the program into a business plan that I am taking to the bank to apply for my first $1 million loan.”

“I enjoyed this program. It was one of the best programs I’ve taken because it was geared towards food businesses. It connected all the dots. I was able to turn the action plan I created in the program into a business plan that I am taking to the bank to apply for my first $1 million loan.”

Jones not only left the program with an action plan, but she was also chosen as one of a few participants to receive a $20,000 grant from Santander. She applied a portion of the grant towards immediate business operation needs, but a significant portion of funding was invested in growing her company. After securing contracts with organizations like Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, Jones knew that she needed a more efficient means to complete multiple large orders. The Santander grant allowed her to purchase a specialty oven that can cook multiple items at a time, at different temperatures, while avoiding cross-contamination. The new oven allows her to work at a faster pace and fulfill the large orders expected from the new contracts.

Motivation for the Journey Ahead
Darlene Jones with fellow CSB graduate Haydee Gomez (left) and Christina DeLay, Head of Small Business & Corporate Social Responsibility at Santander (middle)

The experience of owning a small business has been a positive one for Jones. She has encountered some challenges along the way, even during times of success. She explains, “You can outgrow your business. I started off doing everything, but growth brings change. I’m learning to put new people and systems in place so the business can scale. I’m learning that I can’t do it alone.” With the support from CSB and ICIC, Jones is anything but alone. She advises fellow business owners to analyze the data from their companies and use the information it provides to their advantage. This could involve reflecting on your previous work history for transferable experience or using technology to track your business metrics. The latter helped Jones determine her customers’ buying patterns and led to one of her most popular meal packages: wings, bowls, and rolls. Regardless of where you are on the journey, she leaves these words of encouragement, “Don’t give up, don’t quit. Keep moving. You’re here for a reason.”

About Santander’s Cultivate Small Business

Santander’s Cultivate Small Business (CSB) is a 12-week dynamic education and training program focused on helping early-stage women, immigrants, and BIPOC entrepreneurs build and sustain food-related businesses in under-resourced neighborhoods. ICIC is a strategic partner in this initiative, along with CommonWealth Kitchen and Babson College, whose MBA professors teach the course. Through live virtual classes, CSB provides participants with connections to industry experts, a network of fellow food entrepreneurs, and the opportunity to receive capital grants ranging from $2,500 to $13,000. Fully funded by Santander, the program annually supports 180 entrepreneurs across two cohorts spanning six major markets: Dallas, Massachusetts, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, and Rhode Island. 


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