RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A group of five VCU Brandcenter students spent their winter break bonding over a way to give back to the Richmond community. Each student is an advocate for the region, and more specifically, RVA’s food and beverage industry. 

After coming together and realizing their love of food, they decided to create the Open Sign Calendar.  

The founders of Open Sign Project. (Photo: Open Sign Project)

The Open Sign Calendar is not a typical calendar you can purchase at Walmart or Target, but a calendar highlighting black-owned restaurants in the city.  

Each month in the Open Sign Calendar features a local, black-owned restaurant and their entrepreneur to celebrate their resilience throughout the pandemic, the group said.

“Let’s look towards the future and celebrate, first of all, Black History Month,” Ali Weiner, Brand Strategist and Co-founder of the Open Sign Project, said. “Then March, as kind of this benchmark of resilience and sort of what’s been happening for the people that have gone through this past year.” 

The group said they decided to create a calendar to represent the hope, coming along with the new calendar year.

It also inspired what was coming next for the students.  

“We were born as Open Sign Calendar, and then as we started going through, we were like, I think we could make this maybe into something bigger,” she said. “So, we became Open Sign Project so we can house various products underneath of it.” 

Open Sign Project’s mission statement is simple: a product-driven initiative to get Richmonders more connected with local businesses in the community.

The group said they chose their name based on emotion. They want the community to have that feeling when someone’s favorite restaurant has their open sign illuminated.

They work on a philanthropic model. So, when they’re looking for organizations to partner with, they’ll select one that echoes the message they’re trying to communicate.

“We chose RVA Community Fridges, their mission is extremely inspiring,” Kate Power, Copywriter and Co-founder of the Open Sign Project, said. “They literally give away free food in the Richmond community — free, healthy food in areas that don’t have access to it, and what they do is they set up actual refrigerators that anyone can walk up to.” 

Power said they’ll give RVA Community Fridges 100% of the proceeds made from the calendar.

Open Sign Project rolled out the first week of February and the co-founders said the creation process went faster than they expected, which allowed them to reach the community quicker than expected.

“If you want to make a change, you just have to look within yourself to see what you personally have personally as a superpower, get with the people and the ladies that have the powers that you are lacking. And you can get it done in a crazy amount of speed.” Danielle Loleng, Experience Designer and Co-founder of the Open Sign Project, said. “Community members can learn the passion and insights from these entrepreneurs – also learn about the humanitarian groups that are doing the work around them.” 

The city of Richmond has over 70 black-owned restaurants. The group started with a wide array of businesses like juice bars and soul food and barbecue spots. Organizations like Richmond Region Tourism (RRT) and BLKRVA, a collaborative initiative between the RRT and over 20 community leaders, helped the group define and decide which restaurants to feature.

The group says that the experience of creating Open Sign Project has served many teachable moments for everyone involved. 

“I personally have never felt this fulfilled and so, that’s been amazing selfishly,” Weiner said. “As a team, we talked about how can we use what we’ve been learning at school in a meaningful way, and how do we get to know the community a little bit better, and that I think is what has been really fun.”

Loleng agreed. 

“You know, it doesn’t take a lot to create a change or create an impact. It just takes a great team and a vision,” Loleng shared. 

The group said while they aren’t sure what their next project will focus on yet. They do know it will help the community they love so much.

To see all the black-owned restaurants featured in the Open Sign Project, visit their website.