Where There’s Smoque, There’s Fire

School of Business alumnus uses his education to empower Camden

“Opening a business in Camden has shown me a true sense of community that you would not otherwise see as you ride up and down the streets,” said R’lay Wilkerson, alumnus of the Rutgers School of Business–Camden. It is that community, which has enthusiastically supported him since he first began his education, that he now seeks to empower through his business.

Blowin’ Smoque is a storefront barbecue restaurant that started as a popular food truck in Camden’s Parkview section. The building that would eventually become Wilkerson's restaurant had long ago been abandoned and was surrounded by other empty storefronts.   

“It was shuttered, filthy on the outside, and there were people hanging out a lot. You can see what we’ve done here now,” Wilkerson said of the renovated restaurant. Once he bought the building, he learned that it needed more work than he initially realized.

“It seemed like everything cost more than I imagined and took longer than I expected,” said Wilkerson. “And this was all before I could test a single recipe.”

Although the road to opening his restaurant took some unexpected turns, Wilkerson’s business education guided him safely over bumps in the road, and his commitment to his vision never wavered. He stuck with his Camden location both because it felt familiar, and he could see plenty of untapped potential.

“I spent many of my formative years in communities like Camden,” said Wilkerson. “I'm able to see what many can't, won't, or don't. I see opportunity, and I embrace the responsibility.”

Wilkerson’s time at Rutgers School of Business–Camden also shaped his love for the city and its people, and he credits his degree as a source of significant help in his career. During his time at the university, he traveled to South Africa to study international management and marketing practices as well as South Africa’s culture and economy.

“My Rutgers­–Camden degree has opened doors that would have otherwise been closed to me,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson wants to continue to invest in Camden, specifically in neighborhoods like the one where he chose to open his business.

“I want to invest in the city," Wilkerson said. "I want to take these older buildings that are unused and turn them into something more.”

His instincts for investing in the neighborhood and the community are spot on. Camden is primed for a resurgence, with municipal and community leadership focused on leveraging incentives designed to attract new residential, retail, and corporate investments. According to the Camden Community Partnership, since 2015, there has been at least $2.5 billion worth of investment in and around the city, with more than 30 active development projects, $100 million worth of current infrastructure projects, and 140 acres of shovel-ready property available for development.

Wilkerson embraces the challenges of business ownership, remembering a book he read in school that had a profound impact on his life and his beliefs: “The opening line was ‘Life is difficult...once we truly see this truth, we transcend it,’” he said. He was inspired by that idea and the understanding that to pursue one’s dreams requires strength, mental fortitude, and endurance to overcome setbacks. He never asks why something can’t work; instead, he explores how he and his team can make it possible.

Design: Beatris Santos
Photography: Ron Downes Jr.