When a Minneapolis barber's shop burned down, a GoFundMe raised $130,000 — and some new problems

Trevon Ellis in Fade Factory.
Courtesy Trevon Ellis

Trevon Ellis watched his Minneapolis barber shop burn for 14 hours. Named Fade Factory, it is one of many businesses that was damaged during protests sparked by George Floyd's death after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. 

Initially, when Ellis, 42, got news that his shop was burning down, he "ran red lights and jetted" to the scene and called the fire department, only to be told he would be put on a waiting list. It took firefighters almost three hours to reach the Fade Factory and a full 12 hours to put out the fire. 

"Everything was destroyed," Ellis says. "I tried to do a walk-through the next day, and literally you couldn't even recognize things. You couldn't pick something up and say, 'Oh, this used to be my old pair of clippers,' because it was so burnt." 

After giving an interview to a local news reporter at WCCO, his story went viral and a GoFundMe page was started to help him restore the shop. Rebuilding has proven to be a more challenging process than Ellis expected, though. While he's received $130,000 in donations, it's unclear whether he will actually be able to use any of those funds. 

Still, he's determined to move forward, emotionally and financially.

'I love cutting hair'

Ellis started working at Fade Factory three and half years ago. After the barber who owned the business quit, he took over. Since September, he has been the only one at Fade Factory cutting hair. 

"I love cutting hair, and it's not just about money," Ellis says. "Of course, I need the money to survive, but it's about the interaction, adding to the community. Seeing people happy and uplifted." 

It's not just about money. Of course, I need the money to survive, but it's about the interaction, adding to the community. Seeing people happy.
Trevon Ellis
Owner of Fade Factory

Many of the amenities at Fade Factory Ellis bought himself. A friend was selling some old barbershop chairs for $250 a piece, so he bought two. He spent $540 on a 55-inch TV from Walmart. He also started stocking the lobby with snacks, after clients kept asking if they could go to the CVS across the street and bring food over. This cost $200-$300 per month.

All these upgrades were destroyed in the fire. 

"One person maliciously broke in" through a side door, he says, and spread some kind of liquid throughout the shop before setting it ablaze. This caused the floor to cave into the basement as the whole structure burned. 

'At least there is money to help build'

While Ellis owns the barber shop, he does not own the building the barbershop is located in. That is owned by Ray James. 

Because Ellis' interview with WCCO went viral, the GoFundMe was started in his name, not James'. This has led to some friction between the two about how to divvy up the money. 

Ellis says he suggested the two split the funds 50/50, but James hasn't agreed to that. Now, the two are only communicating through lawyers, Ellis says. James started his own GoFundMe, which has raised almost $3,000. 

Civil unrest is commonly covered in building insurance, according to attorney Peter Kochenburger, deputy director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut School of Law. 

The building that houses Fade Factory is insured and has been in James' family for more than 40 years, James later told WCCO. James did not immediately return a request for comment from Grow. 

When Trevon Ellis called the fire department to put out the fire burning his barber shop, he was put on a waiting list.
Courtesy Trevon Ellis

How to divide the money might depend on what kind of contract James and Ellis have for renting out the space and what the lease says. However, the language of the GoFundMe clearly indicates the money was intended for Ellis, Kochenburger thinks. 

"If [the GoFundMe page] is phrased with no mention of the landlord and it's all raised for the tenant, then I would think the business owner would be able to get it." 

The problem of where the money goes is a more desirable problem than what other business owners are probably facing right now, he adds. "The good news is there is a pot of money to talk about. ... At least there is money to help build. That's the whole point of it."

'Up until this point, it was a normal thing'

In Minneapolis, 500 businesses have been vandalized or looted and 67 have been burnt down, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Many of the destroyed or damaged businesses have taken to social media to express their support of the protest, regardless of what it cost them. In Minneapolis, after the Gandhi Mahal Restaurant was severely damaged, the owner posted to Facebook saying, "Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served. Put those officers in jail." 

Pie & Mighty, a pie shop in Minneapolis, had its door smashed in with rocks, but the owners, Karen Mattison and Rachel Swan, say they are "lucky" as the shop can afford the damage. 

"Our point of view is: You can have our door and make a mess, but you cannot have our hope and our fierce commitment to justice for George Floyd, for equality and humanity for all, and for deep and lasting systemic change in our city, our state, our nation, and our world," the owners told Grow. 

You can have our door and make a mess, but you cannot have our hope and our fierce commitment to justice for George Floyd, for equality and humanity for all.
Karen Mattison and Rachel Swan
Owners, Pie & Mighty

Even though Ellis' livelihood is in jeopardy and he worries about his eight kids, five of whom he supports, he sees some of the more destructive aspects of the protests as a necessary evil. "I don't support violence or rioting, but I think the police department has seen that they have gotten away with this stuff for too long," he says. 

He moved to Minneapolis from Detroit in 1996 and says that, after what he's seen, he wasn't surprised by the video of police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into George Floyd's neck. Ellis was harassed by cops as a young, black man growing up in a low-income area, he says. 

"Up until this point, it was a normal thing," he says. "Cops feel like they have the authority because we aren't the background that has lawyers." 

Everything was destroyed. I tried to do a walk-through the next day and literally you couldn't even recognize things.
Trevon Ellis
Owner, Fade Factory

Looting and damaging businesses is regrettable, he says, but ultimately it could lead to positive change, as it puts a price on what will happen if the policy system does not change. 

"When you start costing people money, like investors, they are the people who have control," he says. "They can get in touch with politicians and lawmakers and governors sooner and quicker than an everyday person." 

While he has faith that he'll be able to move forward in a positive way, the day-to-day is still a struggle. His shop had been shut down due to the coronavirus, and now it's completely gone. 

"I'm still lost every day," he says. "I don't even know how to live my life day-to-day because it surrounded that shop. I literally cut [hair] seven days a week sometimes." 

Although he would have loved to continue to upgrade Fade Factory location, he says the dispute over money has him looking at other places where he can start his own business and maybe even buy the space himself. 

"When I look back from this 10 years from now, I can say, 'Hey, kids, this is how it all happened and this is why your dad can leave you something,'" he says. "Something that was so tragic can turn into so many blessings."

More from Grow: