The movement for Black Lives has directed attention to Black restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, and producers, but long-term investment is still lacking
Ashley Rouse was terrified when she first started receiving media requests from major publications featuring Black-owned businesses last June. The founder and CEO of Brooklyn-based Trade Street Jam Co. says her team saw “insane growth” between January and June, with monthly sales skyrocketing from $1,500 to $80,000, and she was hanging on by a thread to keep up.
“At the beginning of June, I was 8 months pregnant and swollen all over,” Rouse recalls. “I was up day and night fulfilling packages with my husband, mom, and a team of two, trying desperately to keep up with these blessings that I had prayed for for so long. But I. Was. Tired!”
The murder of George Floyd mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets worldwide in protest against police brutality and in solidarity with Black lives last summer; at the same time, dozens of social media posts and roundups circulated online with headlines such as, “How to Support Black-Owned Businesses” and “Support Black-Owned Restaurants Now!”
Many Black food businesses and entrepreneurs saw an influx of customers. According to a Yelp press release, in 2020, the company saw a 2,400 percent rise in searches for “Black-owned” restaurants compared to 2019. “When I started receiving calls and emails, all I could think was, ‘Holy shit. This is going to snowball,’” Rouse said. “And, that it did.” Between June and December 2020, Trade Street Jam Co. appeared in nearly 150 roundups or features, including Food Network, People, and The New York Times.
“I pretty much blacked out for the rest of the year,” Rouse says. “We did $100,000 every month after that. I hate to say it, but it was like a perfect storm.”
For many business owners, seeing an upsurge of interest from new customers (and the boost in sales it has brought) take place alongside the repetitive, public devaluing of their humanity is bittersweet at best. And it has left many grappling with the implications of the shift.
“I think this was an invitation for folks to explore their curiosity,” says Todd Minor, co-owner of Nana’s Southern Kitchen in Kent, Washington. “It exposed Nana’s to so many different types of people.”
Minor serves fried chicken and other Southern staples in a takeout format, and he says the community supported the restaurant in the first half of the year despite the statewide stay at home order. Then, in the first week of June, his customer pool increased significantly. By the end of 2020, its first full year of operation, the restaurant had far surpassed expectations, serving 35,000 customers.
It’s not clear whether people like Minor will see the same fervor from new customers in the coming months, as Black Lives Matters coverage has been displaced by other news. But Minor hopes he can hold on to many of the relationships he’s made over the last year.
“We’ve earned these customers for life. The majority of them have become Nana’s customers and not just [for] opportunistic support for Black businesses or because of the current expectation to do so,” he says. And, he adds, “I still expect for Juneteenth to be a big day.”
Other Black business owners around the country have also seen the wave of new customers die down, but they’re in it for the long haul.
“A lot of us are still getting featured [in the media],” Rouse says. “I think racism is still very fresh in everyone’s mind. This is the beginning of a process that’s going to take decades.”
Capturing Corporate Dollars
Along with increased customer interest, a number of Fortune 500 companies have made public declarations to donate to Black Lives Matter and social justice groups, advance racial equity, and provide capital and other means of support for Black-owned businesses. But was it all merely performance, or are companies still honoring the promises that they made last year?
Rouse says several companies and brands have reached out to her for collaborations and partnerships. Though “it’s hard to say what people’s intentions are,” she says those she has worked with have made “the extra effort to make sure that it wasn’t a one-time thing.”
For example, Weight Watchers featured Trade Street Jam Co. in its WW Loves product roundup and asked the company to contribute recipes to the website. Facebook invited Rouse to speak about her business and profiled her on their Facebook Elevate site. And Google featured Trade Street Jam Co. in their 2020 Economic Impact Report.
Last year, Trade Street Jam Co. earned half a million dollars in revenue.
“That was my goal, but I never ever thought I would actually get to it,” Rouse explains. “And if all that hadn’t happened, I’d never would have. But all that happened because of the political environment . . . and it’s not going to happen that way again.”
But not everyone has benefited from the recent attention. Black-owned restaurants as a whole have seen mixed results from the racial reckonings and surrounding media. Since their founding in 2016, Black Restaurant Week (BRW) has partnered with Black chefs, caterers, and Black-owned restaurants and food trucks to host live events and promotional campaigns to expand awareness and increase support for Black culinary professionals.
In 2020, the organizing team had to pivot from hosting city-specific restaurant weeks, and instead focused on two-week stints by region. It allowed the initiative to have a bigger reach, says managing partner Falayn Ferrell. In 2019, Black Restaurant Week highlighted over 270 Black-owned culinary businesses; in 2020 it reached 670.
It was also the first year BRW received national sponsorship, partnering with OpenTable, the James Beard Foundation (JBF), and PepsiCo. The soda giant has committed $50 million over five years to support Black restaurateurs under a program called Dig In, which will advise restaurateurs on how to access capital, set up a successful delivery operation, market their businesses, and more. And to support Black and Indigenous Americans in the food industry, James Beard launched the JBF Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, which provides grants for financial assistance.
Last fall, BRW announced the launch of their new non-profit organization called the Feed the Soul Foundation, designed to support marginalized entrepreneurs through business development and mentorship. In May, Feed the Soul announced that, with support from Grubhub and Maker’s Mark bourbon, they awarded 25 small businesses each with $10,000 stipends.
A Broken System
In early 2020, the landscape for Black-owned businesses looked much more dire. A long-standing history of structural racism had left many Black businesses struggling, and the struggle was exacerbated by COVID-19. According to McKinsey & Company, about 58 percent of Black-owned businesses were at risk of financial distress before the pandemic. Between February and April, COVID caused 41 percent of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. to close their doors.
Ferrell says these losses didn’t stop after the George Floyd uprising. BRW revamped and started their campaign in June, but Ferrell says when they got to cities like New Orleans and Florida by the fall, there were “a significant number of closures in our database [compared to] other markets.”
Since the profit margins in the restaurant industry are already thin, during a precarious time like 2020, Ferrell stresses there’s only so much that a two-week campaign can do. She adds that businesses that are still standing have all build strong ties to their communities.
“We’ve heard stories of restaurants being on their last leg, but when the community found out, they [made] sure they kept their doors open,” says Ferrell.
Black entrepreneurs have long faced challenges when it comes to equitable access to capital and loans, and they’re often excluded from economic recovery discussions. During the first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, Black businesses were disproportionately excluded and only received 2 percent of loans while white-owned businesses received 83 percent. Todd Minor emphasizes that Black businesses still need institutional support and access to networks and relationships that can help them along the way.
“There’s a lack of mentorship to help people through the process of opening up a restaurant,” he says. “If you’re the first to do it in your family, and you don’t have a network to reach out to for advice, that is going to automatically be a systemic problem for any minority that’s trying to break into this space.”
According to Ferrell, when Black Restaurant Week brings new restaurants on board, owners often say their main need is capital to expand their business operations. But this year, the biggest concern Ferrell is hearing about is hiring.
“A lot of the industry is struggling with getting people back to work,” she says. Black Restaurant Week is free for participants, and although they do express interest, many restaurateurs are also hesitant to take part.
“They’ll say, ‘This sounds great but I’m nervous about the onslaught of customers coming in because I don’t have employee help,” Ferrell says.
Moving forward, Ferrell foresees the conversation over the next couple of years in the restaurant industry centered around how businesses can keep prices affordable while paying their employees a livable wage.
“It’s about making it sustainable — where it’s not just a fad — and continuing to support small business so they know that they’re not in it on their own,” she says.
Brittany Hutson is a Detroit-based writer and freelance journalist.