When St. Louis-based food writer Robin Caldwell wants to order vegetables from one of her favorite restaurants, she calls before she puts in a DoorDash order. “I called the owner and I said, ‘If I give DoorDash this money, and I’m telling you I want your pork chop dinner…I want you to send me three canisters of collards. Will you do that for me?’”
The collards aren’t on the DoorDash menu and would cost less than the pork chops, and the code she’s worked out with the owner is her resourceful way of supporting a black-owned business during a difficult time. The coronavirus pandemic with its shutdowns has made life precarious for the entire food service industry. Although the Small Business Administration offered some loans, many African-American businesses were left out because banks administering the money don’t have branches in black neighborhoods. Mom-and-pop enterprises were especially hard hit because they lack relationships with business bankers.
But the emotional response to George Floyd’s death has ironically helped black restaurants, as “buying black” becomes a way to show solidarity. It’s not the first time Caldwell has seen the trend. She says a similar movement developed after protests over Micheal Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO. But Caldwell said those well-meaning efforts petered out.
That’s why she urges customers to do more than order a meal or two. She suggests developing a relationship with the restaurant owner. While ordering food is the most obvious way to create that tie, Caldwell suggests offering other support that business owners might need. “If you have a specific kind of expertise business-wise, those business owners need to hear from you. They need more social media training; there is a benefit to having an open Facebook page. Fundraise for them. Ask [business owners] ‘What do you need to survive?’”
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Relationships like this have kept Shoibhan Leath’s business going during the last three months. The 28-year-old baker opened her bakery, “Sweetly Shoibhan’s” last September. She expected the pandemic would mean fewer customers for her desserts and bubble teas, but that didn’t happen. She credits word of mouth, especially on social media. But she’s got community cred as well. Leath set up shop in her home town of Garfield Heights, a Cleveland suburb. She’s seen former classmates and teachers stop by. “One customer came by and said, ‘I’ve only met one girl that has a name spelled this way. That has to be my Shoibhan that I taught.’” Leath was thrilled to see her as well. “I remembered her … from fourth grade,” Leath said. “She was my favorite teacher.”
If you’re looking to develop a relationship with a black-owned eatery, whether online or in person, the resources below can help you.
Finding restaurants in your city:
The EatOkra.com app has become the go-to resource for locating African-American-owned restaurants. New Yorkers Anthony and Janique Edwards launched EatOkra in 2016, as a response to racial consciousness movements at that time. “We could look at articles and blogs but no app did all of that for me and let me press a button to take me there. We wanted to do something to help black people,” Anthony Edwards told the Washington City Paper. The app is available for Android and IOS.
There are also city-specific listings that can guide you to restaurants. The list below is a small sample:
Los Angeles: Support LA’s Black-Owned Restaurants —This Google doc is managed by food writer Kat Hong, who updates it regularly.
Chicago: Chicago’s Black and Brown-Owned Restaurants and Small Businesses Open During COVID-19—This interactive map is featured on the Seasoned and Blessed blog run by Aaron Oliver.
Columbus, OH: Blackout coalition—This interactive map features 40 black-owned eateries.
Portland, OR: I Love Black Food—A directory of Portland’s black-owned eateries.
Nashville, TN: 17 Nashville Black Owned Restaurants To Know—This compilation on Urbaanite.com includes Prince’s Chicken, the originators of the hot chicken that has become the city’s culinary calling card.
St. Louis: St. Louis Black Restaurant Week – Keep Dining Out Culture Alive—Although this site promotes the 2019 event, its list of participants provides a starting point for the city’s African American-owned eateries. Most connect to a social media page or website with updated information.
Cleveland: Taste of Black Cleveland 2019—Although this event occurred last year, its webpage functions as a directory for 19 African American-owned eateries in the city. Because of the date, however, check to see whether the establishments are still open, or have reduced hours due to the pandemic.
Food blogs are an excellent way to learn get the stories behind the dishes. Here a short selection of bloggers to follow:
Seasoned and Blessed—Chicago-based writer Aaron Oliver offers a comprehensive site targeting business owners as well as consumers.
Sweet Tea & Thyme: Comfort Food + Easy Seasonal Dishes—This blog is run by Eden Westbrook, a food writer and recipe developer who lives in South Florida.
Sweet Potato Soul by Jenné Claiborne—A vegan food and lifestyle blog, cookbook, and cooking show! Featuring easy, delicious, and healthy vegan recipes. Claiborne is an Atlanta native who now lives in Los Angeles.
If you prefer to cook rather than eat out (and bound cookbooks to blogs), these books include recipes as well as information on the history of African-American foodways:
Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking— Toni Tipton-Martin’s book delves into traditional and contemporary African American cuisine. “From the kitchens run by enslaved people to the family tables of freemen to the careers of entrepreneurs and chefs, Jubilee covers the breadth of a true American cuisine,” said the Washington Post.
Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time—Adriane Miller investigates the origins and practices of the cuisine most closely associated with African American cuisine.
A Date With A Dish: Classic African American Recipes—This is a reprint of the classic cookbook by Ebony magazine food writer Freda DeKnight. Its recipes range from appetizers to desserts and includes several Creole dishes.
There are, of course, many, many more cookbooks featuring Black cuisine out there for you to explore—just do quick search on the internet—but the above can get you started.
A note on delivery apps
Delivery apps are undeniably convenient, but they aren’t always the most ethical choice. Black and Mobile: The Culture Delivered brands itself as an alternative to UberEats, Door Dash and other delivery services that have come under fire for their fees. According to its website, Black and Mobile operates in Philadelphia and Detroit, and plans to serve Atlanta in July. If you don’t live in any of those areas, pick up the phone and call the black-owned restaurants in your city, and ask which delivery (or pickup) method benefits them the most. It may not be as easy as ordering through an app, but real, valuable support is rarely easy.