The Movement for Black Lives Has Disrupted the Food Space—Now DC Professionals Look to The Future
COVID-19 and the outgrowth of an international civil rights movement for Black lives have coalesced to spotlight racial inequality throughout the food space. Customers have turned their attention to Black-owned restaurants in an effort to spend in line with their values and support the Black community. According to Meseret Bekele, co-owner and manager of H Street restaurant Ethiopic, “especially during the protests in DC we’ve seen a surge. We had a day where we couldn’t handle the business, so we had to say enough. People were waiting for over an hour for their food. It was an amazing response.”
The food writing space has been engulfed in debate about race, equity, and gatekeeping, with high profile resignations and restructuring at major publications. Takera Gholson of local blog Flights and Foods says a "reckoning” is taking place as, “people are now recognizing that there’s not a lot of representation of Black food writers in the food media space.”
Gholson went on to say,”This was something only sparingly written about before and now people are demanding representation. But it remains unclear whether this push for greater representation is happening because of external pressure or a genuine desire to change. A lot of Black writers are struggling with that fact. They want and deserve to be included but they may not want to be part of an organization if those people’s beliefs haven’t changed. Many Black writers are having to do a lot of extra research before they accept any opportunities.”
Among restaurant owners and employees, accusations of bias and mistreatment have spilled out into the open. Allison Lane, President of the local advocacy organization, Bartenders Against Racism (BAR), says, “It’s the first time the industry has been held accountable for their actions and they’re losing their shit over it. There have been long-standing issues in the hospitality industry, not just how they exploit Black people, but also undocumented workers.” From Lane’s perspective, traditional industry power-players are struggling to define “what ownership and equitable ownership looks like.”
Black business owners historically lack equal access to capital and credit. In the food space, the work of Black chefs is often ignored or obscured, fine dining and management opportunities for Black employees are limited, and food media directs customers away from Black establishments by centering their coverage around Whiteness. So, the question on all of our minds is: Where do we go from here?
Paola Velez, Executive Pastry Chef at Maydan and Compass Rose and Co-Founder of Bakers Against Racism, wonders, “Will everyone still be around when the dust settles and everything calms down again? Will they still care about my pastries? Are you going to advocate for me? Will you stop in the street if you see me getting pulled over? When you say you’ll be an ally for me, what does that mean?”
How can this moment where the call for Black lives has manifested in a surge of support for Black-owned restaurants and Black food folks be transformed into a sustainable movement that uplifts the labor of Blacks and other marginalized peoples in food?
Kawthar Ahmed, Creative Director in Charge of Storytelling for BAR says, “We need to address the fundamental things that make the hospitality industry what it is; the allegiance to slavery, the very necessary anti-racist work, non-livable wages, and a lack of overtime.”
How exactly to do that, and how to channel this current moment into a long-term movement to uplift Black folks in food, is a complicated question. Local chefs, restaurant owners, and industry advocates offer their insights below.
If you have privilege, use it to even the playing field
“I made a conscious decision in my career to only give free items to Black food bloggers. I made everyone else pay unless they knew someone or were close with someone else in the restaurant because I knew that you guys [Black bloggers] weren’t getting the brand sponsorships and traffic that others were getting. That’s what I know how to do tangibly as a chef of color.” -Paola Velez, Executive Pastry Chef at Maydan and Compass Rose and Co-Founder of Bakers Against Racism
“In the food media space, when I look at many publications I often don’t see any people of color in management at all. There are plenty of qualified Black writers out there, they should be making an attempt to hire them and also to bring them into management roles. And for Black writers freelancing this is an opportunity to really speak up and make an impact in the community. Freelancers can show a lot of support for the community by engaging with the movement on their own.” -Takera Gholson, Flights and Foods Founder
“In the food industry there are gatekeepers. They need to do the work they did with me with more people, there can't just be one person of color who makes it in the industry. How much more amazing would it be if the gatekeepers would broaden who they allow into these spaces? The top 100 lists have the same restaurants. Yet I know of restaurants in the DMV area that are making such delicious food that nobody knows about and are really being kept afloat by their own communities. Amplifying voices of color and Black businesses, without expecting anything in return from them, is the only way we will be able to continue this long term.” -Paola Velez, Executive Pastry Chef at Maydan and Compass Rose and Co-Founder of Bakers Against Racism
As a consumer, consider the origins of your products and the spaces you support
“I think that as Black business owners, we have a responsibility to not just receive the love and the dollars, but also to figure out ways to keep that dollar in our own community. I’ve read that in certain communities, their dollar doesn’t leave without making multiple touch points in that community first. We have to figure out how to do that in our community. As business owners, that might mean that we have to be more intentional about where we shop for our goods and services. Prior to this awakening we might have gone for what’s convenient. Now we should start to identify and locate places where we can purchase our goods and services, from Black-owned grocers to farms. That’s a way that businesses can make this movement more sustainable in the long term.” -Nicole Watson, The Shell Shack Seafood Director of Operations
“Even for me personally, I need to focus on putting my money into Black-owned businesses and into mom and pop shops. I’ve seen personally how that money can make a difference. This is a new realization or new focus for me since this surge.” -Meseret Bekele, Ethiopic Co-Owner and Manager
“I try to find the origins of what I’m buying. Theoretically I should only be buying from the East Coast, predominantly from the Mid-Atlantic. In my work I try to use products from that region when I can. I do my research and I do my due diligence. I’m very thankful to have that freedom again with Maydan and Compass Rose. As a personal consumer, I try to go to stores that source local sustainable products like Mom’s Organic Market. They have products that I know the people who make them. I go out of my way to spend a few more of my dollars that way.” -Paola Velez, Executive Pastry Chef at Maydan and Compass Rose and Co-Founder of Bakers Against Racism
“As a customer, at this point, I expect every restaurant to be conscious. I expect restaurants to take action, to make a clear statement, to ensure there are people of color in the front of the house and in leadership positions. I’m looking for a clear statement and actionable steps on behalf of businesses. That will speak volumes to me as a customer.” -Takera Gholson, Flights and Foods Founder
Further efforts to organize the broader public and provide resources to marginalized workers are essential
“A long-term initiative and marketing campaign is necessary so that it stays on people’s minds. If there was some sort of initiative for corporate America to commit to supporting a certain number of Black businesses per week or a certain percentage of the staff meals they’re purchasing for example. If nonprofits or churches had a similar initiative that could be very effective. We need an organized campaign that addresses all parts of society to ensure that this movement stays in the forefront of people’s minds.” -Kristal Williams, Fishscale Co-Owner
“BAR exists to mentor Black people or people of color to advocate for themselves and not have their worth determined by their employer. I want BAR to provide the space to explore how to build a career in hospitality beyond the glass ceilings that are placed specifically on Black people. At some point you get tired of advocating for yourself, for others. Resources exist for White people that do not exist for Black people, POC, for people of marginalized communities. BAR provides a safe space for those folks to say ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ A lot of this is through mentorship” -Allison Lane, Bartenders Against Racism President
“I would love to see restaurant owners getting together to do something similar as Bartenders Against Racism or Bakers Against Racism. I would love to see restaurant owners and developers working together to make long-term strategic plans to address these issues. This call for change goes well beyond the Black community, customers notice that the industry has serious issues with diversity.” -Takera Gholson, Flights and Foods Founder