When Karen Umeda decided to make a list of Black-owned restaurants for every borough in New York, she didn’t anticipate that many people would notice. The 20-year-old design student, who lives in Manhattan, posted the first list for Brooklyn, Manhattan (plus an additional post for the Harlem neighborhood), and Queens on May 31; protests against police brutality instigated by George Floyd’s death had been happening for five days already. She had also read disturbing statistics about the effects of COVID-19 on the Black community — that while Black people make up just 30 percent of the population of Chicago, they account for 70 percent of coronavirus deaths, for instance. Umeda felt called to use her skills as a designer to boost Black-owned businesses.
“I wanted to come up with ways in which we could support the Black community,” Umeda tells me. “Not just as of right now, when there are tragedies and protests happening, but things you can do in the long run to redistribute your capital and invest in these communities.”
Umeda’s idea struck a chord: The first list quickly garnered more than 45,000 likes on Instagram; the second list, which covered Long Island and the Bronx, netted around 15,000. As Umeda points out, “some people are scared of getting involved with protests, or might be at risk for getting COVID-19.” Still, people are eager for ways to monetarily support Black communities beyond donating to worthy causes or taking to the street with a sign. However, there’s no guarantee that these lists will result in direct, sustained action that Black-owned businesses need to remain a stable presence in their communities — and that’s a problem.
Umeda’s lists are short. She did all the research herself and says it turned out to be harder than she thought to verify which restaurants throughout the city are Black-owned. But soon others began to pick up the slack: The app Queens Eats reached out to collaborate with Umeda to expand her initial lists. In the following days, city-specific lists of Black-owned restaurants began to pop up all over social media, including Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Portland, Seattle, and Atlanta (The New Yorker’s food correspondent Helen Rosner saved each list she found to a story highlight on her Instagram).
But as social media reached its saturation point with lists of Black-owned restaurants (and book stores, wine professionals, and food bloggers to follow) questions about their effectiveness began to take hold.
“I think in the white privilege world in which I exist, people have a lot of plausible deniability,” Zachary Fagenson says. A restaurant critic in Miami for the past eight years, Fagenson wrote a list of Black-owned restaurants which also went viral.
“This information is out there now in some small way, and enough people have seen it that [white people] can’t justify saying ‘Well, we didn’t know,’” Fagenson says. “Well now, it’s there. A lot of people are going to go to a black owned restaurant this week. I think my question is, are people in six months going to think it’s still important?”
Sharing lists of Black-owned businesses and Black creators might result in a momentary uptick in sales and followers at best, as well as a moment of guilt-assuaging action for the people who repost them. However, long-term action to make sure diversity is still a priority in restaurants after the demonstrations have died down will take hard work.
In an Instagram post from June 2, Aretah Ettarh, a chef at Gramercy Tavern, wrote that she hoped white restaurant owners and chefs who had expressed “solidarity” will be “equally as vocal on how they plan to actively increasing the number of black employees in their own businesses [and] creating a company culture that makes black employees want to stay.” Otherwise, their solidarity looks “disgenious and performative.”
Ettarh’s statement reinforces that these lists, though well-intentioned, don’t always result in direct action, and can even feel like empty gestures. White and non-Black people who claim to support this movement now face an important quandary: For now, they are putting their energy toward finding ways to support Black people financially, but how long will that motivation last?
People can make diversity in restaurants and food a priority by spending their money at establishments that create a safe and supportive environment for everyone from Black chefs to the undocumented workers who keep many restaurants running. But it’s essential that we keep up the momentum. Because the end goal is not just to spend our money at Black-owned restaurants — it’s to restructure the industry so that it doesn’t thrive on low wage work, an abusive work environment, and the appropriation and outright theft of cooking techniques pioneered by people of color.
“People tend to go with what’s easiest, cheapest, or right in front of their eyes,” food writer Aaron Hutcherson tells me in a Twitter direct message. “To find and support Black and other minority-owned businesses often requires some amount of sacrifice — either by exerting extra effort to find them, or paying more money when they charge for what their services are actually worth.”
Hutcherson’s point reveals that many of these lists are impractical. It doesn’t seem likely that when someone picks up lunch for their coworkers or gets tired of cooking for their kids, they’ll pull up one of these databases. Ideally, everyone would make a conscious effort to research where their money goes, but it seems more likely that laziness will take over and most people will revert back to making purchases from the most familiar places. And ordering takeout from a Black-owned restaurant once or twice might feel like monetary support, but it’s not actually an effective way to help these businesses thrive in the long run. That would require consistency.
While Hutcherson does see the value in lists of Black bloggers that people should follow “because an increase in followers and page views has a direct correlation with an increase in income from ad revenue and what we are able to charge for sponsored posts,” he adds that “one sale or one click here and there do nothing for building the wealth that our community needs to prosper.”
Sustained supportive action, which can also be translated into financial reward, requires publishing in-depth profiles about these businesses in national outlets year-round, as well as featuring them organically in recommendations of best restaurants, hotels, and in city guides. Articles centering Black business people and chefs raise their profile, get customers in seats, and attract awards attention.
“One person who has a Black business blog said [to me] that he doesn’t really believe that an Excel spreadsheet is going to move the needle,” Fagenson says. “He said, what a lot of people need is a feature that tells the story of their lives and their businesses and shows who they are and what they do with pictures.”
Promoting and sharing lists of Black-owned restaurants only highlights one small part of a bigger picture: The restaurant industry is steeped in racism, and spending a little bit of money here and there isn’t a viable long-term solution. The system needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up so that Black chefs are promoted and offered leadership positions and Black businesses have access to loans to help them stay open.
“The curation and promotion of Black-owned restaurants is like placing a bandaid on the larger issue of racism within the hospitality space, an industry which was built on the backs of Black and Brown people,” Shanika Hillocks, a food and spirits writer, tells me in an email.
Hillocks said that in the eight years she’s lived in Harlem, she’s pitched stories about Black-owned and run restaurants to well-circulated media outlets, “only to receive skepticism or silence.” Suddenly, those same publications are eager to elevate to those restaurants after being called out for whitewashing their coverage, and because Black Lives Matter is trending in the news. Hillocks thinks that once the new cycle’s attention span runs out, interest in covering Black-owned restaurants will run out, too.
“Have the lists generated awareness and a small surge in business?” she asks. “Sure, but what actual work will knee-jerk patrons follow once palates grow bored and the media circuit fades out?”
Spending your dollars at Black-owned businesses is a small gesture of support. But to show meaningful solidarity, we must demand that restaurants prioritize diverse hires and liveable wages, and that media outlets cover Black-owned businesses even when Black Lives Matter isn’t saturating the news. Only then will we start to see industries with racism built into their structure change for the better.