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Black Restaurant Week: Across U.S., Events Remind Diners, 'We're Here. Support Us'

Oakland is a city that's rapidly gentrifying, shedding much of its African-American population along the way. The California city, which was 47 percent black in 1980, is now divided roughly into a quarter each of black, white, Asian and Hispanic residents.

The sense of the city's changing identity has ended up helping Adrian Henderson's business. He's co-owner of Kingston 11 Cuisine, a Caribbean restaurant in a neighborhood that's changed so much lately that it goes by the dual name of Koreatown Northgate.

"Here in Oakland, folks are seeing black folks being pushed out," Henderson says. "We're a community-based restaurant, so people of color are supporting our business. Any black-owned business or restaurant is being over-supported now, which is great, right?"

To help spread the word about which restaurants are in fact owned by African-Americans, Henderson participates in Bay Area Black Restaurant Week. Over the past couple of years, such promotions have spread to essentially every major city with a substantial African-American population, including Houston, Detroit, Charlotte, Atlanta and New Orleans, along with smaller cities such as Richmond, Va., and Madison, Wis.

"Some of the restaurants that participate in black restaurant week want to remind African-American consumers that are conscientious with their dollars that they're there," says Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University historian who is working on a book about race and fast food.

After four years on Main Street in Memphis, Tenn., DejaVu shut its doors in January but announced plans to reopen in a new location this spring. Manager Katrina Bolton said the city's Black Restaurant Week did bring in some new customers.
/ Alan Greenblatt for NPR
Alan Greenblatt for NPR
After four years on Main Street in Memphis, Tenn., DejaVu shut its doors in January but announced plans to reopen in a new location this spring. Manager Katrina Bolton said the city's Black Restaurant Week did bring in some new customers.

During the promotions, diners can often receive multi-course meals at a discount. In some cities, however, it's simply a way of drawing attention to what's on offer all the time at black-owned restaurants, a pure exercise in branding and promotion. Chicago's version is going on this week. Baltimore's Black Restaurant Challenge is continuing throughout most of February. Other cities will follow course throughout the spring.

The idea seems to have spread around the country largely through social media, with local events sponsored variously by public relations consultants, a wine distributor, a radio station and the restaurants themselves.

Lauran Smith, the organizer of Chicago Black Restaurant Week, works as a public school guidance counselor. "For me personally, it came from the fact that I really did not feel like I was celebrating my history enough, and food is something I like," she says. "I created black restaurant week for Chicago to celebrate the fact that we have a lot of delicious businesses in our community."

Spreading the word has worked. In 2016, eight restaurants participated in Memphis Black Restaurant Week, attracting a total of 3,135 customers. Last year, the number of restaurants grew to 14, which collectively saw more than 6,200 patrons walk in the door over the course of the week.

It wasn't rocket science, says Cynthia Daniels, a social media manager who came up with the idea in Memphis. The city already held celebrations for nearly every other type of food — Italian, Mexican, barbecue. HM Dessert Lounge, the black-owned restaurant she was working with, didn't have a marketing budget. By banding together with others, the event was able to draw a considerable amount of publicity, which has also been the case in other cities.

This tempting row of black forest cupcakes was available at SweetArt, a combination bakery and gallery in St. Louis, that participated in Black Restaurant Week last year.
/ Alan Greenblatt for NPR
Alan Greenblatt for NPR
This tempting row of black forest cupcakes was available at SweetArt, a combination bakery and gallery in St. Louis, that participated in Black Restaurant Week last year.

"When black restaurant week started, we were new, so it gave us a lot of exposure," says Terrence Callicutt, an owner of Scoops Parlor, a Memphis ice cream shop that also serves sandwiches and crepes.

The type of restaurants that are included in various cities range from takeout joints that serve fried fish and chicken to high-end establishments such as the 40/40 Club in Manhattan, a lounge co-owned by hip hop mogul Jay Z.

Overall, African-Americans lag when it comes to running restaurants. Blacks make up 13 percent of the population, but only 8 percent of restaurant owners and the same share of restaurant managers, according to the National Restaurant Association.

There are African-Americans who are celebrity chefs, such as Carla Hall and Pat Neely. In general, however, blacks often struggle to come up with the capital necessary to open and run restaurants, in part due to the legacy of lack of wealth formation among African-Americans and ongoing discrimination. "Most black restaurant owners, they take their life savings, open the restaurants and hope for the best," Daniels says.

Black ownership of restaurants, along with other types of businesses, was often more robust during the Jim Crow era of segregation, at least in some cities. Black-owned businesses served black customers that white owners could not or would not. "There have been black-owned restaurants as long as there have been racially segregated neighborhoods," says Sharon Zukin, a sociologist at Brooklyn College.

Black restaurants provided important meeting places during the civil rights era. Paschal's Motor Lodge and Restaurant in Atlanta was a regular gathering spot for Martin Luther King and allied activists. "If you wanted to know what was going on, that's where most of the discussion ... and where much of the planning was taking place," Andrew Young, a King aide who went on to become mayor of Atlanta, told The Washington Post in 2011.

Following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, blacks could eat at the lunch counters or restaurants of their choice, no longer restricted to places in their neighborhoods. Roughly around the same time, the construction of interstate highways tore through many traditionally black urban centers, displacing residents and disrupting business. And the rise of fast-food chains didn't help local restaurateurs.

"There was a real clear downfall in black restaurant ownership after Jim Crow ended," says Angela Jill Cooley, the author of To Live and Dine in Dixie: The Evolution of Urban Food Culture in the Jim Crow South. "Black diners had different options then. They didn't necessarily have to stay in their 'race businesses,' as they would have called them at the time."

Blacks remain the most underrepresented racial or ethnic group when it comes to overall business ownership, according to a working paper by University of California, Santa Cruz economist Robert Fairlie. It continues to be harder for them to get credit to start restaurants. It's common for African-Americans who complete culinary training to go into catering, which has far less overhead than restaurants that require large floor spaces and staffs.

Black restaurant week organizers say that patrons don't always know about the options that do exist. Sometimes, even black food entrepreneurs weren't aware of how many colleagues they have in their cities. The events have brought them together in many cases to share information about trends and employees. "It's made people want to start their own businesses," says Smith, the organizer of Chicago Black Restaurant Week.

The main thing it's done is underscore the number of restaurants owned locally by African-Americans, in hopes of attracting more support. "It highlights a strong need for African-Americans to support Africans-Americans in restaurants," says Todd Richards, a chef and cookbook author in Atlanta. "We can't talk about discrimination if we're not going into our own restaurants and supporting them."

Of course, black restaurant owners are happy to welcome customers of all backgrounds. Pass Da Peas is a carryout spot in Milwaukee offering wings, catfish fingers and ribs. It doesn't typically see a lot of white customers, but black restaurant week brought more around.

"I got a bunch of Caucasian brothers and sisters coming in, and I was taken aback," says owner Thromentta Anderson.

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Corrected: February 14, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story misidentified chef and cookbook author Todd Richards as Tony Richards.
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.