I Ate Only Black-Owned Restaurants for 30 Days: Here’s What I Learned
“What does change for Black people really look like?”
Someone at my table of friends asked the question over the muted tones of Frankie Beverly’s crooning, and it hung in the air for a few seconds. We were sitting at one of the round tables at Upper Kirby Bistro, socially distanced, but close enough not to miss the smell of buttermilk chicken batter wafting through the air, aided by a light breeze from the patio, with the sweet scent of hot maple syrup trailing not far behind. Our waitress brought my chicken and waffle plate and I dove in — the crisp on the edges of the waffle, quickly balanced out by the fluffy center and pools of maple syrup in each of its wells. Heavenly.
“I’m gonna try and just eat black owned for a little bit…”
I offered up the delayed response through a mouthful of chicken. Everyone nodded in agreement, too engrossed in steaming oxtails, savory grits, and leafy greens to ask for details. It was June 7th and we were more than 2 months removed from Breonna Taylor’s death, 2 weeks removed from George Floyd’s death, and 2 days from his funeral. Everyone was hungry — for food and a little human interaction in the middle of a pandemic. But we were all mentally exhausted. Houston had taken a gut punch.
My pledge, made under the influence of tender, deep-fried chicken somehow turned into a 30 day challenge to eat Black-owned exclusively.
It was not easy.
Through the ups and downs of my food journey, I traveled to or ordered from somewhere between 15–20 Black-owned restaurants.
Here are 5 key things I think we can learn as customers and business owners:
- Support Means Sacrifice: You may have to drive further. You might have to pay more. You may have to do your research. There may be growing pains. But every Houston Black-owned restaurant had an owner who dove feet first into the fire and bet on themselves despite statistics showing Black businesses being less likely to secure adequate funding and despite the CARES Act disproportionately leaving behind Black-owned businesses. Sacrificing a little bit now, can be what helps keep these businesses afloat, or even turns them into thriving household names.
- Customer Service Is A Necessary Skill: I firmly believe most of the owners of restaurants are eternally grateful to their customers. The problem is, the person they hire, or friend they have volunteer to take orders for a few hours…they don’t possess that same level of gratitude. The person manning your cash register, greeting guests, and smoothing over long waits or missed orders is everything. They become the face of your business, so choose wisely!
- Opportunities Await: Soul food, comfort food, Caribbean food, Vegan Food, BBQ and burgers, Nigerian Food, Wings, Pizza. I found it all incredibly tasty, but 2 weeks in and every artery of mine was screaming for a healthy middle ground. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for places that can balance “healthier” food options without going over the top: salad bars, a Chipotle-type build-a-bowl experience, healthier comfort food options, fresh seasonal options, and places that focus on the farm-to-plate experience.
- Convenience is KING: If there’s one thing a pandemic will prove to you, it’s that convenience wins customers. From UberEats to InstaCart, not only is it better for our health/safety right now to avoid milling around in restaurants, it’s just easier for people who don’t have the time to make long trips. I found myself getting busy with work and projects and trying restaurants I normally would not have, simply because they made themselves available on UberEats, DoorDash, or GrubHub. Once I tried some of them, I became a regular — give us an inch and take a foot!
- Black Restaurants are Magical, but need marketing: I have never had a stretch with tastier food than this past month. From Mico’s hot and spicy chicken sandwich that had me swearing I’d never eat Chick-fil-a again, to Nyamming’s oxtails falling off the bone. From the unrivaled apple-cinnamon flavor of Lucille’s waffles, to the classic herbs and spices of Aria’s jollof rice and stew. I can’t stress this enough — Black people can cook! So why hadn’t I heard of these places before joining Houston’s Black-Owned Restaurant group on Facebook? I’m praying that these restaurants can move beyond word of mouth and get some digital marketing going with Facebook and IG ads to really spread the word on how good their product is!
As I wrap this writing up, I just shoveled the last piece of tender garlic roasted baked chicken from Esther’s Cajun Cafe & Soul Food down my gullet. I don’t know what change looks like for Black people collectively, but maybe it’s just like this chicken — you don’t try and swallow too much at once; you take it on a little piece at a time, and savor every bit of it, knowing it was worth the wait.