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The restaurant industry is taking a major financial hit during the pandemic. But some Black-owned restaurants and food businesses have seen an uptick in support since the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction. Listicles are circulating of Black-owned businesses to support in the D.C. region and around the country.
But will the support for Black-owned restaurants last? We’ll hear about the state of Black-owned restaurants and food businesses, and how other factors — from lack of resources to cultural appropriation — impact their success.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDISome black-owned restaurants and food businesses have seen increased support since the Black Lives Matter movement gained widespread recognition. But will that support last, and how is the pandemic exacerbating current issues that black business owners face, from lack of resources to nonblack businesses, appropriating black culture and food? Joining me to discuss this now is Dr. Sunyatta Amen, owner and TEO of Calabash Tea & Tonic. Sunyatta Amen, thank you for joining us.
SUNYATTA AMENOh, thank you for having me, Kojo. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIAnd Anela Malik is a food blogger and advocate who runs the website Feed the Malik. Anela Malik, thank you for joining us.
ANELA MALIKAbsolutely. It's my pleasure.
NNAMDISunyatta Amen, I know we're talking about restaurants and food businesses, but Calabash Tea & Tonic is more than just a tea store. What role does Calabash Tea & Tonic play in the community?
AMENOh, that's a great question. Thanks. We see it as our responsibility to create safe spaces in our community. And in addition to that, our commitment over the years has really been to make wellness a birthright. It really is a birthright of every citizen, and that's whether someone's in a food desert or in an area where it has been so gentrified that they can't afford to go into a restaurant or café. And so our commitment to community is that we want to make sure everyone can afford what we're offering and can be offered what's there.
NNAMDIOne of your parents was a member of the Black Panther Party and one of your grandparents, in Jamaica, was a follower of Marcus Garvey, a Garvian. How did your family instill in you activism, and how have you kept that with you in the way you run Calabash Tea & Tonic?
AMENOh, you know, Kojo, I don't think I had a choice. Activism was served with breakfast, lunch and dinner in our house. So, the idea that we needed to be of service to others, the idea that appropriation or, you know, any kind of accommodation to the larger, you know, so-called white supremacy myth wasn't going to be had in our house. So, really, the spirit and underpinning of what we do comes out of self-determination. And, if nothing else, you know, from Marcus Garvey onward, the spirit of we can do this and we can serve our own folks is served with every cup of tea.
NNAMDIAnela Malik, what is Feed the Malik, and why did you decide to start it?
MALIKSo, I run Feed the Malik as just a page to spotlight and uplift the voices of marginalized peoples and food. And that's very broad, but I started my project when I was living abroad in Jordan. And I wanted to push myself to get out of the expat bubble. And I learned through my blog project that, through food in particular, you can really tell powerful stories. And you can connect people to cultures and histories that they, you know, personally don't have a connection with, that they may not understand.
MALIKAnd so when I moved back to D.C., it felt natural to continue that project and to focus on marginalized peoples as I realized that the food media coverage in the region is largely white-centric and focuses a lot on larger businesses that have PR teams. But that does not, you know, demonstrate the breadth and excellence of the food that's available in the broader DMV.
NNAMDIWell, you might be able to answer Charlie in Adams Morgan, who emailed us: For years, I have been a customer at Pleasant Pops, a small eatery on Florida Avenue in Adams Morgan. I hadn't been aware that it was a black-owned establishment until a few weeks back when its proprietors put up signs in its windows to ward off looters and window-smashers.
NNAMDIThe other day I asked the young lady who was selling me a popsicle if there were other black-owned businesses in the vicinity. Other than an Ethiopian restaurant a block away, she wasn't able to name any. If customers are to support black-owned businesses, we need to know where they are. How can they know where they are, Anela Malik?
MALIKWell, if they go on my site, FeedtheMalik.com, I've created a pretty comprehensive directory of black-owned restaurants and food businesses throughout the DMV. The D.C. page is organized by neighborhood, and they'll be able to look and see who's open, where they're located and how to order or contact them. That is primarily a volunteer effort, but I've been working on it since early April. So, at this point, it's very flushed out, and I'm sure they'll be able to find what they're looking for.
NNAMDIWell, one of the biggest services that Feed the Malik provides is a kind of matchmaker between black-owned businesses and individuals offering free services like photography or public relations. Tell us about what services people are offering and what you're hearing from black restaurant owners about what they need.
MALIKSo, primarily, I've heard from black restaurant owners that they need help managing this new landscape we're in, because of COVID. So much more of our lives have shifted online, as people have adopted social distancing and are tele-working. And even though we're going through a partial reopening, I think that aspect of our lives is here to stay.
MALIKAnd so restaurant owners have been seeking help with learning how to use Instagram, learning how to take their own photos and learning how to post them and edit them. Things that, you know, if they had the budget, maybe a PR person or a social media manager would handle, but they don't. And, in the long term, these are things that can really enhance their online media presence.
MALIKAnd so that's primarily the matching that I've been doing as I received a flood of offers at the very start of this international civil rights movement from local photographers, local web designers. And I wanted to find a way to kind of systematize this information so that if business owners needed it, it was available, not just a month ago, but in three months. And at least through the end of the year, I asked all of the volunteers to be available or that time period, so that we can make this more of a long-term initiative.
NNAMDIDr. Sunyatta Amen, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Calabash Tea & Tonic pivoted to online sales. How has that been going, and what challenges have you faced?
AMENWe have seen the challenge going from serving 300 people a day in both of our locations -- or in each location, to serving no one. So, our preparedness pivot, as we like to call it, was selling direct to consumers online. And we've seen a 400 percent increase in our online sales. And we've been able to continue paying our staff, our management staff and, you know, moving through that.
NNAMDIBecause of the coronavirus, many people have been thinking about their health more. Do you think the pandemic is making people think a bit more carefully about their health?
AMENDefinitely. We get questions all the time. We are -- you know, when people walk into our shop, our very first thing we say to them is, how can we help heal you today? And that's been our question for years that we've asked folk. So, people are still asking those questions online on Instagram and our DMs, calling us, emailing us. And so we're still able to field those questions and, of course, immune boosting is at the top of everyone's list. And then right under that is nervous system, because it is nerve-racking, the times we live in right now. So, people want to get that under control.
NNAMDIPivoting is something that you're no stranger to. You were one of the founding members of the International Preparedness Network that was founded in the 1990s. Briefly, can you tell us what that was and how it helped you shift your business model quickly?
AMENSure. I feel like I'm telling on myself to say that it was founded in the '90s, (laugh) but myself and two physicians, two engineers -- the International Preparedness Network was a response. And we founded that in our living room, and then we took it all over the globe. We put boots on the ground after Katrina, in Haiti, you name it.
AMENAnd really what our response was, was really what became Black Lives Matter later. So, our response was the killing of and abusing of black people by the police departments, by neighborhoods where it wasn't even safe to walk through. I mean, we just felt like all we have is us. So, we were committed to train citizens, like, pods of people to be able to have self-reliance. Like, this is how you get clean water. This is how you take care of yourself if there's an emergency, a national pandemic.
AMENSo, none of this that's happening right now, whether it is protesting in the street, whether it is the coronavirus itself is new to us, because we've been thinking about this, as time has been going by, in the International Preparedness Network. And this is why our pivoting was a lot easier for us, as a business.
NNAMDIFeed the Malik, as you mentioned earlier, Anela, has that comprehensive database of black-owned restaurants in this region. And, in fact, we've seen these lists pop up across the country, although unlike other places, I believe you started yours before Black Lives Matter gained international traction. How much traction has this list gotten? Are you hearing from any restaurants that they're getting more business?
MALIKYeah. So, I started this list for myself, primarily, at the end of March, because I wanted to continue supporting black-owned businesses as a food blogger when it was very clear by that point that COVID was exacerbating existing racial inequalities, and that was also playing out in the business community. And so this list then later gained traction and, you know, it's been really gratifying to hear from local business owners that they have seen an increase.
MALIKI've heard that people have increased their business twofold, threefold. I know a few business owners who were able to hire back staff that they had to furlough at the beginning of the pandemic. But my worry is that this attention, this moment will pass, and then they'll see a decline in sales again. And so that's, you know, really been something that I've been thinking about. And I urge the community to really consider making more long term sustainable changes into their consumer patterns.
NNAMDISunyatta Amen, do you share that worry?
AMENI certainly do. The last time we were on your show, Kojo, which was fantastic, of course, we were talking about Starbucks and the fact that two gentlemen had been arrested who were just sitting there, and one asked to use the restroom prior to ordering. I find that we get these blips on the screen, these increases when things are outrageous with white corporate businesses or local businesses that may do something that's, you know, appropriative, or whatever the case.
AMENAnd I really want people to keep that same energy, instead of waiting -- it's like any abuser. I mean, like instead of waiting for the abuse and then you're running away to another place, it's like understand that these companies do not have the best interests of the community at heart, and keep supporting the businesses that support you.
NNAMDIAnela Malike, a lot of people are looking to help, these days. Have you seen more people stepping up to offer more free services?
MALIKI have, and that's been heartening. There's been a continuation of steady flow in my inbox of folks stepping up to help. And, you know, I think that that, at least, is an indication that hopefully this moment is in some way different than when this has happened before. I think we have seen a level of kind of attention and activism in spaces where I've never really encountered it before.
NNAMDIWell, we got a tweet from Irene: I love this conversation around local food, especially around lunchtime. My husband and I used to love eating out around Brookland, and continue to patronize our 12th Street and Rhode Island Avenue Northeast business districts. Our neighborhood keeps us full of good food. Sunyatta and Anela, you both believe that food is political. What does that mean to you, and how should it factor into our choices of where we buy things and what restaurants we go to? I'll start with you, Sunyatta.
AMENYou know, food began as political in the new world and everywhere. But think about the fact that people were brought to this country unwillingly and for free labor and -- in Brazil and the Caribbean, because of food. So, whether that was growing sugarcane, whether it was growing spices, whether it was growing other kinds of product, cotton, etcetera, that was made into gin. When you think about the fact that 99 percent of the labor of enslaved people was about food.
AMENAnd it's important for us to understand that food has always been political. And our choices we make now are political. Look, we're incredibly grateful to Feed the Malik, you know, as a list, and the work that is being done to highlight black-owned and people of color-owned businesses because we are the direct descendants of the people who did this work and were not paid for this work.
AMENAnd what would your breakfast, lunch or dinner be, anyway, without cinnamon and ginger and sugar and honey and, you know, you name it? All of the things that make life worthwhile, the avocado toast that everybody's so crazy about now, (laugh) and the coconut creams and coconut oil? I mean, all of this is touched and grown by hands of color. And so we must really see it through the food chain all the way to the end, where the product is presented to the community, and that the highest markup is on that side.
NNAMDIAnd Anela Malik, same question to you.
MALIKWell, to add to that, and I fully agree with everything that was just stated, the way I view it, particularly because I'm a blogger, I'm someone who writes about food, is that politics is just a series of conversations that we're always having about norms in our society: what's acceptable, what's popular, what's unacceptable, you know, what's trend worthy.
MALIKAnd when we look at food, what so often happens in the food space is that it's very -- the narrative is very white-centric, and it's very upper-middle class or even, like, wealth centric. The types of foods that are trend worthy are often foods with very high price ceilings, and they are often associated with, quote-unquote, "highbrow cultures." And we see that in this political conversation about who belongs, about whose food is American food, whose food is our food, so often the work and the history and the culture of black and brown peoples in creating, you know, the foundation of American cuisine, that work is erased.
MALIKAnd so I say that food is political because, yes, we are having political conversations every day when we decide what's worthy of posting on Instagram, when we decide what's worthy of a write-up in a local paper and when we decide, you know, what, as a society, is going to be the next food trend. And are we going to decide to erase entire peoples in the creation of those narratives?
NNAMDISunyatta Amen, the issues around race, food companies and our food system are complex which may overwhelm the average consumer. What piece of advice would you give to people about how they can spend their money more ethically at food stores or restaurants? Are there simple concrete things they can do? This time I'll start with you, Anela.
MALIKFor simple concrete things you can do, I always say that the first thing is to change the way that you shop for what you bring into your home. You know, we still eat the majority of our food at home. And that means if you have the privilege -- and I recognize that it's a privilege -- pay extra for products and foods that are independently fair trade certified. If you can go to a local farmers market and get to know the farmers and the producers and understand where your food comes from, that's a step towards making sure that the things that you're consuming on a daily basis don't come from exploitation.
MALIKIt's a small step, and there's much work that needs to be done throughout the foodscape to create a more equitable supply chain and a more equitable, like, food scene, in general. But that is where everyday people can start, in their own homes.
NNAMDISunyatta Amen, what advice would you give?
AMENI agree completely with Anela. I encourage all of our customers to join CSAs all the time. Joining a community share where you get to know the farmers, your local food farmers fruit and veg is amazing. And if you share that particular thing with another family, that makes it a lot more affordable. Sometimes you have so much produce that comes from a food share at a farmers market every week where you get handed a box of fresh stuff, but it spoils, half of it. So, sharing it with another family, dividing it. Maybe it's 15 bucks a month once you do that, and you get fresh fruit and vegetable.
AMENIt also teaches the children and other people in your house that food does not come from the grocery store. It actually is grown by people. And they get to understand it a little bit more. And I would encourage people to grow food. Like, we do a subscription box every month that has seeds in it. And we're very deliberate with the fact that it doesn't just contain tea. It also has seeds. And the important part is being able to grow on your windowsill. It doesn't matter if you don't have a lot of space.
AMENBut this is the part of self-reliance that is super important, is being able to grow your own food. And this serves as a science project for you, for those around you, and gives a perspective on the difficult and ease growing food provides, and the relationship we should have with land and soil that sometimes we're torn apart from in these modern cultures.
NNAMDIAnela, yesterday, you published a piece about how industry professionals in the D.C. region have been trying to make the support for black people in the industry more permanent. One initiative you highlight is Bartenders Against Racism. What does that organization do?
MALIKSo, this is an organization that grew out of, you know, this recent resurgence of the civil rights movement. And they focus primarily on supporting service workers directly, which I think is really important. In this conversation, we often talk about raising awareness. We often talk about fundraising. We talk about top-down initiatives. And I think, in that conversation, the fact that in the food industry, particularly food service workers and the people who produce our food, farm workers, factory workers, they're so often black and brown or undocumented, and they are so often exploited.
MALIKSo, Bartenders Against Racism serves as an organization to work with these workers directly in the D.C. region, provide them with mentorship, provide them with a safe space, which frankly is very, very important if you're looking to grow in an industry where you might not be given the same tools or opportunities as other employees.
NNAMDIAnd, Sunyatta, D.C. deli Call Your Mother issued an apology last month for using black entertainers and athletes in their marketing and names of menu items. And Colony Club in Park View is changing its name to disassociate itself from colonialism. The issue of cultural appropriation and insensitivity in restaurant marketing is not a new one. What does it mean when nonblack restaurants or businesses appropriate black culture? How does that hurt black businesses?
AMENWe find that that level of appropriation, even restaurants that people think are black-owned, which are not, damages all of us, as a community. It's not just black-owned businesses. It is disingenuous. It is literally, you know, naming a sandwich after a person of color and using that capital of cool, you know, is disingenuous. And what happens is the people get to borrow our rhythm and leave the blues.
AMENAnd we have to hold people accountable, other business owners like, hey, do you understand that naming this sandwich or that -- or all the things on your menu is literally feeding black and brown bodies to gentrifiers in the neighborhood? (laugh) Like, do you understand how that's not okay? And not everybody understands that right away, or the naming of a place for colonization.
AMENIt's insulting to Native American people. It's insulting to native D.C. folk. It's insulting to -- I mean, there's a wide variety of reasons why that is not okay. And what happens is that black-owned businesses that want to open in those area don't even have an opportunity, because the real estate jumps up. And that jump is on our backs. It's on the capital of black and brown bodies.
NNAMDIWe got a question from somebody who says that Anela Malik stated it really is about people making it the norm to support black-owned businesses. It shouldn't be only for a week. I'm hoping that with the increased consciousness, this continues. I use Anela's list of black-owned restaurants every Black Food Friday. Anela, what is #blackfoodfriday?
MALIKSo, this is an initiative that's really been spearheaded in a decentralized manner by food bloggers, primarily black food bloggers, to encourage our followers, to encourage our digital communities to every Friday make it part of their routines to order from a black-owned business. And so they use the #blackfoodfriday, but it's really to encourage people to make a long term change to how they shop, how they order, how they buy.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we only have about a minute left but cultural appropriation for marketing purposes is one thing, but is it different, Anela, when it comes to what's on the plate? Should nonwhite chefs or owners be cooking and profiting from dishes that were created by people of color?
MALIKSo, this is such a complicated issue.
NNAMDIAnd you only have 30 seconds to address it. (laugh)
MALIK(laugh) I would say if they're cooking and profiting on dishes made or, you know, created on the backs of people of color, then they should also be uplifting black and brown people in their kitchens, in their organizations, making them leaders, and giving credit to where this dish came from.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Anela Malik, Dr. Sunyatta Amen, thank you both for joining us. Our segment on the District's response to the coronavirus pandemic was produced by Kayla Hewitt. And our discussion on black-owned restaurants was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow, our education during a pandemic series continues with a look at the plight of international students in the Washington region. Plus, University of Maryland's new president Dr. Darryll Pines on what college will look like this fall. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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