Black-owned restaurants adapt during pandemic

By LaRisa Lynch

Caption: Ayisha Strotter is co-owner of Ain't She Sweet Cafe with two locations on Chicago's South Side. At the height of Illinois' shelter-in-place order, the fast-casual sandwich shop lost 60 percent of its business at one of its location and 100 percent of its catering clients.

Some Like It Black had just hit its stride.

In business for four years, the Black-owned entertainment venue on Chicago’s South Side was turning a profit, drawing crowds to hear musical acts ranging from jazz to Afrobeats.

“I had all kinds of reservations, all kinds of parties,” said Kelli Rich, owner of Some Like It Black: Creative Arts Bar. “My business was starting to pick up rapidly. My income almost doubled from last year. Just when I was at the peak of my business, then everything just shut down.”

The spread of an invisible airborne virus across the country forced Rich and many in the restaurant industry to shut down or scale back operations. Cities mandated that restaurants and bars eliminate dine-in service, allowing only carryout, delivery and curbside pickup amid shelter-in-place orders. Some of those restrictions, however, are being eased now as states bow to pressure to relax lockdown orders. Still Rich’s bar – famous for its jerk chicken tacos – had to close. The mother and daughter duo who operated the venue and their two contract bartenders found themselves unemployed.

“Financially, it is really bad for us,” said Rich, who paid April’s rent for her business, but didn’t have May’s rent. “I haven’t even paid my rent for my apartment that I live in.”

The economic impact of these closures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic hit all businesses nationwide hard. But for Black-owned restaurants — already operating on thin margins – the closure has meant an even tougher fight for survival. To do that, Black-owned restaurants must innovate or try new business models to keep their doors open and employees employed. Many are also relying on the inherited resiliency that got their ancestors through slavery, Jim Crow and countless other economic downturns.

Between 35 and 40 percent of Black-owned businesses nationwide won’t survive this pandemic, said Ron Busby Sr., president and CEO of the U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. (USBC), a trade organization for Black business groups in the United States and Africa. That, he added, shows the fragility of many Black-owned businesses who “live off cash flows” and couldn’t access funds from the federal relief programs such as the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP).

The first iteration of the program ran out of money and drew criticism that funds weren’t distributed based on need. The program allowed larger businesses such as Potbelly, Shake Shack, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and even the Los Angeles Lakers to access millions of dollars while shutting out small businesses. After public outcry, these companies returned the money. Weeks later Congress reauthorized the program to the tune of $310 billion.

White businesses, Busby noted, already had the banking relationships and the inside track to apply for these funds early. But many Black entrepreneurs’ relationships with banks don't go beyond a credit or debit card that’s already maxed out.

“We’ve been left out of the conversation. We’ve been left out of the funding, and it’s even that more challenging for us to make it through,” Busby said.

Even legacy businesses in the Black community have been hit hard by this pandemic. In Washington, where USBC is based, Busby noted Ben’s Chili Bowl, which has been a staple in that city for decades, closed some of its locations. Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles also cut back, and Atlanta’s Sugar Shack may be going out of business, Busby said.

“This has nothing to do with our business acumen, with our ability to provide a good product and/or service,” Busby said, noting that Black restaurants “... don’t have enough reserve to get through difficult situations like this. All of our restaurants are hurting across the country.”

Black restaurants don’t have enough reserve to get through difficult situations like this. All of our restaurants are hurting across the country.

Back in Chicago, Siri Hibbler, of the Cook County Black Chamber of Commerce, agreed. Her 55-member group did an informal survey driving through some of Black neighborhoods to “see how things are looking on the ground for people.” She noted restaurants in the Black community lost about 70 percent of their business. But they are hanging on since many are carryout establishments or a combination of both dine-in and takeout and, in some cases, were able to adjust. These restaurants, she said, are still doing business, although not as robust. Dine-in cafeteria-style restaurants, she noted, were the hardest hit.“They are hanging on with the 25 percent of the business they are getting,” said Hibbler, the organization’s CEO and chairman. “They are doing their best not to lay people off.”

Evelyn Shelton, chef and owner of her namesake South Side dine-in restaurant, is one of them. She opened her restaurant, Evelyn’s Food Love, three years ago this May. She wonders how long or if she will continue. “My entire livelihood has been turned on its ear, and now we just have to deal with it,” said Shelton, famous for her seafood etouffee, crawfish shrimp and grits and catfish Po' Boy sandwiches. “We have some money in the bank. We could probably last for several weeks before I have to make any drastic decisions.”

But Shelton got a lifeline from the charitable arm of the Chicago Cubs. The baseball team partnered with Shelton to prepare meals for a South Side social service agency. That will keep her staff on the payroll for a while, but Shelton hopes other local governments and foundations see this as a model to keep small restaurants open. She said they can partner with restaurants to provide meals to first responders, hospital staff and the homeless housed in hotels.

“Somebody’s got to feed these people,” Shelton said. “Why not enlist these small restaurants, Black-owned or otherwise who you’ve asked to close for the greater good … to partner with you and keep their doors open in the meantime.”

Shelton has kept her business afloat through sheer will. She’s applied for funding from the PPP program to no avail. Instead, Shelton said she’s relying on grants instead of federal relief programs that are often low-interest loans. Even then, she said, the pickings are slim and competition tough.

“It is not going to help me as a small business struggling right now to take out a loan,” Shelton said.

Luck was on Ain’t She Sweet Café owner Ayisha Strotter’s side when she secured funding during the second phase of the Paycheck Protection Program. And the assistance couldn’t come soon enough. The fast-casual sandwich shop, known for an assortment of healthy wraps and smoothies, lost 60 percent of its business and 100 percent of its catering services. She, too, reduced staff and cut operation hours.

Strotter operates one of the eatery’s two locations. Her mother, Margo, operates the flagship restaurant in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood that opened in 2007. Ayisha Strotter operates the newest location in the Beverly neighborhood, which opened three years ago.

“We are just trying to look at any available opportunities to get the funding so that we can keep the doors open [and] employ our people,” she said. “For us, the uncertainty is how long this will last and how this will affect people economically over the long run.”

That uncertainty forced Strotter to get creative with her business. She bumped up the restaurant’s takeout game by leveraging GrubHub, adding curbside pickup and decided to diversify her menu options. Strotter wanted to develop a meal kit in which customers get ingredients to specific dishes they can prepare at home. The kits, based on her famous wraps, would include tortilla shells, the meat and all the fixings and sauces that come with it. But that hit a snag. The pandemic idled some of her suppliers, including the company that makes the packaging needed for the meal kits. The idea is on hold for now, but Strotter said this new normal requires businesses to innovate to survive.

“A lot of times small business owners … are dealing with the day to day and it is very hard to find the time to come up with new ways to market or come up with new ideas because you are so inundated with the bills,” Strotter said. “It’s pushed us to stretch the imagination to come up with different ways [to operate] because we have to.”

Several food marketing tech companies echoed Strotter’s need for innovation. Before, restaurants relied on foot traffic to drive customers through their doors. But with stay-at-home orders, restaurants must leverage technology, the internet and food delivery services in what might be a new normal to operate a business during the pandemic.

“Right now, it’s really about survival,” said Derek Kirk, a restaurant marketing expert and founder of soulPhoodie, a platform celebrating Black food and beverage culture. In South Florida, where soulPhoodie is based, Kirk noted restaurants are looking at alternative ways to generate revenues, such as selling package liquors or limited food items.

“There are restaurants here that are serving as pantries now where you can get staples like eggs, lunchmeat, bread and things like that," Derek Kirk said. "You have to be flexible. You have to really have an entrepreneurial mindset.”

EatOkra co-founder Anthony Edwards Jr. created his restaurant app six years ago to give Black restaurants a way to promote their businesses. The app lists about 2,000 eateries from New York, Washington and Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Restaurants, Edwards noted, must have an online presence so people know the business is open and what delivery services they use.“Right now, you have to,” he said about having an online presence. “Unfortunately, a lot of businesses are now playing catch-up because they really didn’t want to do that. Some owners are really against using certain apps. And there is a lot of app saturation.”

To help businesses, Hibbler’s group created its own relief initiative, the COVID-19 African-American Relief Fund. The effort aims to provide grants to Black-owned businesses and other philanthropic endeavors. Investors have already contributed $100,000 to the fund. The immediate goal is to raise $1 million, but the long-range hope is to raise $100 million through donations from the community. The fund, Hibbler said, grew from years of disinvestment within the Black community that left it riddled with food deserts, high crime and high unemployment. That, Hibbler noted, contributes to high coronavirus death rates in the Black community. “We are looking to help Black communities across the country,” Hibbler said. “We need this focus.”

The pandemic has been tough on all businesses, forcing many to innovate and to reinvent themselves to stay afloat. But weathering economic storms — though none quite like this — is not uncommon for some Black entrepreneurs. Many tend to scrape by without the same help afforded their white counterparts.

“Black people are always in survival mode,” said Rich, owner of the entertainment venue Some Like it Black. “I [went] through this a couple of years ago when my business almost shut down because I didn’t have enough customers coming in. But I made it through, so I will make it through this.”

Strotter added, “We’re used to making due during hard times. We are used to trying to make it work with limited resources, limited support sometimes. We just buckle down and do what we have to do.

La Risa Lynch is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

Ronda Racha Penrice, an Atlanta-based freelance writer, contributed to this article.

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