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In the Midst of a Pandemic, Black Restaurant Week Is More Crucial Than Ever

As restaurants struggle to stay afloat, the event seeks to support the industry’s most vulnerable businesses

A dish from Trinidadian restaurant Cocobreeze, which is participating in 2020’s Bay Area Black Restaurant Week.
Cocobreeze/Black Restaurant Week

When it began in 2017, Bay Area Black Restaurant Week only had about a dozen participants, event co-founder Falayn Ferell says. This year, that number has doubled, according to Ferell, and in the middle of a pandemic, no less. It’s proof, organizers say, that restaurants are realizing that by banding together, they can all be stronger.

Back in 2017, the event was known as Oakland Black Restaurant Week (the name change, Ferell says, is a sponsor-driven effort to broaden its appeal, but “Oakland will always be our home base in the Bay”) and had an “Oakland festival feel,” says Charlese Banks, the founder of Oakland-boosting org the Town Experience and a co-organizer of the event. In years past, it was packed with live events and crowded dinners, but that’s obviously not an option this year. But that doesn’t mean the week has been canceled — it kicks off on August 21 and runs through August 30.

It didn’t even seem to occur to Ferell — whose Black Restaurant Week organization holds events across the country — that they might skip this year. “Because of COVID, the need is even stronger,” she says, and in other cities, participating restaurants have seen a 20-50 percent increase in sales during the week.

That bump continues even after the week ends, Ferell says, with people heading to places they’ve discovered through BRW. In many cases, restaurants cross-promote, with one bringing awareness to another.

In some cities, Ferell says, restaurants have been “on their last leg” as a result of the coronavirus crisis, but a BRW gave them the spark so keep going. It’s a model that Ferell hopes will be replicated here, as people tag and share their experiences at Black-owned restaurants across the city.

Ferell says that she believes that “the [restaurant] industry is hurting as a whole,” and “it’s not just Black-owned businesses” that are suffering. But there’s also an issue of greater economic equity at play, at least in the Bay Area. As Oakland chef Rashad Armstead told Eater SF earlier this month, investor support and financial options remain in shorter supply for Black-owned food businesses, which mean “that when something like [the pandemic] happens, we’re hurting that much more, and have less ability to recover.”

To that point, for the first time ever, Black Restaurant Week has opened a free registration level for food businesses that don’t have the funds to join at the paid level. That’s because, while Black-owned restaurants did benefit from the groundswell of support following the police slaying of George Floyd (remember all those Black-owned restaurant lists?), a lot of that business has tapered off.

This event is a reminder to everyone that support goes beyond a single moment of social change or Black History Month, says John Paul Zapata, the director of public relations for tourism bureau Visit Oakland. And for others, it’s a nudge to try new restaurants and new foods. “I’ve been eating inside my bubble,” Banks says (sound familiar?). “But this week I’m going to go to drive around, to try a new place every day that I can.”

That doesn’t mean that Banks — or anyone else who decides to play Black Restaurant Week bingo — will be stuck with just one form of cuisine. A look at the directory of participating restaurants shows Nigerian spot Eko Kitchen, Cuban/Puerto Rican restaurant El Nuevo Frutilandia, and Italian pizza and pasta destination Marzano on the roster, in addition to standbys like Caribbean standby Kingston 11 and seafood and cocktails spot alaMar. “People need to understand that Black restaurants are more than soul food,” Ferell says with a smile. “It’s not a monolithic food group.”

Bay Area Black Restaurant Week runs from August 21-30. Watch its Instagram for specials and outdoor dining opportunities, and see a full list of participating restaurants here.