The music cues in the video’s background, a staccato beat before a jazzy horn kicks in. A masked woman inside Mattapan’s Cafe Juice Up speaks. “Hello, Boston,” says Representative Chynah Tyler. “I want to welcome you to the fourth annual Black Restaurant Challenge.”
February is Black History Month, and since 2018 it has been an occasion around which to rally support for the city’s Black-owned restaurants. The challenge is simple: Patronize one Black-owned restaurant each week of the month. The goal: Keep these businesses in business. Black-owned restaurants are 80 percent more likely to fail within the first year of operation, according to the campaign.
This year, the Black Restaurant Challenge is more critical than ever. More than 20 percent of Massachusetts restaurants that closed at the beginning of the pandemic have not reopened. And Black-owned restaurants didn’t enter the pandemic on equal footing.
“African-American businesses were tremendously at a disadvantage coming in, with lack of access to capital and years of disinvestment,” says Henry McKoy, a professor at NC Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill’s business schools, as well as Duke University. Currently an innovations fellow at the Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, he leads an effort to launch a national network of economically inclusive and equitable cities.
Studies have shown that during the first few months of the pandemic, Black-owned businesses declined in the United States by about 41 percent, the largest drop of any group, McKoy says. This matters not just for the business owners but everyone. By 2044, there are predicted to be more non-white than white Americans. And the wealth of these communities is dropping. Before the pandemic, it was predicted that the median wealth of Black people would reach zero by 2053, with the Latino community hitting that point in 2073. “If there’s a community where you’ve got wealth that is being lost, it’s going to be bad for that community,” McKoy says. “But if the majority of the population has zero or negative wealth, that’s a problem for the whole country.”
Restaurants are a major sector of Black-owned businesses lost to the pandemic. Because of a past lack of capital, they were less likely to be able to shoulder the costs of moving online, adopting takeout models, and other necessary pivots, he says. “You know the old saying: If white America gets the flu, Black America gets pneumonia.”
We don’t have to look far to see this in action. The stories of Black restaurant owners weathering the pandemic illustrate and illuminate the research.
“We’ve been closed since March. It’s not working,” says Royal C. Smith, owner of District 7 Tavern in Roxbury. “I still have a place. My landlords are waiting to see what happens. Then we figure things out. If I can get people in there, I’ll be fine.”
In March, he and Nia Grace, the owner of Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, founded the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition with the goal of preserving Black-owned bars and restaurants, important gathering spaces for the community. The coalition also includes the owners of Savvor Restaurant & Lounge, Soleil, and Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club. They represent five of only eight Black-owned businesses with full liquor licenses in Boston, out of around 1,100 licenses citywide. These licenses are expensive, often costing more than $400,000. And they come with renewal fees that might range from $1,500 to $4,000 per business. Many struggled to pay these fees when they came due at the end of November.
“I didn’t have the funds. Zero dollars were coming in,” Smith says. “It’s one little simple renewal fee. Other cities, states, and municipalities have waived them.” The coalition stepped in, paying the fees as needed for any Black-owned liquor license in the city, Smith’s included. “If you don’t renew it, you lose it. It doesn’t come back. If you lose this, you lose everything.”
He received $2,000 from the Reopen Boston Fund. He didn’t get PPP because of a school loan he defaulted on six years ago, he says. He applied for more than 40 different grants, but nothing came through. “Every week, you hear about money going to minority-owned small businesses. I don’t know where it goes, and it doesn’t go to anybody I know. Everybody’s hurting.”
One major bright spot: Smith was able to open an outdoor version of the tavern, District 7 Garden, in September. He put in the first application for it in April. “It was an uphill battle,” he says. “It paid off, I think. For that 30 to 60 days, it gave hope for Roxbury.”
Black restaurant owners around the city echo his experience.
Michelle White’s Next Step Soul Food Cafe in Codman Square has now been closed for more than a year. She shut down early after a friend who works in health care came back from Wuhan and warned her what she would soon be facing with the virus; she didn’t want to expose her mother, who is 78, and she herself has health conditions that make her high-risk.
“It’s been difficult,” White says. “We’ve been closed since February 2020, trying to navigate this whole system. There are grant monies that are out there, but unfortunately for myself, I didn’t file 2019 taxes. In order to get pretty much every grant, you have to have your 2019 taxes filed. Meanwhile, I’m still in my shop, I have to pay rent, not a penny less. As a family, we’re siphoning our monies together, but I don’t know how much longer I can really stand.”
She’s also watching the neighborhood she loves falter alongside her own business. “It’s just empty. It looks that way. … There’s no place to sit down and eat, or grab halfway decent food. It’s either Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald’s. There are little spots, but they’re open and closed and open and closed. I know things are going to get better, but it’s just going to take time.”
Anthony Caldwell’s 50Kitchen, in Fields Corner, initially brought in $5,000-$6,000 on a Saturday night. Now that’s down to $1,500. The restaurant opened Feb. 23, 2020. “There are times when I check the account and it’s very scary,” he says. The City of Boston has granted him some money to help pay rent and build a patio. “But it is a little disheartening because I was told that my restaurant would be considered for Governor Baker’s $668 million relief fund. Out of that $668 million, 50Kitchen was awarded $5,000. I was grateful but devastated at the same time, if that makes sense. $668 million? And I get $5,000.”
His electric bill alone stands at $7,000.
He’s not trying to make anyone angry or badmouth the state, he says. “I just need them to know that it hurts. That’s all. It hurts. If you’re going to help me, help me. If you’re drowning and I extend my hand to pull you out of the water and I pull my hand back, am I really trying to help you?”
ZaZ chef-owner Olrie Roberts knows one thing that would help: an upgrade of his beer and wine license, so he could sell mixed drinks at his Hyde Park restaurant. But he owes money to the state, complicating the process.
“I understand the whole being in good grace factor, but right before COVID, I did a buildout. I invested most of my money at the time into this new space,” he says. It would have accommodated more diners and served as a function space.
“It’s a big difference from basic beer and wine to any type of mixed drinks. If I could turn over a table from spending $18 to $30, that would be a huge help,” he says. “It’s a Catch-22. To make more money, you have to spend money. If you’re not making money, you can’t spend that money. We need to clear up that debt to the state, and we need to have money come in to do that.”
In 2015, a report called “The Color of Wealth in Boston” found that the median net worth of non-immigrant Black households in the Greater Boston region is $8. “The wealth gap infects and affects anything,” says Segun Idowu, president and CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts. Most business owners don’t only borrow money from the bank. They go to friends and family. “If friends and family also have $8, you don’t have a lot to scrape together,” he says. “It impacts everything. The only thing it doesn’t impact is the wealth of ideas in our community.”
There are ways to fix things, Idowu says. For starters: credit score reform and student debt elimination, both of which Representative Ayanna Pressley has focused on. On the state level, businesses need more grants, not loans. Both city and state can focus on awarding lucrative contracts to Black-owned businesses.
“It’s the system itself, and folks perpetuate it. These things are human made, and therefore humans can change it, and yet we keep finding excuses to not change these things as if they came from the heavens,” he says. “Folks aren’t asking for a handout. They just want things to be fair. They need little bit of support to get them over the hump so they can be successful.”
McKoy concurs. “We have to change our culture in terms of how we approach Black and other minority businesses, how we think about investing in them, how we think about patronizing them,” he says. “After the George Floyd incident, we saw a racial reckoning. All races marched in protest. From the summer came different initiatives and campaigns: Buy Black, Juneteenth. Anything that introduces Black business to a broader marketplace is a good thing. But how high a hurdle is it that folks have to die to say ‘I’m going to buy an ice cream cone from this vendor’? It shouldn’t take individuals losing a life for folks to say we have to be invested in the Black economy.”