Chicago’s annual Restaurant Week activities may be winding down, but Sunday marks the launch of a new restaurant week--one aimed at spotlighting Chicago’s black-owned eateries.
The project is called Chicago Black Restaurant Week and it’s the brainchild of social media management specialist Lauran Smith. She says the weeklong event is not so much a reaction to the other Restaurant Week as an addition to it. And the timing is just a co-incidence.
“I chose the week because before there was Black History Month, way back in 1926 Dr. Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week, which was always the second week in February,” she said. “So I said let me honor his initial vision to honor African Americans who have played a part in our history. And let me do the restaurant week so it can commemorate what he did and so we can start something new in 2016.”
So Smith invited about a dozen Chicago area restaurants and bakeries to discount some of their top dishes for the week. Participating spots include Truth Italian Restaurant in Bronzeville, Flavor Restaurant in Richton Park, Jordy Cakes in Country Club Hills, Pizzazzed Plus and Lighthouse Wholefood Grill in Hyde Park.
I recently stopped by Truth Italian to talk to its owner Peytyn Willborn. She says she’ll be featuring discounted versions of her wings, chicken Alfredo and Atlantic salmon. And she’s eager to show off her food.
“People need to know that we offer great food, that black people can cook,” she said. “Even though I don’t cook here. But we’re drowning. We’re small fish in a big sea and people need to know we’re here. So I love the fact that we are having our first Black Restaurant Week.”
When I asked Willborn why she and many other African American restaurant owners didn’t participate in the main Restaurant Week, she said that many of them had never heard of it. Plus, she says, there are relatively few African-American entrepreneurs who get into the restaurant business.
She notes that she was able to open her place using savings from her other businesses (a hair salon and a group of day care centers) but she knows that others don’t have that capital available.
“I was one of the blessed ones,” she said. “But African Americans have dreams, we just don’t have the money and we have to have someone to believe in us.”
Indeed, a national study out by Brigham Young University and other researchers suggests that minorities have a harder time getting business loans than whites with the same qualifications.
But even with financing barriers, Chicago’s black entrepreneurs have opened dozens of restaurants all over the area, and consumers are hungry to know about them. Bean Soup Times publisher Toure Muhammad learned this last year when he compiled a list of black-owned eateries in the area.
“I came up with 123, and there’s actually more than that,” he said. “And I think it sparked something. I probably got eighty or ninety thousand hits [on that story] in a month and people still come to it. There’s a realization in the community that the more we support black-owned businesses the more jobs are created and kept in the community. It’s similar to the shop local movement.”
The reaction to the list, he says, has inspired yet another black-owned restaurant event that he plans to launch in the summer.
Only a fraction of those 123 restaurants are signed up for this year’s inaugural Chicago Black Restaurant Week (at press time it was nine). But Smith says she’s just starting and hopes to expand every year. In the meantime, she hopes this year’s effort will encourage African-Americans and others to give a few more black-owned businesses a try.