Local Black-owned restaurants will be showcased in the first ever Rochester Black Restaurant Week, organized byRochester Black Young Professionals, starting today.
The event aims to help Black-owned businesses augment sales and visibility during a challenging time for Black communities in Rochester and nationwide.
One restaurant is scheduled to be highlighted each day. On July 12, RBYP will encourage members of the community to support any local Black-owned restaurant of their choice.
Founded in 2012, RBYP is an auxiliary group of the Urban League of Rochester, whose mission is to provide networking experiences for members while fostering community engagement. Members regularly collaborate, share business resources and work on community service projects.
Rochester Black Restaurant Week comes after weeks of conversation surrounding local and national calls for racial equality and justice. The initiative also follows months of financial devastation and structural change within the restaurant industry as a result of COVID-19.
“We wanted to do something to support local Black-owned restaurants in the wake of the pandemic and everything going on in the world,” says RYBP president Taren Greenidge. “Now is a good time to give these businesses marketing and promotional support so that the community is able to support and help them stay open.”
Aside from giving participating restaurants visibility and additional sales, RBYP also aims to provide restaurants with entrepreneurial resources to help them prosper and expand after Black Restaurant Week ends.
“I think bringing awareness is bringing the first step to change and visibility,” says RBYP vice president Veronica Dasher. “In addition, we’re trying to provide services beyond awareness. We’re connecting restaurants with the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and the community so they can continue to develop their businesses.”
CUE director Ebony Miller-Wesley will work directly with participating restaurant owners, getting their feedback and collecting surveys about what works for them and what doesn’t.
“We’re discussing ways to improve and offer these restaurants resources, whether that’s expansion or funding,” Greenidge says. “It will have an impact for them beyond the monetary component from sales they make during Black Restaurant Week.”
A number of local Black-owned businesses are not likely to survive the harsh financial impacts brought by COVID-19, a staggering blow to a community already facing several social and economic hurdles, RBYP says. Part of the group’s goal for the upcoming Restaurant Week is to reduce the number of business closings and bolster Rochester’s historically disadvantaged urban communities.
Neciah Brown, CEO of participating Cajun-Creole restaurant the French Quarter, attributes a portion of the disparity to preconceptions carried over from past generations.
“When segregation was around, we had no choice but to have our own communities and after segregation came integration,” Brown says. “I’ve seen someone who’s Black own a hardware company and people will go to Ace Hardware instead. It’s a mental stigma that’s carried on from a long time ago.”
Dasher says the organization decided to highlight restaurants due to the industry’s current hardships.
“We decided to focus on restaurants because we know that many are open and struggling,” she says. “The restaurant industry was one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, given the uncertainty.”
Brown hopes Black Restaurant Week will heighten awareness of participating restaurants within the Black community as well.
“A lot of times we have issues with supporting one another,” Brown says. “I didn’t know about many of the places on the list; I didn’t know DaVinci of Greece or Roc City Ramen was Black-owned.
As for the intersection of Black Restaurant Week and pandemic guidelines, all participating restaurants will have social distance precautions and sanitation measures in place.
“We know that people are going out to eat and that restaurants already have precautions in place, so we figured they’d be a safe option,” Dasher says.
Brown plans on having both indoor and outdoor dining options for Black Restaurant Week. The French Quarter was granted permission to have outdoor seating in its parking lot.
Many participating restaurants will have traditional offerings off their menus; some will also feature specials highlighting a particular aspect of their cuisine.
At the French Quarter, Brown plans on streamlining popular menu items to keep operations flowing successfully. However, he also plans on pushing ‘Nashville to New Orleans HOT chicken,” the restaurant’s special take on Nashville hot chicken.
The French Quarter is among a diverse mix of cuisines represented among Rochester’s Black-owned restaurants, from Bahamian ribs and Japanese ramen to Italian gnocchi and Cajun-Creole seafood. RBYP says it’s important to highlight a variety of cuisines from Black-owned businesses in different areas of Rochester.
“Even if these are the six restaurants participating, we want to promote all the diverse and Black-owned restaurants,” Dasher says.
Brown hopes that people open their minds to regional foods and are able to let go of preconceptions of what Black food is.
“Soul food is always associated with a southern Black person, whether it’s healthy or not, but it’s solely associated with Blacks,” Brown says. “My food is Cajun-Creole food. It’s not soul food, it’s a regional food. My focus is on the Gulf Coast region.”
Brown has seen a spike in patronage over the past few weeks.
“I do notice there’s a willingness for everyone to try our food now,” he says. “My customers from the start have been a wide array of people, but right now I’m seeing a bigger difference. Let’s keep the energy going.”
Rochester Black Restaurant Week is backed by 20 local sponsors who are promoting the event to their membership, through mailing lists and social media promotion. Yelp Rochester has been particularly helpful with maximizing visibility for participating restaurants.
“Megan Colombo, who manages Yelp Rochester, has been incredibly helpful providing details to restaurants,” Greenidge says. “Many people use Yelp to make a decision, so we wanted to make sure these restaurants were getting the additional spotlight.”
Yelp even offered to distribute discount coupons to Black Restaurant Week attendees so they can support the Black-owned restaurants again.
“When people learn about new restaurants, particularly minority-owned restaurants, they tend to recommend them to others, which keeps people coming into these businesses’ doors,” Dasher says.
This domino effect of change and visibility keeps Rochester’s Black-owned restaurant community hopeful.
“Here we are in 2020 where everybody just wants some type of a change,” Brown says. “Marching is great, but seeing progress is better, and I think Restaurant Week is a step in that direction. These restaurants want to feed everyone and show their food is just as good as anyone else’s, or better.”
Robert Mantell is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.