‘We are all in this together’: Pandemic necessity, sense of community drive Black restaurateurs

Ronda Walker has always loved to cook. When she was young, her father taught her the importance of spices and historically Black cuisine. After overcoming serious health issues in 2020, she reflected on what she really wanted to do with her life.

“I decided to go ahead and live out my dream, my second career, which has been being a restaurant owner,” Walker said.

Walker, a mother of five who worked as a registered nurse for 30 years, opened Creole Meet Soul in St. Louis this May. The chic Creole and Cajun eatery has everything from shrimp and sausage nachos to classic gumbo.

“My daughter told me today how very proud she was,” Walker said, “and that I could motivate her to want to do things that she never thought about doing before.”

Walker is not alone. Black Americans made up a disproportionate share of the entrepreneurs who started businesses during the pandemic, according to a May report from the National Bureau of Economic research. In Missouri, many of those entrepreneurs opened restaurants and food-service businesses, expressing a desire not just to run a business, but to create wealth and opportunity that will benefit others.

Hear more: Black restaurateurs on the Speaking Startup podcast

The story of Mike Evans, the owner of Alibi Cookies, looks different from Walker’s, but it shares roots in entrepreneurial ambition. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Evans ran a party bus and DJ business. Fortunately for Evans, he already had a Plan B in mind.

“During COVID, I was kind of sitting at home, because I was a DJ,” Evans said, “and all the bars and restaurants are pretty much closed.”

Evans had been sitting on the idea of a vending machine that supplies fresh cookies for some time. He now had the opportunity to fully develop the ideas without any distractions.

“I was just at home, just thinking of ways of things that I could possibly do to generate money just to kind of just pay bills,” Evans said. “So I thought it’d be a great time to launch a warm cookie vending machine.”

Mike Evans

Evans used the revenue from the first of his cookie vending machines, which he calls CookieBots, to open his first shop. The store debuted in St. Louis’ Dogtown neighborhood in January, serving cookie cake and ice cream along with Evans’ signature warm cookies. He now has a second store in Jefferson City and plans to open a third location in September.

Since the pandemic hit, plenty of other entrepreneurs have shared Evans’ experience of needing to get creative just to pay the bills. Kansas City chef Jeffrey Dale says that necessity was the origin of many freshly baked, Black-owned businesses.

“Basically, even though the pandemic happened, and the jobs stopped, we all still had bills that needed to be paid,” Dale said. “We have to continue to survive to keep the economy going within our own communities and overall in America.”

Dale, also known as Chef Jeff, started The Total Chef Experience in April. He is a personal chef and caterer, and he teaches international cooking courses.

Dale sees a correlation between Black Americans being more likely to be laid off and more likely to start a business during the pandemic. He believes the pandemic provided some aspiring entrepreneurs an opportunity for reflection on ways to dismantle historic inequalities.

Historically, minority entrepreneurs have faced liquidity constraints, discrimination and other barriers to creating or expanding businesses. Dale believes “Black resilience” and “American resilience” have helped entrepreneurs overcome those obstacles and drove the burst in new businesses.

“We had to really change the narrative for our families and the trajectory of where we want it to be,” Dale said. “There’s a boost because we in the Black community have to start creating a system of generational wealth, so that we can pass down these (businesses) to our children, our nieces and nephews or other family members because we have to stand on our own to be able to progress.”

Walker feels that events like Black Restaurant Week have done a terrific job helping the restaurants overcome common challenges. The second annual Midwest Black Restaurant Week wrapped up earlier this month, and Walker said new customers came to Creole Meet Soul saying they discovered the place because of the promotion.

Black Restaurant Week assisted owners by boosting their profiles. It also fostered a connection between owners that Dale realized is integral to developing a community of successful Black-owned businesses.

“I’ve met so many other restaurateurs, restaurant owners, business owners alone for this Black Restaurant Week that I didn’t even know about,” Dale said. “I’ve met some here within my own city.”

According to a 2018 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, insufficient access to capital, knowledge and overall support leave Black entrepreneurs less economically sound than their white counterparts. Stronger connections in the local business community can help combat that.

Ultimately, Dale said, Black restaurateurs working to create durable businesses will help strengthen the community at large.

“We are all in this together,” Dale said, “to try to build up and create something that we can leave behind for the future generations to come.”

Walker hopes opening a restaurant as a Black woman will fuel a new attitude of growth and possibilities in Black children, just like it has for her daughter.

“I’m so happy about it, too,” Walker said, “because it gives other African Americans, especially little girls, a chance to see that a Black woman can do amazing things to be a business owner.”

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