By Marisa Endicott
The first annual Chicago Black Restaurant Week concluded Saturday. Seventeen restaurants from the city and suburbs participated in the event launched by social media specialist Lauran Smith. Smith chose the second week in February to correspond with Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month founded by Carter G. Woodson.
“It needed to happen because a lot of the black restaurants are kind of off the map,” Smith said. “The goal is to spotlight restaurants that have phenomenal cuisine…just to make sure that they are recognized.”
Smith and participating restaurateurs used social media and appearances on local outlets like Windy City Live and WBEZ to drive interest, and it appeared to work.
Peach’s restaurant in Bronzeville was packed on a cold late Friday morning. Joyce Heynes of Chatham and William Rockett from the south suburbs came to try the brunch spot after hearing it featured on the radio.
Not far away, the Bronzeville Jerk Shack also saw an upsurge in traffic. While the restaurant has been open only since September, it is part of an ambitious project that managing partner Bernard Loyd has had in the works for a decade.
“We are working to create a culinary destination around black cuisine in Bronzeville,” Loyd said. “We’ve got all these wonderful ethnic dining districts in Chicago – Chinatown, Greektown, Little Italy, Little India, and so forth – but there’s no such thing around black cuisine. So that’s a huge gap in Chicago’s culinary landscape that we’re working to fill.”
He is quick to point out that this wasn’t always the case. “Fifty-first was a thriving street…but we lost it” due to disinvestment in the area and public policy agendas, he said.
Loyd and his partners aim to change that. They plan to open two other eateries along the street – a vegetarian café celebrating the green cuisines of the diaspora and a produce and juice store centered around products used in the black kitchen. In the same area, they have also created a collaborative work space, the “Bronzeville Incubator,” a pop-up bike shop and a rooftop farm visible from the green line station.
“We were excited [about Black Restaurant Week] because the black restaurants that are here need support,” Loyd said. “They need greater publicity…Folks aren’t going to casually stumble on us for the most part.”
Smith estimates that there are between 100 and 150 black-owned eateries in the Chicago area, and according to a tally by Bean Soup Times publisher Toure Muhammad, there are at least 123. Many of these businesses reside on the South and West sides of Chicago.
There are many barriers to black entrepreneurship, especially with businesses considered as risky as restaurants, Loyd said. “Banks have shown very little interest in financing things in these communities,” a residual effect of what has historically been redlining in these neighborhoods, he explained.
Redlining was a policy commonly practiced in Chicago into the 1970s that systematically denied services and resources such as loans and insurance to residents in areas of certain ethnic and economic makeups.
The longstanding Chicago Restaurant Week wrapped up on Feb. 4, just before Black Restaurant Week’s launch. It included over 350 restaurants, very few of them south of Chinatown or west of Logan Square.
“There’s so many hidden gems and mom and pops shops that don’t necessarily get the exposure,” said Kristen Harris, the owner of Pizzazzed Plus, a “sweet treats boutique” specializing in chocolate-covered desserts.
Harris has no special pastry training, saying she attended “Youtube University.” In 2012, her youngest child was born with a hole in her heart. In the midst of dealing with the health repercussions, Harris was laid off from her engineering job. After her daughter recovered, Harris created Pizzazzed Plus in response to the positive reactions of friends and family to her sweet creations. It allowed her to use her creativity in a way she couldn’t before, Harris said.
Pizzazzed has now shipped to 30 states and Canada, and she attributes over 90 percent of the business to her Instagram following. Last year, Harris moved her home business into a storefront on the Far South Side.
Chicago Black Restaurant Week is a “phenomenal idea,” she said. “It brought some different business through the door.” Harris said she “absolutely” plans to participate again next year and was happy to be part of the inaugural.
For Smith, the event was simply her way of supporting a community in which she is deeply invested. “That’s the only thing I wanted…to let these restaurants know that they are very important to the community and Chicago as a whole,” she said. “Every single year I plan to do this.”