By Cheyanne M. Daniels
Driving down La Grange Road through Orland Park, the Black-owned restaurant Vegan T’ease is easy to miss. Inside the small space, there’s room only for an order window and a cramped waiting alcove. As one customer walked out, another soon took their place. The parking lot, fit for only six cars at a time, is filled.
Tee Scott, the owner and namesake of Vegan T’ease, stood at the head of the kitchen, holding a spatula and barking out orders from behind a black face mask, a new norm in the era of COVID-19. She took a short pause to greet a new customer and encouraged her to try the vegan Gyros sandwich or the Chicago style hotdog.
“The Black Lives Matter movement brought a surge (of customers),” said Scott. She added that the movement has mainly brought more Black customers to her restaurant.
Black-owned businesses are doing better than ever despite the COVID-19 pandemic because of intentional efforts to support them amid the Black Lives Matter protests. Even in a conservative town like Orland Park, whose residents are overwhelmingly white, Vegan T’ease has been reaping the benefits.
“It used to be mainly white and Indian races that came in,” said Scott. “Now it’s a mix, with 25% to 30% Black customers, because now they know that I’m here.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, many states including Illinois went on lockdown, straining the economy and local businesses. Restaurants suffered the most during the nationwide closures, with more than 25,000 forced to shut their doors. Yet, while nearly 40% of the restaurants that closed during the shutdowns have closed permanently, according to Yelp, interest and support for Black restaurants spiked dramatically after the murder of George Floyd in May.
According to Yelp’s Economic Average, there was more than 2.5 million searches for Black-owned businesses on its online review and business search site between May 25 and July 10, compared to about 35,000 the same time last year.
When Scott opened Vegan T’ease a year ago, she wasn’t sure if her business would make it. A majority of the restaurants in the area were steak restaurants or chains, and she was concerned about whether locals would support a Black-owned restaurant.
Then the pandemic hit, and with it a loss of customers. Scott was forced to lay off a majority of her already small staff in order to maintain financial stability.
But when the Black Lives Matter movement came to Chicago, customers flocked to Scott’s doorstep.
“I was drowning, especially on Juneteenth,” said Scott, adding that some customers had to wait over an hour to be served. “I thought, ‘These people are never going to come back here again.’”
Soon after, Scott rehired her staff to make sure the business was prepared to handle another surge in customers.
Scott said her businesses has dropped slightly since the initial surge in June but remained steady overall.
One of Scott’s regulars, Gianna Scheuneman, went out of her way to find local Black-owned businesses in the Orland Park area.
“We need to show our appreciation for Black owned businesses because we’re not doing that enough,” Scheuneman said, adding that she was disappointed that there weren’t more Black-owned businesses in the area.
Scheuneman said it was especially important for white people like her to support Black-owned businesses to show support for all aspects of their community, not just the places they’re comfortable with.
“I think a lot of people shy away from Black-owned businesses because they think they’re not in the best area or in buildings that are more rundown or they don’t get as many resources as white-owned businesses,” said Scheuneman. “But being open to supporting businesses needs to stick with us as we move forward.”
As interest in Black-owned businesses has continued, Yelp has made it easier for users to search for such businesses.
In June, the company partnered with My Black Receipt, an organization working to bring economic independence to Black communities by having consumers regularly purchase from Black-owned businesses.
Scheuneman said she wants to see more Black-owned restaurants in Orland Park.
“We need to step it up,” said Scheuneman.
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a reporter for Medill based in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter at @CheyanneMarie97