Server and sommelier Erica Christian Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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For three months, COVID-19 disrupted the restaurant industry. While dining rooms were closed, some operators used their idle time to reflect on what the future of restaurants could and should look like—whether that’s more equitable labor models or a greater reliance on the local food system. 

But then the world saw a Minneapolis police officer kill George Floyd. People around the world, including thousands of D.C.-area residents, filled the streets in response to peacefully protest against police brutality and systemic anti-black racism. They remembered Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a Kentucky EMT who Louisville police officers fatally shot on March 13, Ahmaud Arbery, a runner who two white men shot and killed in Georgia on Feb. 23, and many other victims whose lives ended too soon.

Businesses and brands, including white-owned restaurants, raced to craft statements of solidarity on social media. “We all must embrace the discomfort that is required to effect change,” Little Beast posted. “We stand strongly against racism and injustice,” Little Sesame shared. “We acknowledge that the system is broken and that it was built this way intentionally.” All-Purpose Pizzeria added, “We vow to use our platform to amplify black voices and advocate for the marginalized.” 

Some posts from owners prompted current or former employees to speak out, calling restaurants’ pledges of solidarity hollow and hypocritical based on how they’ve been treated on the clock. Time will tell if restaurants make good on their promises and do the work required to make their kitchens and dining rooms workplaces where black employees feel supported and celebrated. 

City Paper asked black hospitality professionals to write about what their industry can do to fight for racial justice all the time, not just right now. They call on their past, present, and future employers to promote black workers and amplify their voices, invest in black culture instead of co-opting it for commercial gain, examine areas rife with potential for implicit bias, and find ways to reimagine a system that wasn’t built with black advancement in mind.  —Laura Hayes

Erica Christian

Thamee server and sommelier

I had to write and send an open letter to restaurant and bar owners and operators to call them to action. I shouldn’t have had to.

I am a 25-year-old Black woman from Buffalo, who has enthusiastically contributed my time and talents to the D.C. hospitality sector since 2015. I love this industry, but I am gravely disappointed by the responses of businesses across the city. Many hospitality-driven D.C. businesses benefit from Black labor, especially the labor of Black women, and the displacement of Black communities. Their silence echoes more than just complacency, but a complete disregard for Black livelihood. 

From the businesses that aren’t silent, I see empty posts about “standing with the Black community” and “Black Lives Matter.” I see short-term action against America’s racist, long-term legacy. If non-Black owners, operators, managers, and chefs want to make impactful change, they must first unpack all of the ways in which they have contributed to and perpetuated racism. 

It is the sole responsibility of non-Black leaders in the hospitality industry to acknowledge their own role in actively disregarding the local Black community, including their Black staff. 

Ask yourselves: How do you support Black communities? How have you supported your Black employees? Did you silence their voices? Did you respect and uplift their contributions? Think deeply on this. Examine your role as a non-Black leader. Only then will these businesses build equitable and safe workplaces for their Black staff and their future. 

It is imperative that non-Black businesses take responsibility for ensuring safe and sustainable multicultural work spaces. My Black labor, my power, and my connection to community are not for the progression of white agendas that highlight “diversity” as an image or advertisement. 

Practice multiculturalism instead of diversity. Practice anti-racism. Acknowledge and care for your Black employees and their contributions. Raise their voices. I have left almost every hospitality job I have had in search of multicultural workspaces. Create long-term solutions to uplift Black labor always. Do the research yourselves. Partake in actionable responses instead of cute Instagram posts. Show us you are with us. Show us you will hire us. Show us you will create equitable spaces for us. Do not forget, the hospitality industry is built on slave labor. You cannot create impactful change if you do not first acknowledge and unpack this. If your business is not anti-racist, it is racist. Heard?

Andra “AJ” Johnson

Serenata managing partner, bartender, and co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week

The hospitality industry’s struggle with racism is not an evolved or new occurrence.  It is steeped in systemic racism, from the tipping structure to owners and managers using discriminatory practices in order to hire people only they deem necessary to represent the face of their businesses. Black restaurant workers have felt this sting daily, in an industry where hard work and a strong commitment to customer service should be the only currency necessary to succeed in this business. 

With the influx of developers and investors buying up property in the District at discount prices, we have seen a marked shift not only in the demographic make-up of the nation’s capital, but the culinary scene as well. The D.C. restaurant scene is overrun with terrible riffs on fried chicken and mumbo sauce, businesses playing urban music without a Black employee or customer in sight, and countless hollow attempts from food outlets to show diversity. 

It was never acceptable, but Black hospitality workers played the game, albeit with limited resources, lack of access to proper funding, and zero representation at the table. This is no longer a sustainable model for this industry. It is in dire need of healthy and accountable relationships with Black employees and guests.

There are an infinite number of actions, not only to redirect the current course of racial discrimination but to ensure that we, as an industry, do not backslide. Simply put, restaurant owners can start investing in the D.C. community, not just the culture that we bring. 

They can do this by: not throwing away applications because they can’t pronounce someone’s name; acknowledging the work that employees of color do and hiring and promoting them accordingly; recognizing our cultural food as cuisine; listening to employees of color and standing behind them when they are being discriminated against by their own colleagues.  

But most importantly, they can accept the fact that Black people want to hang out and eat good food just like everyone else. Our contributions to this city are endless, and it is no longer acceptable for us to be shut out of an industry that has our work ethic, passion, and dedication embedded in its DNA. 

Paola Velez

Kith/Kin executive pastry chef, co-founder of Doña Dona and Bakers Against Racism

The restaurant industry has pro-gressed a lot, but not nearly enough for people of color. The sad truth is, if you stick your head into any restaurant in America, you’ll likely see a predominantly white front of-house and management staff and a predominantly black and brown kitchen staff. Is this because white people are better leaders and servers and people of color are better cooks and dishwashers? Of course not. It’s because our beloved culinary system has been built and sustained—both implicitly and explicitly—by bias and racism. 

Whether knowingly or unknowingly, restaurateurs, owners, chefs, and managers have perpetuated a system that has reinforced systems of bias. As a woman of color, I’ve witnessed first-hand how these systems have supported bias and minimized the voices of people of color. I’ve dealt with the microaggressions, comments about my hair, and jokes about my culture. I’ve been denied promotions and receive constant reminders that, despite how many articles are written or accolades I collect, I’ll never be “one of the boys” in this club. 

But that time is over. It’s time for restaurants to step up, stand for what is right, and take the difficult but necessary steps to change their structure and culture. While vague references to diversity and inclusion may appease their investors, restaurants just need to take a few simple and practical steps to actually effect real and lasting change.

Assess yourself: Before you can take steps to change, you have to know what’s broken. Take a critical look at your current staffing. Is there a disparity between front-of-house, back-of-house, and management? Are there really no black sommeliers in D.C., or are you maybe not looking in the right places?

Remove application barriers: Make questions about education and previous arrests and convictions optional or non-existent. [Editor’s note, even though this is already against D.C. law, it remains a problem in practice.]

Offer training: Cross-train staff on different positions. Offer or subsidize English or Spanish language training to ensure that your teams can communicate with each other effectively. 

Develop clear pathways for promotion: Promotions shouldn’t be a mystery for staff. Clearly identify the skills required, share how applicants will be assessed, provide examples of how applicants can get the necessary skills, and prioritize hiring from within.

Identify areas of potential implicit bias: How are hiring and promotion decisions made? Implement a standardized structure to make these decisions and rely on a panel of voices to weigh in. A diversity of opinions is a simple way to help reduce the impact of individual bias.

These are just a few thoughts on how to change internally, but restaurants, chefs, owners, and advocates should also be utilizing their platforms to share trusted resources for folks to learn more about current efforts to address racial disparities and promote equity. Donate to nonprofits and relief funds and identify black-owned businesses that consumers can support directly. 

Restaurants like Emilie’s have done a great job utilizing their websites in this way. Business owners like Andra “AJ” Johnson of Serenata are using their voices to advocate for black business owners in the industry. Food advocates like Anela Malik (@FeedTheMalik) and Takera Gholson (@flightsandfoods) have raised awareness for black-owned businesses utilizing their platforms. It’s simple steps like these that can effect lasting change.

Rock Harper

Chef, author, and creator of the Chef Rock Xperiment podcast

“Shut updumb nigger,” someone emailed me. It’s hard to tell why. Sometimes it’s just random. Sometimes it’s presumably in response to a tweet I may have sent out on black issues.

Or maybe it’s a cue that Hell’s Kitchen reruns are on. I competed and won a season, and then reappeared on the show several times after. 

To be a black chef is to live with a normalized rage. I see my culture exploited. I am told “soul food is not soigné.” I hear that my hair is threatening. Smiling on the outside, screaming within. I feel the pilot light of my soul flicker. COVID-19 face coverings are easy, I’ve donned a mask for decades. 

A CEO said that I was too aggressive. I was unsurprised when my white successor received the OK for the upgrades I suggested. Praised for his ambition, admonished for my approach. 

I don’t care to change a racist’s mind. Deconstruct the system. Reimagine and rebuild it. The compounding effects of systemic racism have left blacks standing shoeless behind the line while others hopped on a train racing toward the goal. 

I believe that this country must atone for its original, heinous sin against black people. America must heal the scars, but that’s impossible if she denies that a wound even exists. 

I’d like for you to begin by understanding how we arrived at this point. For example, the appropriation of fried chicken. The evil scheme of slavery is responsible for American fried chicken, yet blacks are systemically exempt from participating in its profits. Enslaved blacks deserve 100 percent credit, yet we have virtually 0 percent market share. The racist 1915 filmThe Birth of a Nation and the filthy propaganda that followed ensured that blacks would forever be viewed as fried chicken-eating savages. The stereotype is 100 percent ours, critical acclaim is damn near 0 percent. White-owned Hattie B’s owns the airwaves, although Prince’s created Nashville Hot Chicken. 

I challenge the food community and beyond to help create a fund. We need resources more than we do rhetoric. Join me in creating a $100 Million Dollar Fund to build a local food based community and an economic base. Imagine a network of farms, transportation, grocery stores, restaurants, incubators, bakeries, media, schools, and more—all owned by black Americans. Details will be posted at rocksolidfood.com.   

Resources for further reading, viewing, and listening on race and restaurants:

“Restaurants Must Use This Moment to Change, Too” [Eater]Dismantling racist and classist ideologies is not just about police reform; restaurants need to answer the call of protesters, too. This is how.

“How I Got Radicalized Around Food” [Food & Wine]FoodLab Detroit’s Executive Director Devita Davison explores the inextricable link between an empowered food system and the health of Black communities.

Black Food Matters: Race and Equity in the Good Food Movement | Devita Davison | Change Food Fest [YouTube]

“Black Communities Have Always Used Food as Protest” [Food & Wine]For 500 years, black communities in America have sustained and supported protest through food.

“Corporate Restaurant Owners: Your Silence Is Deafening” [Eater]Detroit’s downtown restaurants employ vast numbers of black workers, yet they fail to stand up for them when it counts

“It’s Time for the Hospitality Industry to Listen to Black Women” [Eater]History shows us that the novel coronavirus will impact black women restaurateurs, and their businesses, much harder

“The Case for Letting the Restaurant Industry Die” [New Yorker]Tunde Wey, the New Orleans-based activist, artist, and cook, has a radical vision of a more equitable culinary world.

“Trapped in While Dining Out: When White People Make Me Part of Their Show” [Washington Post]This is an edited excerpt of an essay on dining out as a black woman in Women on Food by Charlotte Druckman (Abrams Press, 2019).

“Discomfort Food: Using Dinners to Talk About Race, Violence and America” [Post]

“Black Chefs Have Overcome Countless Obstacles. This Might Be the Hardest Yet.” [Post]

“Dining While Black: Race and the Philly Food Scene” [Inquirer]It’s not just a Starbucks problem.

California’s Finest Restaurants Pay Workers of Color $6 per Hour Less Than White Workers” [Mother Jones]A group of advocates and restaurant owners are trying to change that.

“The Double Bind of Being a Woman of Color in the Food World”[VICE]Women of color are often unheard in this industry. When we’re not, we’re outright dismissed by gatekeepers if they don’t like what we have to say.

“At Baltimore Restaurants, Black Women Rarely Hold Positions of Power. Here’s What They’re Doing to Change That.” [Baltimore Sun]

“The Family Business That Put Nashville Hot Chicken on the Map” [New Yorker]An African-American-owned restaurant began making the spicy dish eighty years ago. Now it’s a viral sensation. Who’s getting the big money?

On food and media:

“Lists of Black-Owned Restaurants Are a Start, but They’re Obviously Not Enough” [Eater]

“Bon Appétit’s Editor in Chief Just Resigned—But Staffers of Color Say There’s a ‘Toxic’ Culture of Microaggressions and Exclusion That Runs Far Deeper Than One Man” [Business Insider]

“One Young Black Chef on What Food Media Needs Right Now” [Los Angeles Times]

“A Critic for All Seasons” [Eater]What would restaurant criticism look like if it represented diners like me?

“I’m a Black Food Writer. Here’s Why We Need More Like Me.” [ChefsFeed]On the power of representation, and its ability to illuminate a shared history.

“The Invisible Chefs” [First We Feast]Despite their presence in kitchens, black chefs are continually cast aside in food media as an afterthought. What gives?

“Why We Can’t Talk About Race in Food” [Civil Eats]Writers shine a light on relentless, coordinated efforts by internet trolls to silence race analysis in food writing.

“The D.C. Region Doesn’t Have Full-Time Food Critics of Color. Why That Matters.” [WCP]“Diversity comes with great planning. It doesn’t happen because we sit back and wish and hope.”

Lists to bookmark:

DMV Black-Owned Restaurants Open During COVID-19 [Feed The Malik]

The Ultimate List of Black Owned Farms & Food Gardens [Shoppe Black]

31 Days of Black Women in Food, the 2020 Honorees [Dine Diaspora 

20 Food Podcasts by Black Women [soulPhoodie]

10 Black Food Bloggers to Follow [Food52]

Cookbooks From Black Chefs and Restaurateurs [Black Culinary History]

Books to read:

Notes From a Young Black Chefby Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty 

Black Food Matters—Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese

Podcasts to listen to:

Racist Sandwich

The Chef Rock Xperiment 

Black Food Club

Black History Year

To submit a resource to this list, email Lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com