Black-owned restaurants have been hit especially hard during the pandemic. Black Restaurant Week is striving to sustain them.

By Vonnie Williams
November 24, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy Black Restaurant Week

As one of the founders of Black Restaurant Week, Warren Luckett knew that Black-owned restaurants needed economic support more than ever, with COVID-19 refusing to loosen its grip on the restaurant industry. For Luckett, this year’s campaign was particularly urgent, and a little personal—he developed a love of global Black culture as a child growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It was there, under his father’s tutelage, that he would roam seemingly endless vineyard rows, learning about Black South African winemakers through his family’s wine distribution company. Years later, when he became chief operating officer, he thought—if he could educate others about the history and diversity of Black culture through wine, why not food?

It was the first inkling of what would become Black Restaurant Week, where businesses would work with Luckett to amplify their presences. “We have all this creativity from across the diaspora … this was an opportunity to tell the stories and contributions of culinary and beverage professionals to the industry as a whole,” he said. “Some of these smaller businesses may not have a publicist, or they may not have a huge marketing budget. We wanted to be that auxiliary arm for them and provide that exposure.”

In 2016, BRW matured from a concept to a full-fledged movement; Luckett teamed up with Falayn Ferrell and Derek Robinson for operations and marketing, respectively. The trio kicked off the campaign in Houston (where they are based), then traveled to Atlanta and Oakland, slowly expanding their imprint every year.

Credit: Courtesy Black Restaurant Week

Since the 2020 campaign launched in July, Black Restaurant Week has highlighted more than 340 Black-owned culinary businesses in Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, and Atlanta, with two-week stints in each city highlighting restaurants with African-American, African, and Caribbean diaspora cuisines. 

More than ever, Warren sees Black Restaurant Week playing a pivotal role in helping to sustain the livelihoods of Black restaurateurs and restaurant workers. Since February, Black-owned restaurants have faced disproportionate economic setbacks and closure rates. Across the nation, countless Black restaurateurs have been forced to shutter their businesses after years in the industry. 

The lack of PPP loans issued to Black-owned businesses (and independent restaurants at large) deprived countless operations of critical helplines. To many, this isn’t a surprise; since Reconstruction, the government has made hollow promises to its Black citizens, enacting policies that continue to widen the inequality gap. Luckett sees Black Restaurant Week as a realization of a popular adage in Black communities—we’re all we’ve got. 

“As a small business owner myself, I understand how challenging it can be,” Luckett said. “Things are exponentially harder due to COVID and we wanted to provide an economic pump for the businesses that are participating while driving attention to them as well.” 

With the support of Pepsi joining in September as Black Restaurant Week’s first national sponsor, they are on track to highlight more than 500 Black-owned food businesses this year in new markets like New York City and Washington, D.C.

Luckett hopes the momentum continues after the last city is done. Having shifted to virtual events due to the pandemic, he plans to continue offering seminars that connect restaurateurs with trade professionals. He's also creating a digital marketplace for Black culinary products.

Credit: Courtesy Black Restaurant Week

This is just the beginning of what he envisions for Black Restaurant Week, with plans to expand to 30 to 50 different cities next year. Eventually, he wants to use his experience in distribution to position Black Restaurant Week as a supply chain, linking food and beverage professionals, farmers, and artisans together. 

“There should be no reason why Black farmers can't get their products to their consumers,” he said. "I want to provide a springboard for culinary professionals, creating an ecosystem that allows Black creativity to thrive and prosper.”

For the Black Restaurant Week team, the significance of their work has never been more salient. “Before John Lewis passed, he was known for saying, ‘If not, us, then who? If not now, then when?’” Luckett said. “That's the mentality and the ideology our team brought to this campaign.”

There’s still time to support Black Restaurant Week, taking place in all major cities in Florida from November 27 to December 6 and Alabama from December 11 to 20.