Toure Muhammad’s project is the largest directory of black-owned restaurants in Chicago.
A few of his friends challenged him to compile a list of Chicago’s black-owned restaurants after seeing a similar list for New York, so the journalist created Black Chicago Eats – an online directory of black-owned restaurants in the Windy City. What Muhammad didn’t anticipate was the immediate outpouring of encouragement.
There was "a lot of support, a lot of people that were glad, and a lot of people that were saying that we need something like this,” said Muhammad, who founded a separate a satirical media outlet called Bean Soup Times (a “black response to The Onion") in 2001.
“If you [said], ‘Hey I want Italian or I want Greek or I want even Polish,’ there was an easy way to go online and find it," said Muhammad. "But people were hard-pressed to discover these hidden gems in our communities – the black-owned restaurants."
Since its inception in 2016, Black Chicago Eats has only grown in reach and popularity. The directory now features over 150 restaurants, with plans for a future category specifically for caterers. In 2017, Muhammad launched a separate event called “Taste of Black Chicago” to further showcase Chicago’s black food community during the city’s buzzy summer festival season.
“When we put the event on our Facebook page, within like two hours, about two thousand people said they were going to come,” he said. Nearly 4,000 visitors ended up attending the inaugural even, which featured thirty food vendors and fifteen non-food vendors. In its second year, those numbers doubled, and so did the festival’s reach. During the most recent August event, visitors traveled from as far as St. Louis, Memphis, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and even Atlanta to try food from Chicago's best black chefs.
“It was very humbling,” Muhammad said. “It’s only our second year, and we had people making travel arrangements around our event.”
In fact, that same group of visitors from St. Louis were so inspired by the festival that they even organized their own “Taste of Black St. Louis” event, taking place on September 22.
“One of the things that really struck me the most is that people said it was a day of healing,” he said. “People were just celebrating family and food and having a great time with each other in an environment where they felt totally safe, and it was an affirmation that we can come together and enjoy ourselves on the South Side of Chicago without any incident – and that was moving for people.”
Those types of compliments carry lots of weight for Muhammad, who wants his directory and festival to serve a larger purpose than simply promoting good food. Through both projects, he hopes to offer a new narrative of Chicago’s West and South Side neighborhoods.
“It’s a way to push back against some of the negative media coverage and the negative reality of violence and crime in our communities," he said. It’s a delicate balancing act because people know the reality of it, but often times it’s been as though things were made to seem worse than they really are. If we can highlight some of the good things and great things that are happening then maybe we can grow exponentially those hidden gems for people to enjoy themselves and just have some good food on the South and West sides of Chicago.”
Born and raised on the South Side, Muhammad says that he has started to hear about some of the positive side effects from his directory.
“I had a friend call me who was in a black-owned restaurant on 47th Street, and he struck up a conversation with a Caucasian lady that was in the restaurant. He said, ‘How did you find this restaurant? What made you come here?’ And she said, ‘I went to Black Chicago Eats ... and my goal is to go and enjoy all of the restaurants on the list,’” Muhammad said.
He continued, “Food is just something [that is] a great unifier. Food and music are like things that people can always find a common ground on, regardless of their views or religion or politics or anything else. It’s like, ‘Does the pizza taste good or not? Is it too salty or not?’ That’s something that people can unify on."