COVID-19 has altered the very nature of human, communal interaction in ways that threaten to erase the essence of the most important African American–led restaurants in the country, says FoodLab Detroit's Devita Davison.

By Devita Davison
June 02, 2020
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Credit: Abbey Lossing

Editor's note: This essay from our upcoming July issue was written before the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, but the same systemic injustices that have led to Black and brown communities suffering the disproportionate impact of the virus are at play, so we are publishing this story now.

When I go out to eat at Ashleigh Shanti’s Benne on Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina, or enjoy chef Tanya Holland’s cooking at Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California, I’m drawn in by the ways these folks preserve African American culture—in many ways, their menus represent a 400-year history of Black contributions to American cuisine. These chefs are the modern-day caretakers of recipes written down by legends like Patrick Clark, Edna Lewis, and Leah Chase. I marvel at their gifts and grit as they illuminate African American foodways on the plate to a broader public.

For communities like mine that are shouldering disproportionate counts of sickness and death as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—in Michigan, Black people make up 14% of the state’s population but account for 31% of its coronavirus cases and 40% of its deaths—the current economic and health crises are bound to become cultural crises down the line. I lost my great-aunt to the virus. She died in a nursing home, alone. The family read verses and sang songs via Zoom, even though funerals, much like restaurants, are linchpins of Black life. These digital gatherings do not offer us the critical closure we get from dancing, eating, and drinking with the dead.

This virus has altered the very nature of human, communal interaction in ways that threaten to erase the essence of the most important African American–led restaurants in the country. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, only 17% of chefs and head cooks were Black. In Chicago, Erick Williams’ focus on hiring and mentoring fellow African Americans at Virtue has been key to his success. In Savannah, Georgia, The Grey, a 2019 F&W World’s Best Restaurant, plays a core role in bridging the deep cultural divide in America during a time of profound national division. The potential shuttering of restaurants like theirs that are driven by history, homage, and humility, instead of by money, fame, and the thirst to scale, causes irrevocable damage to their communities­, and to the future of American cuisine.

History tells us that African American restaurateurs will experience the worst of this crisis, especially since Black- and brown-owned businesses are much more likely to be denied small-business loans. There is, however, a silver lining: As Congress bailed out the wealthiest publicly traded restaurant chains over small, independent restaurants, there is potential for solidarity. No one is rescuing any of us.

Restaurants as we know them are not coming back, but that may be a good thing. Perhaps this is what we need for the transformation of this industry, starting with raising the minimum wage to a livable wage, offering paid family and sick leave, and ultimately creating a new generation of restaurants with broadly held ownership that build equity and resilient communities that are better prepared to withstand threats like the one we’re facing now.

Devita Davison is the executive director of FoodLab Detroit, a nonprofit that supports food entrepreneurs in under-resourced communities.