A nine-day showcase of Black-owned restaurants in the Midwest is returning to Chicago this weekend for its second-annual series of special menu deals, plus a new campaign aimed ;at revitalizing restaurants affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Black Restaurant Week Midwest—not to be confused with Chicago Black Restaurant Week, a similar event that runs every February—is a regional offshoot of Black Restaurant Week LLC, the nationwide organization that stages restaurant weeks focusing on African-American, African and Caribbean cuisine in cities throughout the country. The organization's founders started the campaign in Houston in 2016 after noticing that the city's marquee restaurant week lacked representation from Black-owned eateries, partially because so many of the city's Black-owned restaurants didn't fit the standard sit-down, coursed menu mold.
"We have a lot more casual restaurants in our communities—cafeterias, barbecues, food trucks, things like that" says Falayn Ferrell, who co-founded Black Restaurant Week alongside Warren Luckett and Derek Robinson. "And so we decided to create a platform that was really all-inclusive for businesses within our community to drive traffic, awareness and dollars."
The event has since expanded to 15 U.S. markets (plus one in Canada), and has worked with more than 670 businesses over the course of its six-year history. Its biggest expansion came last year, when the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—which has been especially hard on Black-owned businesses—led organizers to move to a regional model, covering a series of cities during each event in order to broaden their impact and include more restaurants across the country. The organization also dropped participation fees for all restaurants and leaned into the delivery and takeout model that sustained businesses during stay-at-home orders, offering social media shout-outs and restaurant bingo cards to let customers explore the different cuisines showcased in each region's lineup.
The Midwestern edition highlights Black-owned culinary businesses in Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City and a handful of other nearby cities with targeted marketing promos and a searchable database that points folks toward participating restaurants. In Chicago, the list of restaurants is slimmer than last year; right now, three restaurants—Haire's Gulf Shrimp, Mary Jane Café Chicago and FruVe x Press Juicery—are confirmed, with a few more set to be announced this weekend. Ferrell says that's due to a combination of understaffing issues, timing (one of last year's restaurants, Taylor's Tacos, is currently in the process of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant) and name recognition: The longer Black Restaurant Week Midwest stays in Chicago, the more restaurants will come to trust the organization.
"It's just being consistent and coming back year after year when the businesses understand this isn't a one-off thing—there's stability in this project," Ferrell explains.
One of the returning restaurants this year is Haire's Gulf Shrimp, a seafood joint in Greater Grand Crossing that serves up a 105-year-old family fried shrimp recipe. For this year's Black Restaurant Week Midwest, they'll offer a special of a dozen fried shrimp with crackers and sauce on the side for $10.
"I'm very excited to be participating in Black Restaurant Week again," Haire's co-owner Aisha Murff says. "Moving forward, I'm glad [customers] will be able to come in and I can interact with them a bit and get to meet new customers."
Black Restaurant Week is also looking to build sustainability for Black-owned culinary businesses, helping them attain the resources and community support to succeed long into the future. This year's campaign, titled "No Crumb Left Behind" aims to register more than 1,000 businesses\ in 2021, all of which will be entered into the site's database that viewers can use to search for different cuisines all year long. With the help of corporate sponsorship, the organization has also launched a nonprofit arm called Feed the Soul, which offers grants, business consultation services and other marketing tools to help smaller restaurants bolster their business and prepare for long-term growth.
"Black Restaurant Week is great for a week, but if there's no long-term sustainability of the businesses in the community, then what's the point?" Ferrell says. "The foundation allows us to speak to that bigger mission of creating sustainable small businesses within our local communities."
Black Restaurant Week Midwest runs from July 23 through August 1. Want to check out participating restaurants across the region? Take a look through Black Restaurant Week's database to prepare for your next feast—it's searchable by city and cuisine.