Charlotte Black Restaurant Week Is Back – With Safety Precautions
Going out to eat during the coronavirus pandemic just isn't the same.
You can still go to restaurants, and safety restrictions are gradually easing as the pandemic drags on, but things are different. Servers have masks. Tables are spaced out. Some places even have lines on the floor marking how far people can stand apart while waiting to order.
In short, an activity that's as much about socializing as it is celebrating food is suddenly more sterile and distant.
And for the past three years, Charlotte Black Restaurant Week was just that: a celebration of food and community. In 2020, it will be much the same, though organizers are making a few tweaks to make things as safe as possible.
"A lot of the restaurants are struggling, and some of them have actually closed," said Cathay Dawkins, founder of Black Business Owners of Charlotte, which puts on the annual event. "... The ones that are still open, we want to make sure we provide them as much business as possible."
In general, such festivals work like this: Restaurants agree to offer a discount to participants and in turn, get promotion from the organizer and a wave of customers. Of course, things are more complicated this year.
Black-owned businesses have been hit especially hard during the pandemic. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York released a study in August that found Black-owned businesses were nearly twice as likely to fail amid COVID-19 as other businesses.
At least 12 Black-owned restaurants in Charlotte have closed over the last year, several of them after the coronavirus started spreading through North Carolina, according to a count by Black Business Owners of Charlotte. The organization knows of at least 47 Black-owned restaurants in the city.
Racial justice protests this summer and the Black Lives Matter movement led to an initial increase in support for Black-owned businesses, including restaurants, but some of that has tapered off in recent months.
"There was a huge uptick for about two weeks," Dawkins said of support for Black-owned businesses this summer. "Now, that conversation seems to have drifted a little bit, so we're hoping that Charlotte Black Restaurant Week will keep that conversation going and that the media picks it up."
Charlotte Black Restaurant Week starts Monday and is running longer than usual — through Oct. 31. There's an emphasis on to-go orders, and organizers required participating restaurants to sign on to safety precautions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.
"We're going to push the takeout side of it and people knowing they're still getting a discount and it's going to be safe, and it's not going to be a 'super-spreader,'" Dawkins said.
It could be a much-needed shot in the arm. Tens of thousands of people have participated in previous years. Normally, there are several social events connected to the festival, but this year, for safety reasons, that will be limited to a socially distanced Black Food Truck Friday on Oct. 30.
Miketa Davis says she hopes Black Restaurant Week helps "keep the momentum going" for LuLu's Maryland Style Chicken and Seafood, which she and her husband, Jay, opened last November on Tuckaseegee Road.
The restaurant had been open only a few months when the coronavirus hit North Carolina, dealing a blow to the food service industry.
"When COVID hit, we had a slight slowdown, but then business picked right back up," Jay Davis said.
LuLu's — named after Jay's mom — has become known for its crab cakes.
For the most part, the Davises adapted recipes for meals they cooked at home into menu items. In other cases, they came up with their own recipes after trying food they liked when going out to eat.
"They're literally our recipes," Jay Davis said. "These are things that we were cooking at home, putting together for different engagements we were having at home."
Or, Miketa Davis is quick to add, "back-at-home" recipes based on popular foods in the Baltimore or Prince George's County areas of Maryland.
"That's my love language," Miketa Davis said. "I love to feed people, and I love to see their reactions."
The Davises are hoping they get to see some more first reactions during Charlotte Black Restaurant Week — and that the exposure will help them with plans to eventually expand to other parts of the city.
In the past, some restaurants have already been so busy that they were hesitant to sign on to Charlotte Black Restaurant Week. That wasn't the case in 2020, though 15 restaurants and speciality shops are participating this year, down from 18 in 2019.
"Each one of them seemed relieved like, 'This may be the help we've been looking for so we can survive,'" Dawkins said.
Plus, Black Business Owners of Charlotte sweetened the deal a bit. Normally, restaurants have to pay a fee to participate, but that was waived this time around.
"We see it as an opportunity for them to gain 100% profit and to regain as much as they can during a time that's just uncertain," Dawkins said. "They don't know what each week is going to bring."
As of Monday, the following restaurants had signed up: Freshwaters, STATS Restaurant & Bar, Renaldo's Culinary Experience, Hip Hop Smoothies, Mr. Seafood, LuLu's, Cuzzo's Cuisine, Sweet Creations of Charlotte, Candy's Sweets N Treats, Koffee Kup, True Blue Catering & More, Ruthie's on Tryon, the Nappy Chef, La'Wan's Soul Food and BW Sweets Bakery.
More information is at charlotteblackrestaurantweek.com.
A version of this story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.