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Nation & World

'Soul Of The City' Black-Owned Food Establishments Struggle In Nation's Capital

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When a local restaurant or shop shuts down, we know it can have a lasting effect on the people who owned it or work there or shopped or ate there. So we wanted to talk about how the shutdown of so many businesses over the past year has affected the communities in which they're located. We're going to talk about that now, keeping our focus on Washington, D.C., because, yes, it's the nation's capital, but it is also a city with people who were born or grew up or live here and run businesses here, many of them with strong bonds to the people they serve.

We've called blogger Anela Malik for this because she's been writing about the D.C. food scene for some time now in her blog, Feed the Malik. And she is with us now.

Anela Malik, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ANELA MALIK: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So, as we know, you know, food and hospitality has been particularly hard hit in the last year. That's true everywhere. But I'd like to know, from your perspective, how would you say D.C. was doing before the pandemic hit? And what effect has this had?

MALIK: Before the pandemic, D.C., I think, was just kind of reaching its national acclaim for the restaurant scene, right? It started being recognized as a heavy hitter that could compete with cities like New York or Los Angeles - right? - much larger cities.

And we saw a lot of innovation in the restaurant industry and in the food space in general - lots of new offerings and really creative things, right? So you can find anything in the D.C. food scene from fine dining French and Italian to, you know, fine dining African cuisine and Ethiopian American cuisine. And so that was the scene before. And I think, like most cities, it was really hit hard by the pandemic and the shutdown.

MARTIN: I want to mention that you have focused a lot of attention in recent years on Black-owned restaurants, even creating an online directory. So how was that space going? And what has been the effect of the pandemic particularly on Black-owned restaurants?

MALIK: So nationwide, we know that Black-owned restaurants in general have been hit hard, and they've been hit harder than their counterparts. And that's, you know, for a variety of reasons - because of discrimination in lending and inequities and access to capital and all sorts of issues - even, you know, redlining by banks.

But on top of the pandemic, we have to layer on a little bit of nuance and talk about, you know, this groundswell of support we saw for Black-owned businesses as a result of what I call the June boom, which is, you know, the attention that was centered on Black Lives Matter in June of 2020. And so a lot of local Black-owned restaurants reported that they saw a huge swell of support, right? They had to shut off online ordering because it was so busy. There were lines out the door. But over time, that support has trickled away.

MARTIN: I was wondering if the Black-owned businesses in D.C., particularly the dining establishment, have some unique characteristics. Like, for example, are they mostly family-owned? I'm thinking about the spots that I particularly love. I think they're family businesses. You know, is my personal experience accurate - that they're overwhelmingly family businesses?

MALIK: Yes. I think that's true in D.C., but data shows that it's basically true nationwide. So Black-owned businesses in general tend to start with less capital than their peers. And they're also far less likely - I think over 90% of them don't have paid employees, which means that they're family-owned, and the secondary and tertiary employees are likely family members that don't draw a regular salary.

So that is the picture nationwide, and it definitely holds true for a lot of Black-owned restaurants in D.C. in my experience, right? There are always exceptions, but we're talking about small mom and pop shops in their communities, right? Maybe the son might work the register and help with their marketing, and maybe the mom is the chef. And it's really a family operation.

MARTIN: You know, the demographics of D.C. have changed quite a lot in the last couple of decades. I mean, I know that people outside of the area - it was colloquially known as Chocolate City because this was a majority-Black city. That actually hasn't been the case for some years now. Now many people might not know that 40% of the population in D.C. is African American now, but almost 76% of Black people in D.C. are actually from the city, and that's compared to just 16% of white residents.

So I was wondering, you know, with that in mind, if one of these businesses goes under, does it feel different than it might if a business was run by somebody who moved here for that purpose? Does that make sense?

MALIK: It does make sense. And I think it's an important question, right? And we're talking about businesses that - especially small businesses - these are the soul of the city. And D.C.'s a very transient city. But as you mentioned - right? - the Black population here - many of them are from D.C. And I went to a restaurant for breakfast this morning that's new. It just opened in Northeast a few weeks ago, and it's Black-owned.

And the owner came out to talk to us, and he was telling us about growing up in this neighborhood that he opened the restaurant in. And he pointed down the street at his high school (laughter) and across the street, you know, at all of these buildings that he has memories in. And I asked him, how has it been since you've opened? And what's it like opening during the pandemic? That must be really scary.

And he said, you know, it's hard, but our community has really supported us, right? We've - we just opened a few weeks ago, and because we're from here, because we grew up here - right? - they came out for us. And that has been really amazing for them to experience as business owners. But I could imagine, you know, the negative side of that - what a hole it would leave in the community if they're not able to survive.

MARTIN: Looking ahead to a year from now - I mean, obviously, nobody can predict, and certainly it's not fair to ask you to predict - but what's the landscape going to be like? I mean, do you think a lot of these businesses are going to survive or not? Or if they don't, will there be something that rises to take their place?

MALIK: So I think it remains to be seen. I think that, you know, the data about how Black-owned restaurants are faring is pretty bleak. But I also think there's a lot of resiliency in the community. And I have seen, you know, some important initiatives, right? We've seen talks about restructuring lending, about, oh, the first round of PPP loans excluded diverse business owners for these reasons. Maybe we should make these changes.

And there's also all of these grant funds that have popped up, like the - there's the Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice coalition and all of these that are really working on finding solutions and drawing in people from the restaurant community to help build those solutions - right? - so solutions that are tailor-made for the people in the sector and really that they have input on. And so I will say that I am worried about restaurants and small businesses in general. But I do see a lot of resiliency in that community.

MARTIN: That was Anela Malik. She writes the food blog Feed the Malik, based in Washington, D.C.

Thanks so much for talking with us today.

MALIK: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK'S "GOOD HEELS")

MARTIN: Tomorrow, we are going to continue our focus on business and the challenges of the pandemic. We'll hear about the kind of support small business owners and entrepreneurs need to not just recover from the past year but also thrive and take advantage of new opportunities. And we'll hear about why the future of the U.S. economy may depend on finding ways to better support women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. That's tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK'S "GOOD HEELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.