Warren Luckett likes to say that he grew up around the family dinner table. While he bounced around from St. Louis to New Jersey to South Africa and then Houston, the dinner table was always a safe space to discuss politics, religion and whatever else was going on at school and in the world.
In 2016, while working as a wholesale wine distributor in Houston with his father, Luckett kept thinking about the deaths of Alton Sterling, Michael Brown and many other people of color. He noticed a growing consciousness among young Black millennials like him, who wanted to have a conversation about what was going on. And he kept coming back to the idea of the family dinner table.
He decided to pair his love of food and his business background to start Black Restaurant Week — seven days devoted to highlighting African American, African and Caribbean cuisines in Houston.
“My hope was to be able to use Black Restaurant Week as a medium to bring everyone to the table, from all walks of life, to showcase the city’s diverse Black food scene,” Luckett said.
He reached out to Falayn Ferrell and Derek Robinson, cochairs of PR and marketing for the Houston Area Urban League Young Professionals, for help. Ferrell and Robinson had recently started their own digital marketing firm, Fade Media, and Luckett was its first client.
The three of them launched Black Restaurant Week in Houston in April 2016. They wanted to make it as inclusive as possible, so they invited food trucks and catering businesses to participate alongside restaurants. And instead of requiring businesses to create a prix fixe menu, which is commonplace among other restaurant-week events such as DineLA, restaurants could create a single, special dish.
About 20 restaurants paid the $200 registration fee and signed up. They received placement on the Black Restaurant Week website as well as marketing support.
“A lot of times these small Black businesses don’t have the resources or an opportunity to do marketing,” Luckett said. “We’re hoping to build a platform that will bring attention and press to the Black community to ultimately drive revenue for them.”
The trio thought the one-week event wasn’t enough, and they quickly started organizing more of them. Later that year, they hosted Black Restaurant Weeks in Atlanta and Oakland. In the next couple of years they added New Orleans, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. This year, they’re headed back to Los Angeles as well as nine other cities around the country.
They gradually introduced a series of events to support the restaurant weeks, with business panels, a catering showcase, food truck festivals, a virtual restaurant bingo game, the Black Plate Awards and a Power of Palate bartender competition.
Ferrell said she expects around 20 to 30 restaurants to participate in this year’s Los Angeles Black Restaurant Week, which takes place from Aug. 7-16.
The restaurant week is part of a larger, ongoing effort to support Black-owned businesses in Los Angeles. In early July, publicist Jade Stevens started the Black Restaurant Coalition in response to how Black-owned restaurants were hit by the pandemic. There are currently 37 members.
“In my conversations with restaurant owners, they felt like they were getting stuck when it came to funding and being able to bounce back,” Stevens said. “I felt we needed a collective voice so people know how they can best support.”
She recently signed on as a community partner to help promote this year’s Black Restaurant Week in Los Angeles.
“It’s a way to uplift the Black restaurants in our community and really support the movement that the coalition supports, which is dine Black,” she said. “Past the #supportBlackbusiness and the other hashtags, it doesn’t stop. Supporting Black is 365 days a year.”
Barbara Sky Burrell, owner of Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, has taken part in L.A.’s Black Restaurant Week since its first year.
“For the Black community, not only does it provide brand exposure, it’s culinary education,” she said. “The African American tastes from the South, Caribbean flavors, African flavors, those are all here. And they’ve been somewhat overlooked. Black Restaurant Week is bringing them all to the forefront.”
Burrell is planning to offer three prix fixe menus that range from $15 to $25 at both Sky’s Gourmet Tacos locations, in Los Angeles and Marina del Rey. She said she hasn’t seen an economic impact from previous years of the event but she’s excited about its potential.
The restaurant week is slowly finding its legs in Los Angeles, where there were just six restaurants in its first year and 13 in 2019.
“It still has to gain momentum, but the flair is there, the heart is there to take it where it’s going,” Burrell said. “I don’t think people were really aware of it before.”
Comfort L.A. owner Jessica Mitchell believes the reinvigorated support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd will help raise awareness of this year’s event.
“We are participating because this is a great way to celebrate Black-owned businesses, especially with the recent Black Lives Matter protests,” Mitchell said. “Black businesses are already at a huge disadvantage because there’s less access to capital to even start a business, and with COVID-19, many small and Black-owned businesses are having to close — some permanently.”
Mitchell created a Black Restaurant Week dinner special at her Inglewood restaurant that includes chicken wings, sides, cornbread, dessert and a drink for $20.
John Cleveland, chef and owner of the Post & Beam restaurant in Baldwin Hills, said he’s excited about being a part of something that engages his local community. With the constantly shifting landscape of dining during the pandemic, he hasn’t formalized his restaurant’s plans just yet, but he’s putting together a $45 prix fixe menu.
“We always try to take these opportunities with new customers to introduce them to the great staples,” Cleveland said. “We’ll probably do our vegan crab cakes or shrimp and grits — something that screams out Post & Beam.”
Organizing the food event during a pandemic has posed more than a few challenges for the restaurant week team as well. They waived the normal $200 registration fee in the hopes that more caterers, delivery services, food trucks and restaurants would be able to participate.
“We’re trying to get in front of restaurants that may be closing, to let them know this could be another opportunity to keep their doors open,” Robinson said.
Restaurants can still opt to pay $250 for a premium service that includes better placement on the Black Restaurant Week website and extra marketing collateral with custom social media graphics and menu templates.
Ferrell, Luckett and Robinson also expanded their mission, building digital versions of their key events, including a nationwide virtual bartending competition with Maker’s Mark. They hosted a series of digital panels to discuss COVID-19-related resources, including marketing and branding tips, alternative financing and updated business practices post-COVID-19.
The goal is to help the Black culinary community well beyond the restaurant week and the pandemic. The Black Restaurant Week website is set up as a business directory where you can search restaurants by area and delivery platform. And Luckett wants to create the largest Black food marketplace in the country, with online listings for spices, recipes and cookbooks as well as a database of Black bartenders and sommeliers.
Later this year, they hope to build out a national food employment database as well.
The pandemic has “forced us to really focus internally to create this digital hub we’ve all been dreaming about,” Ferrell said. “This database will share businesses and recipes and stories within the Black community. We’ll build it out and let it grow.”
L.A. Black Restaurant Week participants include:
Sky’s Gourmet Tacos
Post & Beam
Juice by Chuck
Billionaire Burger Boyz
Orleans and York
Simply D’Licious Southern Creole Cuisine