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20 Black Professionals On The State Of The Restaurant Industry

In recognition of Black History Month, Zagat Stories asked Black professionals in restaurants and hospitality about positive change they’ve observed or experienced in the past year—as well as where they think the industry still needs to do more work. Here’s what they told us.

Camari Mick
Executive pastry chef, The Musket Room, New York

In order to see real, substantive change, Black hospitality and food professionals should be recognized all year round, not just in February. Our community is filled with talented individuals that deserve just as much attention as anyone else for their accomplishments and contributions. There are many who are actively making a difference in and out of the kitchen, like Chef Mavis-Jay—she is a social equity advocate who has dedicated her career to fighting for food justice in Black and low-income communities. To effect change, we need to support those who are conduits of new ideas, fresh perspectives, and worthy causes. It’s more than just the food or the color of our skin. It’s what we stand for that will keep our industry going.

Kwini and Michael Reed
Owner and executive chef/owner, Poppy + Rose and Root of All Food, Los Angeles

Opening a new restaurant is scary. Opening a restaurant during a pandemic is nuts! So it’s safe to say we’ve been nuts the whole pandemic. But what kept us sane is seeing the camaraderie between restaurant owners and our team members. We have bonded together like never before, tackling this ever-changing pandemic head on, and holding each other up along the way. Seeing each other as collaborators instead of competitors has opened so many doors for us. I have befriended other hospitality owners, whereas in pre-times I would have never been able to foster those relationships. I think this is the change we all needed in this industry—to feel supported by one another. If anything has become apparent—at least to us—it’s that we need to focus more on our team members and our culture within our business. Honestly, having a great culture and letting our team members know they are appreciated and that we care kept us alive during the pandemic. We might not always get it right. We are humans too. But as an industry, we need to do the work and try to make our environments as happy and safe as possible for our team family.

Chris Scott
Chef-owner, Butterfunk Biscuit Co., New York

I often wonder what the conversation is like behind closed doors when folks are discussing Black food and foodways. For a very long time, this kind of food wasn’t highly regarded. It was hit with the stigma of being unhealthy, while other cultures can put pork belly on their menus, or cultures rich in butter sauces are lifted to a higher standard, and things like fried calamari or fritto misto get a pass. Black food was called “staff meal” by many in the industry. Individuals looked down on its history and the intricacies of its cooking techniques and methods. And the cooks that prepared this food were put in a category of being “niche” or “gimmicky” and kept on the bottom of cuisine hierarchy, regardless of the full scope of their culinary work.

2021 saw a lot of positive changes for Black folks in the industry. There has been an incredible insurgence of Blacks in the media. Dawn Davis was appointed editor and chief of Bon Appetit magazine. Klancy Miller started her own publication called For the Culture. Jamila Robinson became lead food editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Toni Tipton-Martin took over for Cook’s Country, a PBS cooking show and national magazine based out of Boston.

So now we have actual Black voices who understand the stories in between the stories when it comes to Black food, and who will write about it in a fair and objective light all year round. Even Netflix got in on the action and came out with High on the Hog, a documentary series that gave the world a front-row seat into the origins and stories of African-American food. The series hit the nation so hard that it’s been renewed for a second season.

Food writer and High on the Hog host Stephen Satterfield posted on Instagram, “My work aint change and they still aint just gon let you in. You can get lucky, which is not a strategy, or learn to pick the lock, in which case, you still gon need some luck. You still need a person in a position of power to lift you up and you better be ready. Stay ready. … Stories shape our cultural imagination, and also, ruthlessly restrict it. In an era where Black optics are co-opted, High on the Hog will always be the highlight of my life. This will always be the year. I know it’s a hard time. But I want to remind you that no feeling is final.”

Another move in the right direction has been to see major corporations and hospitality groups investing in Black-owned businesses. For example, the James Beard Foundation started an investment fund for Black and Indigenous Americans. Talenti Ice Cream, in conjunction with Black Food Folks, awarded $5,000 grants to 10 different Black people who work in food, from chefs to podcasters to farmers and individuals helping the homeless. Even groups like TGP International have helped renowned chef Alexander Smalls create the world’s first African Food Hall on three continents. And in my case, I’ve been backed by F Becker Hospitality to launch Butterfunk Biscuit Company, a boutique biscuit shop that not only highlights four generations of biscuit making, but also amplifies Black bread bakers and gives a gentle nod to breads made by brown and Black hands.

Having major backers that not only believe in us, but also the importance of Black food—they too see it as an integral part of our food culture and are helping us make its way to the global table. They have helped support more awareness of Black food culture and have set the bar for other major hospitality groups to join in.

As I go forward in my career and help move the needle in a positive way, I will always believe that whatever I do, I must do it with grace— as we continue to show our guests the origin of our food and culture. But most importantly, I hope this leads to a deeper sense of empathy and interest in African-American food and culture. One can only hope that these conversations, that I assume are happening about our food, are positive.

LaMara Davidson
Cornbread + Kimchi, Atlanta

My professional experience—not just in food media, but across almost all industries in the past two years—is the “box check” syndrome. Thankfully more women and Black people are now being highlighted in some areas, for sure. Myself included. However, there is still a disconnect. It’s like being invited to the party, but the host doesn’t greet you or actually invite you to sit at the table. Another general theme recently is being told how “lucky” I am because “you’re the first” or “nobody else is getting this,” when I know very well my value in the days where companies are looking to woman of color to be the face of whatever their product is, because of the “box check” syndrome. I don’t even think most are conscious of it. The conditioning is deep within many of us, on all sides. Growing up Korean and Black has always given me a unique perspective because of being raised in two extremely different cultures. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to be “the first” or the “blueprint,” as they say. I actually feel like it’s part of my purpose to bridge the gap and help bring some understanding that underneath it all, we are all the same. At the end of the day, we all want to be understood and appreciated for what we bring to the table.

Russell Jackson
Chef-owner, Reverence, New York

To come into the restaurant, not only now do you have to be fully vaccinated—which under our definition is boosted—but you also have to provide us with a negative PCR or antigen test. If you don’t, we’ll test you here. That creates another set of logistics that we have to incorporate into our style of service. I dropped $7,000 for tests in the last month.

Why do we test? We’re a small, bespoke restaurant. The reality with this new variant, and the variants that we have word will be coming down the line—they’re so virulent. Irrespective of all the remediation, all the ventilation, all the masks, and all the stuff that we do, the minute somebody takes that mask off to eat, it all goes right out the fucking window.

How do you handle this in the right way? Can you give people the peace of mind or the comfort level to be able to come in? I see what other restaurateurs are doing. We have insiders at other corporate houses that talk to me on a weekly basis and give me the down low. I have one person that went back into their corporate job—it’s at a major group here in Manhattan—and everybody in that restaurant has gotten COVID. They’re promoting the fact that they test their staff on a regular cycle. It’s disingenuous bullshit.

I know what we’re doing. I trust what my staff is doing. When we’re in here working, we’re back to mask protocol. I’m fortunate that I have a private line to get N95 masks. We’ve got a grip of N95s. We’ve been wearing those in here. We have K95s up the wazoo, and we have surgical masks up the wazoo. We give those away free to people.

In the first six weeks, we asked every single person that came through what made them come here. The regulars were like, “We missed you and we had to get in here to support you. But we also felt comfortable.” And 99 percent of the others—people that we had never met before—said it was their first time going to an indoor restaurant since lockdown, and we were doing it right.

Elijah Milligan
Executive chef, Wilson’s Restaurant & Live Music Room, Hi-Nella, New Jersey

One thing I can say about the last two years is that there was a lot of camaraderie with restaurants in general, with the restaurant scene. Everyone was working together to fight for local issues, not just pertaining to restaurants. And restaurants had each other’s backs, and chefs had each other’s backs as far as surviving this pandemic.

We definitely saw a lot of restaurants switch their business plans and game plans more towards the well-being and safety of their employees. You saw restaurants pay a lot more attention to mental health issues. The people in this industry, the ones that stuck it out, are healthier. When it comes to wages, you see a lot of people step up—not just small businesses, but also in corporate—making sure people actually get paid for overtime, actually get sick pay. The focus on that has been huge. It’s definitely noticeable.

Everybody in the industry seems to be on the same page when it comes to paying livable wages. But I don’t feel like customers are getting that. A lot of restaurants are still operating and trying to do a service when they’re severely understaffed. Restaurants have taken some of the hardest hits throughout the pandemic when it comes to business supplies, and the price of food going up.

Especially after the pandemic, you would think that people would appreciate a night out much more. Hey, if you want to go to a fully staffed restaurant and get the same experience as before, you’ve got to pay for it. I read a lot about rude guests coming in with no empathy whatsoever for these short-staffed restaurants that are just trying to put things together. I’ve seen it at my friend’s restaurant that he just opened up. The first reviews were about the wait times, and he’s like, “Dude, we’re doing everything we can do.”

Adreinne Cheatham
Chef and author, Sunday Best

I think COVID helped people reprioritize their expectations of the industry, and what they’re willing to let go of and accept as standard. A lot of people have started to say, “I’m not just going to keep accepting jobs for sous chef or chef de cuisine. I want to be strongly considered for the exec chef position.” For chefs of color, it was always like, “We have a Black chef, but that’s not the person that you put in charge.”

Everybody lost restaurants, jobs, money, time. That’s the scary part. Once we figure out what’s on the other side, it’s like, “If I’m going back to this, I’m not accepting how it was.” We’ve been giving lip service to the issues of equity and equality in the restaurant industry, whether it’s hiring more women chefs or more Black chefs. Restaurateurs were forced to reprioritize, too. They’re saying, “You know what? We’ve always said that we’re going to do better. Let’s take this opportunity to actually do better.” The talent is there.

We’re all aware of the fact that having diverse people in a restaurant makes it better. Having people from different backgrounds helps everybody create better food with more diversity. But when it comes to giving chefs equity in restaurants, the chefs of color and white chefs also, that’s something that our industry really needs to work on. Why aren’t we doing that across the board to incentivize people to stay? You’ll keep your staff longer. They’ll be more vested in growth, not just trying to make a name and move on. It’s like hiring a franchise player versus somebody that you just want to come in and get a couple of good reviews, then you fire them and keep their recipes, and they get screwed over. That was the industry standard for a long time.

Equity is a long-term play, because restaurants are not going to turn a profit for a while. But if you stick with that restaurant, you’re vested in them, and they have clearly exhibited that they care about you and want to grow with you, then there is a larger payoff to be had down the line.

D. Brandon Walker
Chef-owner, The MV Grab & Go and The Art Room, Los Angeles

The hospitality industry needs to undergo a healing. It needs to move away from a history of toxic management and provide a better work-life balance. We all need to institute universal tip-sharing and shorter shifts, along with more opportunity for promotion, nurturing a greater willingness in staff to take on more responsibility and increasing their leadership capacity.

Brian Fowler
Executive chef, Black Barn, New York

As far what we can do for the minorities in the industry—I’m not just talking about Black people, I’m talking about all of the Latinos and all of the immigrants—there can be more mentorship programs and support groups and things to train these people and bring them into leadership roles. There are some, but they’re not known. There are so many great Black and Latino chefs that are great leaders, but their voices aren’t heard because they’re looked at as the guys who can flip burgers or drop fries.

For the longest time, the top chefs of New York City have been French or maybe American. A number of times, people see me in my white jacket and it throws them off. Not only in the Black community, but the whole community as well. “Oh my god, are you the chef?” “Yes, I’m the chef.” “Wow. Everything was amazing.” They just don’t expect to see me as the leader who’s able to put all this out. Now I’ve gotten used to it, but at first I was like, “Do people actually think that I wouldn’t be able to do this because of my skin color?” It just needs to be more normalized. It’s not weird or uncommon for there to be a Black chef.

I’ve dealt with that a lot myself. I’m expected to only know only soul food or some type of a Caribbean food. Over the course of my whole career, I’ve touched a lot of different cuisines—Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French of course, American, Latin food. I’m just interested by all of these foods. People are always like, “Oh man, you should be able to make some great mac-and-cheese and barbecued chicken.” I don’t want to make that. I purposely veer away from that to push myself to learn other things.

Dupree Braswell
Chef, Seventh State and Hip Flask, Bethesda, Maryland

Over the last 18 months, the struggles that people of color endured for many years moved to the national stage. While traditionally personal opinions about public matters may have been kept private, with all the tragic events and injustices that have taken place in recent years, this conversation has now come into the forefront, with companies and leaders at all levels encouraging transparency, dialogue, and conversation. This has been a positive development on a personal level, and has had a powerful positive impact on me as a professional in this industry. I believe the hospitality industry must make a larger effort in attracting great talent who want to make a career in hospitality. There needs to be a direct pipeline created from high school to industry, and high school to trade school or university, to cultivate the next generation of talent and inspire future leaders. With this also comes representation top down in the public and private sector. People dream better when they can see their dreams as being tangible.

Chip Wade
President & COO, Union Square Hospitality Group, New York

This year has been all about listening, learning and transparency—within our own organization and throughout the larger industry. We’ve all benefited from accelerated conversations surrounding diversity, inclusion and belonging, and I’ve personally experienced tremendous growth in both sharing my story and hearing the stories of others. At USHG, we’ve committed ourselves to holding open forums for all employees by bringing in speakers from outside of our organization to share their experiences as minorities in the hospitality world. These discussions have been emotional and eye-opening, creating space for reflection and meaningful change. To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we spoke with Dario Wolos, the founder of Tacombi. In February, we are excited to welcome Clarence Otis, former chairman and CEO of Darden Restaurants, for Black History month. Through these forums I’ve also had the chance to tell my own story to over 200 employees—an emotional conversation that made me appreciate how essential vulnerability is in paving the road for change.

To make USHG a more inclusive organization, we set concrete goals to increase racial and gender diversity, particularly within our leadership ranks. Guided by transparency, we’ve been very open in sharing those goals and publishing our progress, revisiting our intentions each quarter as we strive to do better. It’s been inspiring to hear from guests who see themselves better represented within our restaurants. We’ll always have more work to do, but I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish together.

Outside of USHG, I’ve been fortunate to sit on the board of a large-scale restaurant company, equally committed to representation at the leadership level. We’re seeing more women and minorities in prominent C-level positions, which directly translates to lasting change. The numbers are indisputable at this point—companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 36 percent more likely to outperform their less diverse peers. It’s empowering to have the data support what we already know: a commitment to diversity isn’t just an altruistic talking point, it’s smart business.

UT Craven
Pitmaster, Edley’s Bar-B-Que, Nashville

A positive change I’ve seen in the hospitality industry is watching it bring neighboring restaurants closer than just being competitors. If someone was out of a particular item, they could easily call or just walk down and ask if we could help out. It has really helped to have that secondary resource available if necessary. The change that is most important for the hospitality industry to focus on now is guest interaction and their overall experience. More so than ever, this is the time to make memorable moments. That’s where the real work comes in.

Megan Brown
Executive chef, Panorama Room and Anything At All, New York

I think that one of the most important areas of focus should be on making our staff the first “guests” of hospitality—whether that’s ensuring family meal is beautiful, or lending an ear on a rough day. It’s more important than ever that not only our guests but our team members feel a true sense of being cared for and served while participating in an industry that was challenging before, and even more so nearly two years into a pandemic.

Hospitality workers are front-line workers. Commuting to work in metropolitan cities and risking exposure to COVID, and then facing guests who are also fatigued from the unforeseen changes to dining culture is no easy feat. I think now is the time to celebrate, promote, teach, encourage, and uplift every single member of a restaurant’s team. That should be the focus for any hospitality leader. In doing so, we fortify the positive attitude and energy needed to continue preserving what we all know and love about hospitality.

Andrew Black
Chef-owner, Grey Sweater and Black Walnut, Oklahoma City

Instead of giving out checks, which helps, the biggest thing is access to people who can guide you, or the support that can help you. I’m a firm believer in that. Grants are great, but when the money runs out, what happens? If you have the phone number of someone knowledgeable and connected who can mentor you, you can call them for advice when you get stuck on something. Information is power, and so is connection. Have you ever heard the saying, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” I believe in teaching people to fish.

One good thing that has come out of the Black Lives Matter movement is that people have been inspired to go out of their comfort zone and experience what BIPOC business owners are offering. I’ve had guests tell me that they never came in before because my restaurants seemed too fancy, but they wanted to support me as a Black business owner in OKC, so they came out and fell in love with what we’re doing here. We’ve had more than a few regulars come to us that way.

Ricky Moore
Chef-owner, Saltbox Seafood Joint, Durham, North Carolina

The fact that businesses are now intentionally being referred to as “Black-owned”—and how that identifying language is not only part of the normal conversation, but something to celebrate vs something to avoid or tip-toe around—is a hugely positive change! But senior professionals like myself who have been working in this industry for decades need to rethink the way we hire and how we treat people, and also recognize that the young people coming up in this industry want to work differently now. They want to have life balance and make a decent living. As owners and operators, we need to situate our businesses to support that. We are ultimately responsible for creating the right conditions so that people want to work in the hospitality industry.

Sandi Robinson
Director of sales and marketing, The Godfrey Hotel, Chicago

In the past year, diversity, equity, and inclusion have been at the forefront of business development in the hospitality industry and beyond. We have seen a shift in focus on supporting Black-owned restaurants and bars on a national level. An example that often comes to mind is Virtue, a Black-owned Southern American restaurant located in Hyde Park. In addition to it being one of my favorite dining destinations in Chicago, executive chef Erick Williams has woven the importance of Black history into his culinary story, earning a spot on the Michelin Bib Gourmand List in 2021. Williams is a leader in the Black culinary community in Chicago, who young BIPOC professionals interested in the hospitality industry can look up to and learn from.

Ruth Nakaar
Owner, Fudena, Philadelphia

At Fudena, we envision an industry that brings agency back to the individual. This means paying our team members a living wage so they can lead empowered and expansive lives. By treating each other as valuable members of a greater whole, we can build a happy and healthy team, which is the foundation for a sustainable and successful business. We hope that this change ripples out not only throughout the hospitality industry, but throughout the world.

Jessica Craig
Pastry chef, Celestine, Grand Army, and Pebble Bar, New York

Over the past year, I have noticed that Black people in food media have been paving their own way and making space for stories that are important to them. I honestly have noticed this for a few years now, but I think it became accelerated beginning in 2020 when everyone had no choice but to face the obvious discrimination when issues of violence against African Americans came up in headlines all across the world. And can we really ignore the huge shake-up that happened at Bon Appetit? Not to mention amazing people such as Amber Mayfield, who created a platform to highlight talented African-American chefs and entertainment ideas in her magazine While Entertaining. Let’s not forget her event company To Be Hosted. There’s Klancy Miller with For the Culture, a magazine (and soon-to-be book) promoting African-American women and femmes in the food industry. Steven Satterfield, founder of Whetstone Magazine and Whetstone Radio Collective is doing incredible work getting the stories of African-American farmers, sommeliers, winemakers, and food folks of all kinds out there. It’s all very exciting, but most of the work I have personally seen put into creating space for Black people in the food world are mostly from other BIPOC.

I think the hospitality industry needs to focus on creating space for people who don’t fit the traditional norm of what those in leadership have been for a very long time—typically male and white. The idea that unless you’ve worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant, cooked at James Beard, and/or have a certain level of pedigree—those shouldn’t be the only things we’re going on when we’re creating a team anymore. As a whole, there needs to be more space for chances and mistakes for people who have been overlooked for too long, especially for those who may not have the apprenticeships and fancy culinary degrees because of lack of opportunities. Those who are excluded from such opportunities and/or typically getting pushed out of fine dining restaurant working environments are usually BIPOC, and especially women. It’s either that or the hiring manager can’t imagine someone with a certain look in an important management role just because they’ve never seen such a thing before themselves. Anyone with a great attitude and is hungry to learn is teachable. Those are characteristics that can’t be taught regardless of gender, color, or creed.

TJ Douglas
Founder/president, The Urban Grape, Boston

In 2020, my wife Hadley and I started The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color on the belief that our year-long program of wine education, mentorship, and paid internships on all sides of the business could help BIPOC find careers in the wine industry. Even though we believed in the promise of our program, it was still such a new concept that we held our breath the entire first year, wondering: Is this thing going to work? When it came time for our graduating interns to begin interviewing for jobs, we were amazed at how so many people in the industry went out of their way to help them prepare for interviews, make connections, and consider them for positions. Our first intern, Suhayl Ramirez, was immediately hired as customer engagement officer for Trois Noix Winery, and our second intern, Amanda Best, is deep into the interview process—regionally and nationally—for several digital media marketing positions. Two new interns just started the program, and applications are open for the third cohort. So now on the tough days, I just think about this: Change is coming, one position at a time.

Top photo: Michael and Kwini Reed of Poppy + Rose, Los Angeles. Photo: Lex Endness.