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Zagat Conversations: ‘Being A Black Entrepreneur Is Like A Freedom I’ve Never Known’

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

The racial reckoning of 2020 caused the hospitality industry to examine its representation and appropriation of Black culture. Media outlets such as Zagat finally turned up the volume on their coverage of Black subjects. While acknowledging benefits from the long-overdue exposure, many Black restaurateurs expressed frustration with how their celebrity has come about. They are understandably wary of the sincerity of it all.

To dissect the complexities of this moment in history, Zagat convened nearly a dozen Black folks in the hospitality industry, many of whom own businesses across the country. In an experimental format, I moderated a group discussion over a three-day period in early February via the text-based communications platform Slack. The conversation was broken into three channels: bias in media coverage, the intersection of activism and hospitality, and solutions for creating a more equitable hospitality industry. The resulting conversations have been lightly edited for clarity and chronology, and are being published as a four-part collection.

In this thread, the conversation turns to what it’s like being the only Black person in the kitchen and the obstacles and prejudice Black entrepreneurs encounter when starting and operating their own businesses. The other threads in the collection cover media bias, the repercussions of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, and the future of hospitality.

Participants here include KP Sykes (owner, the Armory, New York), Kwini Reed (co-owner, Poppy + Rose, Los Angeles), Russell Jackson (chef/owner, Reverence, New York), Mike Jordan (journalist, Butter.ATL, Atlanta), Dawn Burrell (chef, Houston), Michele Gaton (owner, Extra Virgin, New York), Sim Walker (owner, Ms. Icey’s Kitchen & Bar and Apt. 4B, Atlanta), Kim Prince (owner, Hotville Chicken, Los Angeles), and Adrienne Cheatham (chef, New York).

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: What revelations have you had when being “the only” in the kitchen? The only Black person. The only woman. The only LGBTQ person, etc.

KP SYKES: As my grandmother would call it, “being a fly in a bowl of buttermilk” lol. Aside from my first restaurant gig, which was over 17 years ago, I have been the only Black person at many places that I’ve cut my teeth at. I guess over the years I never paid much attention to it because I was there to do a job and do it well, and be compensated. But as you grow in the industry, you start to notice the sly remarks passed off as “jokes,” and you’re expected to just hem and haw with non-people of color and be happy to have a seat at the table.

My biggest revelation came when I was offered partnership, and I thought it meant moving up and being with the “big dogs.” Over time I realized it was me being invited behind the curtain, but there was still no one who looked like me behind that curtain. That’s when I decided on any future business endeavors, I would make it a point to share what I learned on this unique journey as a Black person in a very homogenous industry.

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: So from your experiences, what’s one piece of advice you can share with young Black chefs who are looking to climb the ranks?

KP SYKES: Never stop learning, stay vigilant, and know when it’s time to speak up—but always do it respectfully, and don’t expect any overnight results. We live in a technological age where you really don’t have an excuse not to take the opportunity to be self-taught, but if you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Also don’t be afraid to take a chance on yourself. Working for someone will pay your bills, but you won’t truly know success until you own something. That something doesn’t necessarily have to be your own business, but if you own your self worth, you will find that success comes in many different forms.

KWINI REED: Exactly—having to sit in boardrooms being the only Black and woman makes you numb. You hear the countless remarks. “Well Kwini you aren’t like them.” My reply is always—WHO ARE THEM, WHO IS THEY—because all the Black people I know are like me. I have now made it a point to be Black Kwini ALL THE TIME. It is exhausting to have to be something else to make white people feel comfortable. It is important to me to create a space where everyone can be themselves. And being a business owner, it allows me to create that space, teach others what I know, and help them grow.

RUSSELL JACKSON: I think we can all tell horror stories of being mistreated in kitchens for our color or sex. I certainly can tell a few extreme doozies. In the greater respect, coming up in “old school” kitchens has helped me learn what kind of a leader I wanted to be. My friendships with Dominique Crenn and Jeremy Fox have helped guide me as a loving, kind, and inspirational leader looking for the best in all that I work with. I had a choice—become the bitter, jaded, asshole angry chefs I grew up with or be guided by love and remember that good food and service comes from being secure in who and what you represent, with love.

MIKE JORDAN: I’ve definitely been the only Black journalist and/or editor in the room. It was just me for the first several years of Thrillist, repping Atlanta and the whole diaspora. LOL.

There was also the Southern Food Writing Conference, which I attended a couple times, including the final year in 2017. The whole event seemed to have some tie-in with recognizing the contributions of African-Americans to this country’s culinary canon, but of course many of the people talking about this were white. And I remember looking around, and there were like 7 of us: Toni Tipton-Martin, Adrian Miller, Osayi Endolyn, and a couple others, out of like 150-plus working food journalists, all talking about how important it was to elevate Black food and culinary craftsmanship.

And all I kept thinking—and saying loudly—was, “But who gets to tell the story, and for what salary?” It was a really revealing moment. I realized then that Black restaurateurs, chefs, mixologists, recipe and cookbook authors, and everybody else in this field had to go through gatekeepers from outside our culture just to be seen. I admit it lit a fire under my short Southern Black ass.

DAWN BURRELL: I have been “the only” in the kitchen a number of times in my career. I have to start by saying that I began my career as an athlete and did not have a true idea of what it means to be Black in the workforce (I’m only realizing this just now!). I was judged by how good of an athlete I was. The long jump has no color lines or barriers because the measuring tape does not lie. It was not until I entered the culinary field that I truly understood that there were obstacles that had nothing to do with my skill, determination, or desire to be great. I was depending on others to help me to be great. I was depending on others to share their knowledge with me.

I was NEVER chosen for those special assignments or lessons. I was never taken under my white male chef’s wing to be taught all of the nuggets and told the secrets of this industry that would prepare me for next steps. I would ask questions, show interest, come in early, and watch while some white or even a Hispanic male cook, who looked the part or carried themselves in the typical pretentious way, be chosen for teaching opportunities over me. When I would inquire about why, I was treated like I was difficult and told I should be grateful.

My mentor, who is a Black male chef in Houston that came through the ranks, told me his experience of needing to be at least 5 times better than his white counterparts in order to even be considered their equal. He told me I would probably need to be 10 times better than them because I was also a woman. He always told me the hard truths. I will never forget that moment. To this day, I do my best to make sure I am undeniable.

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: Describe the difficulties that Black people face in opening and sustaining their own restaurants. Describe the benefits of being your own boss. Does the good outweigh the bad?

KP SYKES: I personally have had my share of difficulties and struggles, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I haven’t had a boss in almost 10 years, and it’s an indescribable feeling. Does that mean I always get the respect I deserve? No, but do I command respect when I walk into my establishments? Absolutely.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had customers (of varying races/ethnic backgrounds) ask to speak with a manager or “the person in charge,” and when I approach them they have said TO MY FACE, “ There’s no way you’re the owner.” As a native New Yorker, I have been raised to have tough skin, but it is a direct insult to have someone take one look at you and make their own uninformed decision that based on the color of your skin that you can’t be the person in charge. I’ve also had city officials who didn’t believe I was the owner until I showed the establishment’s liquor license bearing my name. All in all, the good still outweighs the bad because I’ve worked extremely hard to have something most people only dream of, and their ignorance can’t take that away from me.

MICHELE GATON: I sometimes use the “she can’t be in charge” brush-off to my advantage. When someone comes in (without an appointment) and asks me for the owner, I just say, “sorry you just missed her.”

RUSSELL JACKSON: The difficulties that I have faced have been ridiculous. It’s considered lunacy to open a restaurant in normal circles. As a POC, it’s considered doomed from the start. The tenacity that I have demonstrated against all the odds I faced as a restaurateur and someone with a vision and style that isn’t built around the generic perception of what an African-American Chef is supposed to cook, has defined my career. I’m working with others to create real mentorship and standards across the industry to be a more inclusive place. Bottom line, if you love this, then nothing will stop you from doing it. Just make sure to find people in the field without agendas that can support you, guide you.

SIM WALKER: The difficulties of opening a restaurant are synonymous with the difficulties of being Black in America. How do you get financed? Which landlord is going to lease you a space? Then you are compared to every other Black venue that may not have done well or is not a restaurant. Do you know how many times they asked me if I’m going to have hookah at the permitting office? I couldn’t tell if they were shocked I’m not going to have it, disappointed, or trying to catch me in a lie. Because apparently, Black people don’t open restaurants without hookahs.

The good for me certainly outweighs the bad. My restaurants are positive representations of our culture. And that is most rewarding. They are venues for us to see, experience, meet, and enjoy like-minded people. People relax, let loose and celebrate milestone events. Bonds and memories are formed. And that to me is worth it all!

KIM PRINCE: Access to capital was my first challenge. I feel like being a Black woman was a factor as I reflect on so many of the denials I heard when I started in 2016 as a popup restaurant. One landlord told me I was “too pretty” to know anything about running a restaurant and I “surely had to be in charge of marketing and PR.” SMH. But, I didn’t let it stop me, and his space still stands vacant almost 2 years later. No bank loan, but exhausting my 401K and passing the plate among family members is how I launched. I have since learned of so many colleagues of similar starts in the business of ownership. We don’t have access to capital in the same manner, when others so easily get approved.

ADRIENNE CHEATHAM: I pitched a few potential investors years back (before deciding to start SundayBest as a pop-up), and each one turned me down with different reasons. One invested soon after in a guy with only a few years of restaurant experience and zero experience managing costs and operations, after telling me he wasn’t sure I had the know-how to run a restaurant (I had already opened and run 4 restaurants for other chefs). One potential investor asked me if I was married, dating, or would be having kids soon, and questioned if I was going to be as all-in as restaurant life requires.

KWINI REED: Being an entrepreneur alone gives you the freedom to guide your life. But being a Black entrepreneur is like a freedom I’ve never known. I am free to be ME, and that is the biggest reward. I would sit in meetings when working in corporate America, scared, hoping I don’t say or do the wrong thing. Being my own boss allows me to explore so many parts of myself I didn’t know existed before. There is tons of risk, but with much risk comes much reward.

MICHELE GATON: Being an aspiring Black entrepreneur is very difficult. It was such an uneasy time. Just being doubted, questioned, giggled at. I was so shy to even share my dream. There was way too much anxiety. My traditional Caribbean family didn’t jump up and say, “go for it!!” Though, they were just worried and of course came around and strongly have my back now. Deep within, I had to follow my path. Once I did open, once we were successful and thriving, the public perception towards me didn’t change much. I was bombarded with questions that I do not believe a non-Black female would have encountered. That “really?“ look still happens ALL the time. “How long have you been involved?” I built it with my partner from the beginning. “So, how did you get the capital?” It’s annoying and constant. I suppose we all have our strategies in managing all that.

KP SYKES: Shoutout to you for being steadfast in your beliefs and doing your thing!
The question about how you raised the capital is a never-ending one. It’s hilarious how often I will jokingly say, “I used to sell a lot of drugs, but now I’m legit,” and people will go ”ohhhhhh okay that makes sense.”

MICHELE GATON: I’m going to use that!!

KWINI REED: Or the whole reaction when I say family invested. Like, ‘what? You have family who can invest,’ lol. Or ‘you invested your own money? How were you able to do that?’ It’s crazy just how little they think of us sometimes.

KP SYKES: Oh man don’t even get me started on that one! It’s astounding how some people can find it completely unfathomable that Black people can actually have the desire, drive, skill set, and means to make a living off of our culinary heritage.