By Anne Cruz
Anthony Edwards is a cofounder of EatOkra, an app that connects diners with Black-owned restaurants and brands. Jason Wallace is EatOkra’s director of business solutions. The app became wildly popular in the summer of 2020 as diners sought to support Black-owned businesses in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the world. EatOkra has been downloaded by more than 350,000 users to date, and it was named an App Store Award winner by Apple in December 2021.
ANTHONY EDWARDS: When my wife Janique and I moved to Brooklyn in 2016, we wanted to explore the area as our new home. At the time, we had to venture out to eat because of the lack of new cooking equipment in our home. We lived right above Crown Heights in Ocean Hill. We knew where the restaurants were, but we wanted to know about the ones that weren’t on the avenues that you typically walk down. If I take a left or a right turn, that changes my whole experience of a neighborhood.
How do you find Black-owned businesses? It’s such a difficult task. There are restaurants and small bodegas and cafes on those blocks that you might never know about. So my wife said, “Why don’t you create an app that we can use to explore Brooklyn?” Later it became exploring all of New York City, Atlanta, and other cities across the country. As soon as we introduced it to people, they said, “Oh my God, this is what I’ve been looking for!” That’s how EatOkra originally formed and started to take off.
My wife initially did the heavy research. We would learn about Black-owned restaurants through word of mouth or old articles written a couple of years before, then do our homework and try to see if they were still open. We would read the chats and social media posts and tweets by Black-owned restaurants. Now the app is really supported by the community. The community lets us know where new restaurants are popping up.
Jason had a podcast, Hidden Figures, at the time as a restaurant scientist. I was really impressed by the knowledge that he had. Through coincidence or the man upstairs, he reached out to us and really supported what we had going on. We both have similar goals. We want to make sure we have people on the team that know the industry and have built restaurants.
JASON WALLACE: I’m a chef by trade. I’m a consultant, I teach at the New York Restaurant School, and am an adjunct professor at City College and Hudson College. I was looking for someone to build me an app to grow my consulting business and help educate independent restaurant owners. I saw what they were doing at EatOrka. I did not want to duplicate processes, and they were already doing something that I felt that I could bring value to. I said, “Great. You’re in the tech space, and I’m in the restaurant industry.” Anthony and Janique bring me credibility on the tech side, I bring them credibility with my 35 years in restaurant and food service operations. It was a win-win situation.
EDWARDS: I’m just a normal layperson. I would go to restaurants not even really thinking about what their struggles or operations were really like. Now I’m talking with restaurant owners for the app and thinking about the back of the house. What are their bottlenecks? Is it money? Is it a technical piece that we can help with? Is it social media? From there, I try to think of how EatOkra can get more butts in their seats.
We saw big growth during COVID, and it was really about delivery. So our pivot in the app was to make sure that if a restaurant had a delivery partner, we listed it on the app and made it super simple for people to support them on Uber Eats or Grubhub by first navigating on EatOkra.
2020 was an interesting time because, up to that point, we would have 5 to 10 people on the app a day, or 2 people on the app at the same time. Suddenly, during the summer protests, it was like 100, 200, 300 people using the app at a time. We were having scaling issues because the hardware wasn’t fast enough. We instantly had to spend about $400 more a month just in software and hardware costs to support the demand of people signing up and searching and browsing through the app, and we had a backlog of about 8,000 restaurants that people had submitted to us. That’s when we knew that Janique and I could no longer add restaurants by ourselves. We needed a real team at that point.
There are people that have always wanted to support Black-owned restaurants but didn’t know how or where. EatOkra provides them with that. And then there are people who are just looking for different options. Maybe they have a favorite barbecue restaurant, or maybe they’re looking for a Haitian or a Jamaican restaurant. On some of the other apps anybody can tick a box and say “I’m Black-owned.” We take pride in making sure that we’re doing our homework and doing the research that you’re actually supporting a Black-owned business.
We have a whole team dedicated to following up with each restaurant. They speak to owners to make sure that they’re indeed Black-owned. We also double-reference that on other sites and lists that we trust.
WALLACE: A lot of these smaller, independent restaurants don’t get a lot of infrastructural support. When you speak about multi-unit chain operators, they have a corporate level of CEOs and COOs and CFOs and regional directors that help with the analytical process of taking daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual sales numbers, and dissecting that information down to the unit level. Independent Black-owned restaurants are struggling to have that analytical component because they’re tied up in the day-to-day operations of running the minutiae of their business.
When you start talking about pallets of raw ingredients, that’s a supply chain. Most multi-unit operators’ competitive advantage is their ability to buy in larger quantities, while independent restaurants are out there buying for themselves or even running to Restaurant Depot, FoodFest, or BJs. They could never buy at larger quantities to get the same kind of competitive advantage as a multi-unit operator.
EDWARDS: Real estate, too. What real estate can I get at a good price? And then grants and access to education and mentorship and financing. Marketing their company is another challenge. On top of running my business and working my business, I now have to, in this digital age, build a community on social media and be engaged there, too, which is a whole other job that many owners with less budgets have to do themselves. That’s tough, because in a lot of ways that’s going to be a person’s first touch with you.
WALLACE: It starts with the ability to have access to leases and high-volume, affordable locations. If you think about where Black-owned restaurants are located in Manhattan, there are very few Black-owned restaurants south of 110th Street. Why? From there it segues over into financing. There are only two ways of getting money—debt or equity. And then there’s the ability to execute. If you have the location, if you have the financing, what skillsets are you lacking, or where do you need support to make sure that your investors can get a strong return on their investment? Are we building talent throughout our organization? Most restaurants are over-managed and under-led, and we need to be able to educate them on the difference between leadership and management.
EDWARDS: I’ll speak to the front of the house, and I’ll let Jason speak to the back of the house. In the front of the house, our goal is to make sure we’re putting commerce through the app. We’re working on an ordering solution so that you can order food. We’re also thinking about how we can let people order spices and sauces and coffees and teas through the app as well through our marketplace. How can we let people know that Chef JJ Johnson is doing a class on how to cook rice, or who’s doing the next brunch party, or where they can find the next food festival? We want to tie in that holistic approach to EatOkra. We also want to do storytelling and content and really bring that full circle within the app. That’s all on the front side of the house.
WALLACE: We want to further build that community. It’s about providing these wraparound services for restauranteurs to get exposure to people like myself that can be that great partner, that CEO, and CFO, that COO, and think about things from the C-level point of view and be able to provide real data on how to build leadership within your organization, how to analyze the income statement and balance sheet, and how to build wealth. It’s all of the same things that you see multi-unit operators do. People have done very well financially in the restaurant industry. Our niche is Black restaurants. We want to make sure that they have the educational opportunities to learn how to build wealth and build legacy through restaurant operations.
What I have learned working with Anthony and Janique is that they are also leaders. They bring a skillset and insight that humbles me and educates me.
EDWARDS: It’s been great to really get a firsthand view into business owners and how they’re thinking. Jason has so much wisdom in that aspect. Jason and I were also in the military together. We both have that core value system that lets us work better together because we’ve gone through similar situations. But it’s been great working with Jason—he does things that I can’t do and vice versa, so it really works out well.
We get a lot of support and emails in response to the app. We had a soccer mom write to us to say that she uses it to support Black-owned businesses when they go city-to-city for her children’s games. Flight attendants, early on, said they use it when they land in different cities. We get a lot of love and support on the app. We have almost 2,000 reviews on Android and Apple. It’s all authentic work and original stuff. We’re so grateful for their support.
Being named one of the top apps of the year by Apple was a bit surreal for us. It wasn’t something I ever planned on. It feels amazing to know that other people support what we’ve been building for the last four years. Especially now, when it’s so important to provide connection. That’s what the name EatOkra is really about. Okra, the ingredient, is about connecting things and making things stick. It’s used in southern dishes and gumbo and soups to thicken them up. Black-owned businesses are just as important a part of the greater community as any other business. They hire within the community. There’s a love of the arts. At many restaurants you’ll see local artists and support for them. There’s a sense of culture, a sense of music. Black-owned restaurants can bring that out in the community and give it energy.