Margo Newkirk & Kiera Gardner, partners and co-founders of Blend of Soul, at the Apex Farmers Market. Photo by Brett Villena.

Black Restaurant Week | Through Sunday, May 7

“A lot of times people pigeonhole Black cuisine into being just corn bread, collard greens, or stuff that is not healthy per se,” Queen Precious-Jewel Zabriskie says. “It is so much more than that.”

Zabriskie, who owns Indulge Catering, LLC, with her wife, Jacqueline “Jay” White, in Franklinton is one of 51 business owners participating in Black Restaurant Week Carolinas, an initiative that aims to celebrate and boost traffic for local Black-owned food and beverage purveyors and combat misperceptions about what constitutes Black cuisine.

In the weeklong event, participating businesses are promoted on the Black Restaurant Week website and social channels and receive marketing resources.

Falayn Ferrell helped spearhead the launch of the week in 2016 in Houston.

“When we first started saying ‘Black Restaurant Week,’ everyone assumed that we were just offering soul food everywhere,” Ferrell says. “It leads to that conversation of how diverse the Black culinary community really is.”

The initiative also aims to raise awareness around the many “mainstream” dishes that have roots in Black culture.

“Oxtails started in the heart of the South,” Ferrell says. “Now we have a joke— ‘bring back down the price of oxtails’—because they’ve become so popular. Shrimp and grits started in the Lowcountry area, and now they’re on every menu in every state,” she adds. “Chicken and waffles started in Harlem. Now they’re on every menu.”

Indulge Catering is hosting a pop-up at its commercial kitchen in Franklinton with to-go menu items including halal lamb burgers with tzatziki, barbecue jackfruit on pretzel buns, Italian chicken Parm burgers, and beef “BullCity Burgers” topped with pimento cheese and turkey bacon. The pop-up menu, like the dishes Indulge Catering offers at routine event gigs, is a showcase of the cuisines Zabriskie and White ate while growing up in the Bronx and Durham, respectively. Some items also pay homage to Zabriskie’s Muslim and Gullah/Geechee backgrounds.

Locally, participating businesses include the Chicken Hut, Royal Cheesecake, Bon Fritay Food Truck, and Blu Tee Spoon.

Durham cold-pressed juice business Blend of Soul, which operates as an online store, is featuring an acai “soul bowl” as a Black Restaurant Week special.

Kiera Gardner, who owns Blend of Soul with her wife, Margo Newkirk, says Black cuisine is distinguished by flavor depths that translate from generations of lived experiences.

“We are able to take disparity, and take heartache, and take passion and love and just clump it up all in one pot, like some gumbo, and excel and really push past the barriers that we experience every day waking up in the morning,” Gardner says. “That’s what makes Black-owned businesses stand out. That’s what makes us unique and beautiful.”

Zabriskie agrees.

“I’m not classically trained,” Zabriskie says. “These are all home-taught recipes. When I cook, I listen to what my ancestors say.”

In summer and winter months, when business is sluggish, restaurant owners in more than 100 U.S. locales are solicited to participate in promotional “restaurant week” schemes, which began in New York City in the early 1990s.

With a few exceptions, like Black Restaurant Week, the initiatives take the same format: for a defined week, participating restaurants offer a two- or three-course prix fixe menu to customers at a set discounted rate.

Some initiatives, like Asheville Restaurant Week, are staged by city staff. Many, though—like our own Triangle Restaurant Week—are hosted by third parties who offer to promote participating restaurants on their websites and social channels.

Across the board, the restaurant weeks have been touted as a way for small businesses to generate additional revenue and for diners to discover new places to eat.

But for many industry entrepreneurs, restaurant weeks pose barriers to entry.

The prix fixe menu requirement doesn’t mesh well with food trucks, kitchenless bars, or casual eateries with cafeteria-style or counter service. Food businesses that operate out of incubator kitchens, like Indulge Catering, or that specialize in a specific product, like Blend of Soul, are wholly disqualified from participating. And when restaurant weeks are hosted by third parties, there’s almost always a processing fee involved.

Triangle Restaurant Week, which requires a $350 fee, does provide participants with a $250 gift card for wholesale supplier US Foods. But for owners like Gardner, who sources produce from Black farmers, or Zabriskie, who cooks with halal meat, that gift card may not be as compensatory as it appears.

According to Ferrell, Black Restaurant Week’s 2016 launch in Houston was sparked by the noticeable lack of Black representation in the city’s conventional restaurant week.

When Black Restaurant Week came on the scene with a more inclusive alternative—a 100 percent free promotional campaign for participating businesses, with no requirement for participants to serve prix fixe meal specials—it was met with enthusiasm.

It was particularly important, Ferrell says, that the initiative be accessible to businesses without brick-and-mortar locations.

“A lot of businesses in [the Black community] are started out of passion, as well as survival,” Ferrell says. “The passion of ‘This is my grandmother’s recipe, I want to sell it’ and the survival of—especially now after COVID, you’ll hear a lot of people say, ‘I was laid off from my job and so I focused my attention on this [personal venture]. Which is great. But a lot of the time, they might not be starting out with the space or the resources for marketing.”

In the Carolinas, this year’s Black Restaurant Week runs from April 28 to May 7. Gardner believes the event is sowing the seeds for long-term change.

“It’s so important to make sure that you’re not only supporting these businesses during Black Restaurant Week but that you’re extending it beyond and saying, ‘What else can I do?’” Gardner says. “Really ask that question: What can I do to be better in my community? What can I do to align myself with these Black-owned businesses?” 

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