Celebration of Black-owned restaurants underway

Black Restaurant Week aims to highlight Black-owned restaurants in the city and suburbs through promotions and special deals. Restaurant owners hope to strengthen their businesses after a tough two years.

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Dishes offered by Cocoa Chili, a delivery, carryout and catering operation operating out the The Hatchery, 135 N. Kedzie Ave.

Dishes offered by Cocoa Chili, a delivery, carryout and catering operation operating out the The Hatchery, 135 N. Kedzie Ave.

Cocoa Chili Restaurant & Catering

Vanetta Roy’s restaurant didn’t take much of a hit at the beginning of the pandemic. The owner of Surf’s Up in South Shore thought she was in the clear when her business resumed takeout orders after just a week off. However, the lasting effects have proven more difficult to manage.

“Just being able to maintain my pricing for the community that I service and still profit is virtually at this point impossible,” Roy said.

Roy and other restaurant owners, hoping to strengthen their businesses after a tough two years, are taking part in Black Restaurant Week, which kicked off Sunday.

The event, actually two weeks of promotions and deals, will highlight Black-owned eateries in the city and suburbs. It runs through Feb. 20.

The event is intended to bring visibility and new customers to area Black-owned restaurants, said Lauran Smith, founder of the event and a digital marketing specialist.

“African American businesses that are specifically focused on food, beverage, dessert and all of those things deserve their own space — to be displayed and, you know, celebrated, talked about,” Smith said.

This year, 36 restaurants are participating — about 50 fewer businesses than last year. Smith said thee drop could be due to uncertainty in the restaurant industry and the lasting impacts of the pandemic.

With COVID-19 variants still in flux, supply chain issues, a labor shortage and no additional federal relief funds in sight, 2022 is already off to a rough start for some of those restaurants

“2021 [was] more difficult for me than 2020,” said Roy, whose restaurant has locations in South Shore, Bronzeville, Lombard and Oak Park.

Roy has seen the costs of essential products like catfish, potatoes and chicken wings all more than double — and in some cases triple.

“A case of potatoes used to cost nine bucks. It’s $34 now,” said Roy, who’s also a special education teacher for Chicago Public Schools.

Roy said she hopes Black Restaurant Week will provide a much-needed boost to business during tough winter months.

“Pricing is difficult for customers, especially in my area. In a community that I serve where ... a large portion are significantly below the poverty level, they had EBT or governmental assistance, I’m always having to explain to customers like, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry, the price has gone up, but this is the cost of food now.’“

Aisha Murff, owner of Haire’s Gulf Shrimp, 7448 S. Vincennes Ave., with her late husband, founder Finnie Haire.

Aisha Murff, owner of Haire’s Gulf Shrimp, 7448 S. Vincennes Ave., with her late husband, founder Finnie Haire.

Courtesy Aisha Haire/Haire’s Famous Gulf Shrimp

Aisha Murff, owner of Haire’s Gulf Shrimp, 7448 S. Vincennes Ave. has participated in the event for about four years. She appreciates that it focuses on small business — “startup, grassroots mom-and-pop” operations, she called them.

“We’ve been a staple in the community for 20 years, and being a part of Black Restaurant Week, I like the fact that ... it gets our name out there. And I want everybody to taste the delicious shrimp.”

During this year’s event, Haire’s is offering a $10 bag of “bomb shrimp.”

Like Roy, Murff prioritizes keeping costs affordable for those in her community.

“It’s something affordable that everybody [can afford], even though I’m in a predominantly low-income area,” she said. “But I’m a staple in the community, hiring single mothers and children down the street from high school. It’s something that people can afford … I get the senior citizens on a fixed income that, on the first of the month, this is their treat.”

“It’s going to be a tradition with us,” she said. “As long as Lauren keeps doing it, we will always participate.”

Niquenya Collins is the chef-owner of Cocoa Chili, which operates out of The Hatchery, a restaurant incubator at 135 N. Kedzie Ave. Her Afro-Caribbean-Soul restaurant offers delivery, carryout and catering.

Collins is offering $5 off purchases of $20 or more.

“I knew that this was a great opportunity to put a spotlight on us being a small, Black, woman-owned business and getting our name out there,” said Collins, who launched Cocoa Chili about a year ago.

Since the restaurant’s opening, she has given away more than 2,000 free meals through Love Fridges, which are fridges stocked with free food for anyone to take.

“Our social mission is really around being a resource, a community hub, not only just educating patients about resources that can improve their socioeconomic status, but also tackling food insecurity,” she said.

Pandemic issues have also taken a toll on her business. It’s been difficult to source high-quality chicken wings and keep business running smoothly, she said.

“We are definitely operating on a skeleton staff,” Collins said. “It’s really just myself and my son most of the time. We do have my mother who comes in and does dishes and organizing, and this upcoming week ... my brother will be coming in. … But it’s very difficult.”

A list of all participating businesses can be found on the event website, chiblackrestaurantweek.com.

“I just want them to grow, so they can sustain and continue to feed our families,” Smith said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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