Following George Floyd’s murder in May, protests against police brutality and systemic racism erupted across the country. Restaurants nationwide quickly mobilized. They launched fundraisers, and donated profits to organizations fighting for racial equality. They nourished protestors with food and supplies, and offered spaces to aspiring Black chefs, bartenders, and sommeliers. Bakers also made pies for virtual bake sales, while brewers brewed beer. And by no means is this an exhaustive list.
As a BIPOC food editor, it was refreshing to see restaurants support these causes - especially at a time when many were closing their dining rooms, and struggling to make it on takeout and delivery alone. But I often questioned how genuine some of these rise-to-the-occasion efforts were. Unlike COVID, systemic racism is not new. Injustice didn’t just suddenly appear with the death of George Floyd. I took issue with the performative activism I was seeing.
Then came the next reckoning - a barrage of exposés, tweets, and anonymous Instagram accounts detailing the racism, sexism, and other horrific behaviors within the restaurant world. There was a kind of hypocrisy to it all: chefs and owners publicly standing in solidarity with Black lives and marginalized communities, but failing to demonstrate it within the very restaurants they ran.
That’s why when I look back on this year, and the positive changes made, it’s more important than ever to highlight chefs, owners, and restaurant workers who were putting in the work and using their platforms for good long before the George Floyd protests.
People like Pinky Cole, the owner of Slutty Vegan in Atlanta. “I just want to encourage and implore business owners and people who have been protesting to take an action far beyond holding up a sign,” she told Zagat Stories back in June. “I hope people take long-term action where we can really make change, so that we can finally see equality amongst all people.”
Cole is an inspirational model for what it means to really engage with your community and give back. Her foundation continues to create opportunities for entrepreneurs of color through education and training. This year, she distributed meals to local first responders, and paid rent to Black-owned businesses struggling through COVID. After the murder of Rayshard Brooks, Cole partnered with Clark Atlanta University to provide college scholarships to Brooks’ children along with life insurance for the entire family. She also partnered with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice to employ 30 juvenile offenders and offer $10,000 annually in scholarships.
Like Pinky Cole, there are many other leaders within the restaurant industry who are pushing for more inclusive, equitable spaces - and fighting for racial and social justice - through new restaurants, pop-ups, organizations, and education opportunities.
Just in the Bay Area, where I live, chef Rashad Armstead secured a storefront in Oakland this year for the Black Food Collective, his company that invests in Black-owned food businesses and features them in rotating pop-ups. San Francisco chef Selasie Dotse also launched a pop-up called a Hard Pill to Swallow, which focuses on collaborations with Black chefs. When the pandemic hit, Oakland caviste Jirka Jireh started free online wine classes for BIPOC industry professionals with the aim of diversifying the notoriously white wine world. And after deadly California fires broke out this summer, birria taco truck La Santa Torta drove to the Central Coast to feed undocumented farmworkers, many of whom were still out in the fields despite the smoke.
I’m heartened by these individuals who are starting conversations, and challenging the systemic imbalances within the restaurant industry, and hope others look to them for inspiration. Based on conversations I’ve had with owners and chefs, I understand that social justice in the restaurant industry is part of a larger, tangled web that will require sweeping changes to things like business, labor, and compensation models.
But as the pandemic continues to force restaurants to imagine a different future, there is an opportunity - and a need - to seek more sustainable solutions for how restaurants can invest in people, both within and beyond the industry. So what will happen when the social media momentum fades? Will the restaurants who showed up and vowed to make changes today, show up tomorrow? What does real change even look like? One thing I know for certain: whatever the future holds, black squares on Instagram will no longer cut it.