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Zagat Conversations: ‘For Once, It Felt Like Our Feelings Mattered’

Highlights from a three-day Slack chat among Black chefs, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, and journalists.

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.

This thread covers coping strategies for Black entrepreneurs during the pandemic, as well as the psychological and emotional repercussions of the protests and demonstrations around police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. The other threads in the collection cover media bias, Black representation in hospitality and entrepreneurship, and the future of hospitality.

Participants here are 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), Michele Gaton (owner, Extra Virgin, New York), Kim Prince (owner, Hotville Chicken, Los Angeles), and Adrienne Cheatham (chef, New York).

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: As a Black chef and/or restaurateur, what disparities were amplified for you during the COVID-19 pandemic?

RUSSELL JACKSON: We have tried our best to be of service through the pandemic. It’s become surprisingly apparent that the upper half of Manhattan does not have the food and service resources it truly deserves, nor the diversity and quality. There are a lot of capable, cool people doing good work here. But the fact that so many small high-quality places went out of business overnight is saddening. Health-oriented, quality-driven resources and availability of those resources simply don’t exist. The data doesn’t lie. And it fuels us to keep going and doing what we’re doing to help, advocate, and educate our community. Actions, not just words.

KWINI REED: For Poppy + Rose, we saw the homeless situation get worse. We saw people moving out of DTLA in packs. We saw grocery stores become overcrowded and scarcely stocked. Being a restaurant, our access to fresh produce and goods made it easy for us to give that access to our community. There is a serious issue with our supply chain, and the pandemic made that prevalent. It was also surprising the lack of knowledge most restaurateurs have in running successful and profitable businesses.

So to fill both of those needs, we started feeding our homeless and first responders. In the beginning of the pandemic, we pivoted and became a pantry for our community. We also started a nonprofit, the U “n” I Coalition, to teach underprivileged youth—people who need a second chance, who everyone has forgotten about—the chance to be taught by professionals in the restaurant industry on how to run and operate a restaurant successfully. Black restaurants and Black businesses alike closed at a record high during the pandemic, and we need to close the gap by giving our people access to the knowledge and experiences we’ve acquired.

RUSSELL JACKSON: CNBC put out a report—the numbers for Black businesses that closed compared to white businesses is astronomical. And that SBA funding, EIDL, PPP etc was below 10-12%. Compared to 70% to whites. (if I remember correctly). Honestly, who knows an African-American restaurant that got SBA support to open?

KIM PRINCE: The COVID pandemic put a spotlight on communities of color and the very apparent lack of resources meeting the real needs of our community. Hotville Chicken was called upon to feed seniors, homeless teens, and school-aged youth. It was a blessing because sales had dropped so very low mid-March 2020. Requests for 300+ meals x 3 to 5 days per week was exactly what we needed to not only keep our doors open, but it was a boost to the morale of our staff. Meeting the needs of others brought our young team closer.

We saw how hard COVID affected our young staffers. Depression is real, and seeing our team battle with the ever-changing tides of pandemic rules—social distancing, virtual learning, curfews, BLM protests—right on our own block was grueling. It was challenging to keep them focused. But I preached to them daily about the importance of why we had to remain open. It was so much deeper than selling hot chicken. Their lives depended on having a stable place to feel safe.

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: How were you impacted by last year’s racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, etc.? Did this trauma impact your capacity to work in any way?

RUSSELL JACKSON: I’m still dealing with it emotionally and mentally. It’s been a reckoning for me personally. The article on Zagat Stories was my first interview after I had taken a week to get my thoughts together and put my statement on Medium. To say the least I was rather raw then. I’m still not right yet. But I can never allow myself to be blinded, shamed, or tamped down in my feelings and willingness to make change in my life, my families’, and my communities’. It’s certainly made me embrace the activism gene in my character (my father was a bit of an activist and leader in the 70’s).

KWINI REED: I am exhausted. Dealing with all of the things which come with being Black, we are also parents, children, bosses, and responsible for many people. At times, I wanted to retreat and bury my head in the sand. But being at the forefront of pandemic (an essential worker) along with all of the worries of our workers and communities on our back, I couldn’t give up. We had to succeed to make sure everyone else is okay and intact.

I feel it was unfair for our government to put all of that pressure and responsibilities on us. And because we have been in survival mode—constantly having to compete for attention, grants, be better than everyone else just to survive—I haven’t even been able to unpack everything that has happened. Funny enough, all this trauma also allowed me to be bold, and speak exactly how I feel/felt about it all. We were given platforms to speak out truths and to frankly TELL IT HOW IT IS. Because I was able to tell the truth this time about what was really going on, and to have a platform and people who wanted to hear—it did make it easier to deal with all the injustice and hurt we were feeling. It was like finally I can tell the truth and not care whose feelings I hurt. For once, it felt like our feelings mattered and people were listening.

MICHELE GATON: The Black Lives Matter movement roared throughout the city during the summer, combined with COVID, which was also raging. Extra Virgin is located in the West Village. There was so much tension in the air. At work, we’d set up a stand for takeout, delivery, and to-go, which for the first time included alcohol. People would come and order food and drinks. And then have to wait for their orders. The number of 311 calls from our neighbors concerned about crowds put us in the top 10 at the 6th Precinct. And they have to show up for every call.

We got to know that precinct well. Some were stern and said to move all the people, threatened summonses and suggested we shut down. Others were annoyed that they had to keep coming. Some were more understanding of the predicament. We even hired security because it’s really hard to tell NYers to move when they’re not on your property. And of course, we put out all the signs and distance markers and face masks etc. But it was constant. The cops kept coming.

My partner is Italian American. They would do most of the talking. They understood better from him what we were trying to do. Not shut down! The neighbors were emboldened by the police presence. One night, one of the cops was asking me some questions, and one woman shouted, “She ruined this neighborhood.” And another, “I pay more property taxes than her.” It was bizarre. And exhausting. Then the protesters would march by, and the police followed. So, yeah, it impacted my capacity to work. Dealing with so much anger and sadness and fear and unpredictability all mixed together is rough. Especially when you’re in the business of making people happy. It’s my neighbors who keep Extra Virgin thriving. We aim to be that neighborhood spot in good times and crazy ones.

MIKE JORDAN: I’m amazed at our resilience, and also aware that we’re all surviving in traumatic times. I feel emotionally hungover. And it was really tough at times to work through my internal frustration at white privilege. My tolerance for it has certainly gone down, yet my willingness to have meaningful and productive conversations continues to rise. It was also challenging to have little to no break in 2020 because it was very important to be present and work when your job is to communicate information.

KP SYKES: Amidst the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubrey, there were palpable tensions in the neighborhood. My bar is a few blocks away from the Barclays center, which was basically the meeting point for many weeks for protesters. So naturally we got a heavy flow of foot traffic. Park Slope (where The Armory is located) is a pretty affluent neighborhood, with hubs of “the hood” (where I grew up and my Granny still lives), so we get a mixed crowd during normal times.

However, during the protests, the customer base was more polarizing than it was diverse. I had people of color coming by the establishment during protests saying that I was a sellout for having a “fancy” cocktail bar, and some that said it’s messed up that “my owners” have me working during a pandemic, not realizing I am one of the owners, and my partner, Oscar Diaz del Castillo (who is Colombian) and I told our staff to stay home. We also created a food pantry at the bar for the neighborhood and staff were welcome to gather items from the pantry. So I had people of color who were extremely grateful, and others that couldn’t see the bigger picture of what our bar was looking to achieve.

Then I had the more well-to-do neighbors of a fairer shade making remarks. Mostly along the lines of, “Well if George Floyd would have listened to the police he would still be alive,” or saying they feel my pain. And the countless times someone had one too many “Unemployment Checks” (one of our COVID era drink creations) and kept asking how to be an ally.

I actually remember the moment I finally had enough and had to walk out of my own establishment for fear of my temper getting the better of me. There was a gentleman who at first seemed pretty cool, and maybe he actually is. But the protest conversation came up, and he asked, “Who is this Jim Crow guy anyway, and what’s his deal? What is he famous for?” I just couldn’t take the willful ignorance anymore, so I straight up walked out and had my partner close. The burden of Blackness is enough of a job without having the added task of educating people who only began to care because our plight became too big to be ignored.

KIM PRINCE: My restaurant is in the heart of the Crenshaw district where the residual effect of the LA Riots of 1992 are still visible. When the protesters marched right past Hotville Chicken, people of all walks of life stopped, placed an order, and continued peacefully protesting with chicken wings in the air. The vibe in the neighborhood was not of nervous tension, even though 6 pm curfews were in place. LAPD and the community walked in harmony in this part of town. We became a rest stop for weary officers, and we fed them. I refused to board up and post Black Owned or post BLM in the window. The majority of the neighborhood and our patrons remembered how ugly the 1992 riots were, and the hum on the streets was saying, “We’re not burning down our own neighborhood this time.”

We participated in a virtual bake sale, called “Pies 4 Justice,” where proceeds went to the BLM LA Chapter. The resounding show of support was something we feel brought more diversity to the Crenshaw area.

I will add a quick experience of late. About a week ago, we got a phone call threatening to harm us. A male with a forced Southern accent used the N-word repeatedly. We later learned another Black-owned restaurant the area had received a similar call the same hour. So, we’ve alerted the authorities and advised our staff to be alert and ever-vigilant.

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: How are you all dealing with your mental health during this time?

MIKE JORDAN: I’m staying close to my family. I have two beautiful ladies here with me—my wife and daughter—for whom I love to cook and provide cheat meals regularly, as I’m also a stickler for eating as healthy at home as possible. But since we’ve been in-house mostly due to COVID, I’ve allowed a lot more hot chocolate for my 9-year-old shorty, and I keep decent wine for wifey. Playing the saxophone when I have time. Taking random late-night drives when I need to be alone and clear my head. And you know, just waiting on cannabis legalization… 🙂

KWINI REED: I honestly had to get creative. My go-to’s like spas, vacations, retreats, hanging out with friends, were closed or we just couldn’t do it. So it led me to … working out (ugh) and eating healthy (blah) along with daily meditation and creating tangible goals. Spending time with #souchefmackenzie our daughter is also a centering method for me as well. She adds perspective and hope. I also picked up “night caps”—a shot of tequila makes everything better lol.

CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANI: How old is your daughter? How has parenting been during the pandemic?

KWINI REED: She’s 2.5. So she has no idea what is going on, and I don’t have to deal with the whole virtual learning (THANK GOD! TOO MUCH). She’s a bundle of joy, and I won’t lie … having to work more at home, be a mom, wife, and business owner during the pandemic has been taxing and stressful. But I have been able to watch her grow. I haven’t missed those firsts I would have if the pandemic hadn’t happened.

But I do often worry what I tell her later about what happened during this pandemic. What happened at the Capitol? What really happened to George Floyd? Why hasn’t there been justice for Breonna? Why was it okay for some people to get relief during the pandemic, and others were left to starve? Why did it take so long for rent relief? How can a country we love so much disregard so many people and call themselves patriots? The sad part is I don’t have any answers to these questions. And my fear is when she’s 10 … I still won’t.

KP SYKES: I don’t have children yet, but I have always wanted to be a dad, when the time is right, for as far as my post-pubescent self can remember lol. But to be completely honest, this past year has kinda shaken up my thought process a bit. I’ve never had a fear of raising my children in this country, or even in this world for that matter. But seeing the way certain people have been treated during one of the worst moments in our lifetimes has me thinking twice.

ADRIENNE CHEATHAM: In the beginning, I was honestly drinking more than normal. Instead of a glass of wine a few nights a week, it was a bourbon + wine (usually preceded by Champagne) most nights. It took me a few months to realize how the mental stress was affecting me. My father grew up in Mississippi during the time of Emmett Till’s murder, assassination of Medgar Evers, and the Freedom Riders, so the stories I heard growing up from him and my uncles already weighed terribly heavy on my heart. Starting with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, it was so hard (something similar had happened to my dad and Uncle Harvey as kids, but they were lucky).

It was such a feeling of alternate reality, and I guess I was trying to balance out the heightened adrenaline during those first few months. Now I’m back to my normal pre-COVID schedule after taking a couple months off to reset. I’m keeping my mind right by being more aware of how I internalize things, and not taking on too much (which I used to do, and it stressed me the hell out). I’m working on a cookbook which takes up an immense amount of time, so that definitely helps me stay focused and sane.

MICHELE GATON: I’m a recently single mom with 2 boys, 8 & 13. We lived in the West Village their whole lives and much of mine. We moved to Harlem after the divorce. They go to different schools, have completely different schedules. One is now finally in school, while the other is home, i.e. can’t leave the house till 3pm. We all had COVID in March. So, running the restaurant and dealing with all the ups and downs, homeschooling while trying to place orders, do schedules, enter payroll. Being at the restaurant physically to work with the staff and be present, and not wear sweats:). I tried to have zoom therapy, but then the zooms just started overlapping. Just riding the wave and trying to stay on my board! Man I wish I was at the beach.