In response to a Minneapolis police officer murdering George Floyd and the worldwide protests that followed, people across the U.S. rallied with intense fervor to support Black-owned businesses like Jerk Shack, one of Seattle’s few Caribbean restaurants.
Guided by articles, dedicated websites, and crowd-sourced spreadsheets that listed local Black-owned businesses, many Americans consciously voted with their dollars to support Black Lives Matter, in some cases overwhelming small mom-and-pop businesses ill-equipped to handle the huge volume or orders.
But three months later, Americans’ eagerness to deliberately support Black-owned restaurants seems to have dissipated. As fickle social media users latched onto the next trending topics, so too did their focus on supporting Black restaurant owners and chefs.
But three months later, Americans’ eagerness to deliberately support Black-owned restaurants seems to have dissipated.
At the national level, Google Trends indicates that from May 31 through June 6, searches for the phrase “support black business” reached an all-time high. However, by June 19 or Juneteenth, the holiday marking all Black Americans’ emancipation from slavery, search frequency returned to more normal levels.
Similarly, Seattle Trinidadian restaurant Pam’s Kitchen, which Trinidad and Tobago-born Pam Jacob opened in 2006, experienced an intense flood of support during the first part of June. Met with long lines of customers outside her restaurant, Jacob sold out of food every night and, unlike the national trend, noticed only a slight slowdown in the weeks after. It certainly helps that Jacob is no stranger to fame; she makes appearances in several episodes of Guy Fieri’s hit series Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.
“We couldn’t cook fast enough,” Jacob said of efforts to support Black Lives Matter through the #SupportBlackBusiness dining movement. “People came from everywhere because everyone was posting me up … 2020 turned out to be the best year.”
A woman who heard Jacob’s story even paid for Pam’s Kitchen to appear on a billboard in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.
“I think Black-owned restaurants are doing good,” Jacob said. “I am so grateful I could keep all my workers doing to-go only 25 hours a week.”
On the other hand, the initial high volume of orders received by Jerk Shack slowed in time with slumping interest in the Black Lives Matter protests. After the first week of June, Jerk Shack owner Trey Lamont reports that his business shrank back to his smaller, pre-protests base of loyal customers.
Lamont never expected the surge to last and, with Americans reporting record high cases of anxiety and depression, empathizes with those dealing with more pressing matters. Still, the whiplash was notable given that this was his first summer owning Jerk Shack outright.
The significance of gaining sole ownership in a time when few Black-owned restaurants remain in Seattle’s downtown was and is still not lost on Lamont. As reported by the Seattle Times, a 2016 Census Bureau survey found that despite Black and Latinx people comprising 15% of Seattle’s population, combined, they owned only 5% of the approximately 76,000 businesses in the Seattle metro area.
Coming into summer, the busiest season of the year, Lamont had big plans and was eager to infuse the restaurant with nods to his Jamaican-Caribbean heritage. Among those new offerings: live Afro-Caribbean and jazz music performances and brunch service, both of which Lamont was forced to canceled due to COVID-19.
In the context of diminished national interest in supporting Black-owned businesses, the inconsistencies between Jacob’s and Lamont’s experiences challenge existing expectations of what spending campaigns accomplish. Evaluating the effectiveness of performative support for Black Lives Matter is not as simple as assessing restaurant sales, but, to Lamont, the ongoing occurrences of Black Lives Matter protests would indicate that a reality check may be necessary.
Three months after May and June mass protests against police violence, protests arose again in response to Kenosha, WI police officers shooting James Blake, an unarmed Black man, in the back seven times as he walked to his car. Meanwhile, activists continue to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, an EMT whose apartment Louisville, KY police officers forced their way into before shooting her eight times.
And locally, progress towards Black Lives Matter King County’s list of demands, which includes calls to increase funding for culturally relevant community wellness programs and establish a capital gains tax to end the school to prison pipeline, seems to have stalled. In late August, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan vetoed an effort by the city council to cut millions of dollars from the Seattle Police Department’s budget and increase spending on community programs by $14 million.
Regardless of whether the social movement’s effectiveness is measured by budget reform or by sustained changes to public opinion, recent events indicate that #SupportBlackBusiness did not create the lasting change its proponents envisioned.
But despite the benefits of #SupportBlackBusiness fizzling out quickly for many Black businesses, Lamont believes that restaurants and diners’ spending habits can play a role in pioneering a more equitable future.
Lamont believes that restaurants and diners’ spending habits can play a role in pioneering a more equitable future.
In contrast to the reactive tendencies of current Black Lives Matter protests and the accompanying short-lived campaigns to support Black businesses, Lamont initiated the Jerk Shack Seattle Land Fund. Modeled after Dick’s Drive-In’s holistic employee benefits program, Lamont hopes it empowers Black communities with a greater sense of economic freedom in the long-term.
With support from crowdfunded donations, Lamont plans to buy land within existing Black and Brown communities, build fast-casual versions of Jerk Shack that provide well-paying jobs to community members there, and redistribute ownership of as much as 49% of the land to longtime community members eager to start their own businesses. Like Dick’s Drive In’s, Lamont hopes to offer college tuition scholarships, child care assistance, and free health insurance to future employees.
As of early September, nearly 1,000 donors raised $78,000 towards Lamont’s lofty total goal of $700,000. Lamont may have a long wait ahead of him before he reaches his fundraising goal but remains committed to the bigger picture.
“There will be another murder, there will be more marches,” Lamont said. “But what are we doing to make sustainable change? You have to have folks doing both: marching and investing in lasting economic opportunity.”
Last updated 9/15/20
Editor’s note: Since this article’s publication, the city of Louisville reached a several million dollar settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family to settle their wrongful-death lawsuit. The city also promises to enact new police reforms.
Read more Eraced Food: