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Black Lives Matter brings a reckoning on race to Philly restaurants

“The restaurant industry is built on white supremacy ... off the backs of blacks and immigrants. With the tipping system built in, restaurant workers are some of the poorest people in the country."

Thousands marched past restaurants along South Street in Philadelphia on June 2 to protest the death of George Floyd in custody of Minneapolis police.
Thousands marched past restaurants along South Street in Philadelphia on June 2 to protest the death of George Floyd in custody of Minneapolis police.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

When chef Scott Schroeder took to Instagram a couple weeks ago, it was to post about Black Lives Matter, and the protest movement that has swept across the country and city in response to the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky.

"Thank you Black America. You had me at hip-hop and fried chicken,” wrote the co-owner of the acclaimed Queen Village cafe, Hungry Pigeon. He also wrote that, while he admired those standing up to the police, “Looting, rioting, and setting things on fire is dumb.”

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Staff who published an open letter online in response saw the post as not only ham-handed, but outright harmful — and indicative of larger problems at the restaurant. And neighbors went so far as to post a letter on the window of the restaurant, calling Schroeder racist.

“His effort to delegitimize direct action in the wake of yet another police murder of a black man are inappropriate and smack of white chauvinism," they wrote. "The post is made even more insidious given that Scott turns a profit selling fried chicken to his wealthy patrons in Queens Village, all while reducing the black community to a mere stereotype.”

On Monday, after issuing an apologetic statement, Schroeder said he was leaving the business.

He is one of many Philly restaurateurs and chefs, in a white-male-dominated industry, suddenly finding themselves compelled to speak up and take a side. Many have put out social media statements, pledged donations, or decorated their plywood-covered facades with messages of support. But some, unused to grappling with cultural competency, are flailing in those attempts, resulting in criticism from staff and customers — and a larger reckoning with internal issues of racism that some hope could lead to as profound a shift as the Me Too movement had in changing kitchen culture.

“The restaurant industry is built on white supremacy … off the backs of blacks and immigrants. With the tipping system built in, restaurant workers are some of the poorest people in the country,” said chef Kurt Evans, who is about to kick off a series of fund-raisers to open Down North, a pizza restaurant that will employ formerly incarcerated people — ready access to start-up capital being yet another barrier for black restaurateurs. “I think a lot of people are overcompensating and not actually doing the work. Blacking out your Instagram or doing certain things, you’re really not actually doing the work to address the structure of white supremacy.”

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He notes that the region’s James Beard awards have infrequently honored black chefs. The Inquirer’s own top-25 restaurant list last year included a single black-owned restaurant: Friday Saturday Sunday. A study by Restaurant Opportunities Center United in 2015 described a “Jim Crow”-type segregation in the industry, with white workers filling three-quarters of fine-dining positions, and people of color relegated to the lowest-paying job sectors. And those who’ve worked in the industry describe being passed over for jobs and promotions, discriminated against by potential landlords and investors, and ignored by largely white food writers. When they are recognized, as Philly-bred Top Chef finalist Chris Scott recently lamented, it’s too often for reductive stereotypes — like, say, fried chicken.

Elijah Milligan, who started the dinner series Cooking for the Culture to promote black chefs, said he’s experienced discrimination and disrespect in the workplace. But, he added, he’s hopeful for change in an industry that has already begun to rethink how it treats women and undocumented workers.

“Some of the restaurateurs and chefs I’ve seen starting to recognize that these are things going on inside as well as outside the restaurant doors," he said. “I’ve seen the Me Too movement change how people operate in restaurants. Maybe we’ll see the same thing in Black Lives Matter.”

Yet, he acknowledged that the first draft has repeatedly been fumbled.

“It’s a hard conversation," he said, "especially when you don’t really know the right words to say.”

From the owners of the lauded vegan restaurant Vedge, an Instagram post framed as an affirmation of company values failed to pledge action or even self-reflection on racial issues. It drew responses like “ummm you forgot #blacklivesmatter in the midst of whatever the hell this is supposed to be," and sharp criticism from staff, shared publicly and privately. Owners Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau did not respond to a text, phone call, or email, but published posts clarifying their support for the movement and pledging to donate of all of the week’s sales to the nonprofit Front Line Dads.

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Di Bruno Brothers, which had offered free meals to police serving during the protests, rescinded the offer under pressure from staff who spoke out there, too, and threatened to strike. Amid the backlash, the fourth-generation cheesemonger and gourmet shop made a statement pledging to take on companywide racial-injustice training, donate to Black Lives Matter and other organizations, “We recognize that our ability to rely on the assistance of the police to protect our store in times of unrest is a privilege that many in our city and country have not been afforded,” the letter said.

And the owners of Kensington brewery Evil Genius, following a public decision to fire a brewer who had advocated violent antipolice protest tactics, found themselves backpedaling on Instagram to clarify that, while they are against violence, they do stand in support of Black Lives Matter. One commenter summed up a common sentiment: “saying Black Lives Matter now is way too late, and most of us aren’t stupid enough to buy it.”

But the change that’s needed will require a long-term commitment, said Ben Bynum, who with his brother Robert runs one of the city’s most prominent black-owned restaurant groups, which opened in 1990 with the iconic jazz club Zanzibar Blue and now includes jazz-themed restaurants South and Relish and blues club Warmdaddy’s.

“I feel like this time needs to be a wake-up call,” said Bynum, adding that, last week, he had to board up the windows at South after 28 panes were smashed. “But do I feel angered by what took place? No, I don’t. Because this a necessary part of the process. How many times do innocent people have to be killed before people realize that this is a product of discrimination and racism?”

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He sees that at every level in the industry, from the challenges in getting hired or advancing in the kitchen, to the outward perceptions that the public and the press can place on black restaurateurs.

“There is a certain negative connotation when you’re classified as a black restaurant — and that is never what our intention was to be. The reason we serve soul food and Southern food is because it’s a part of our culture and who we are,” Bynum said.

This same conversation is echoing nationally: On Monday, the editor of Bon Appétit, Adam Rapoport, stepped down after a racially offensive photo emerged, which amplified allegations about pay inequities and discriminatory treatment of workers. And restaurants from Chicago to South Carolina have drawn outrage and protests for vocal opposition to the movement.

For chef-activists like Milligan and Evans, the way forward is less about statements on social media than what restaurants actually do.

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After food-distribution sites and grocery stores were closed last week in response to protests and looting, they helped launch a food-distribution project called Everybody Eats. Other restaurants all over the city quickly offered to help, collecting food donations and adding their own contributions.

That is welcome start, said Blew Kind, the owner of the Kensington cafe Franny Lou’s Porch, where the menu includes “Anti-Oppression” turkey sandwiches and where Kind recently boarded up her windows, she said, because she “was worried about people being allowed to loot black businesses, because the police are letting it happen.”

She’s trying to step up, too: Right now, she and staff are developing a community safety plan, with alternatives to calling the police when problems arise in or around the cafe. One of Philadelphia’s last moments of racial turmoil, after all, came when police were called on two black men at a Starbucks.

“We can help each other. We’re not helpless," Kind said. "This person yelling at my business is probably someone’s son who lives a block away.”

To Kind, all restaurants that are posting “Black Lives Matter” also need to look closely at how they do business, how they hire, treat and compensate staff, and how they handle security.

Her bottom line: “Train your staff and yourself on how to dismantle this racism that is definitely in your business.”

Staff writer Mike Klein contributed to this article.