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Chicago’s Black Restaurant Owners Search for Solutions as Protests Continue

Loss of business from the city’s road closures and curfew and the threat of property damage amid protests is posing a greater challenge for Black owners

A chef holding a round caramel cake.
Stefanie Hart of Brown Sugar Bakery
Brown Sugar Bakery [Official Photo]
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Crowds on Monday marched through Chicago as they continued to protest police brutality against African Americans and last week’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protesters walked through Chicago’s North Side neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Uptown. Longer term, the impacts of both COVID-19 reopening and added uncertainty over citywide shutdown has left restaurant owners, like Stephanie Hart, in a state of confusion. Hart, of Brown Sugar Bakery in Greater Grand Crossing, was supposed to resume baking on Tuesday, and had just brought back her bakery’s employees as she geared up for outdoor dining.

Lightfoot on Tuesday announced the city will allow restaurants to reopen on Wednesday and will close down six streets, including 75th Street on the South Side, to make room so restaurants could safely set up tables and chairs.

Hart’s bakery wasn’t damaged in the protest, but she’s worried about her community saying she didn’t get much sleep on Sunday night. On Monday morning, Hart says she was on the phone with other restaurant owners, trying to figure out how they could work together, to ensure windows are boarded up and that members of her community get the proper support. The mayor even made a visit on Monday afternoon to 75th Street. Real estate agents were organizing to get windows boarded up. 5 Loaves Eatery posted a photo of volunteers helping on Tuesday. Taking care of damage isn’t as simple as calling up an insurance company, Hart says.

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She’s been bothered by that social media narrative that damage from looting is negligible because insurance will pay for the costs of damages: “Do we have insurance?” Hart asks. “Because business interruption insurance didn’t have anything for us. I don’t know if riots are covered.”

Insurance companies have not been paying restaurants for having business interruption coverage during the pandemic. Restaurants seek that type of coverage for payouts when they can no longer operate their businesses.

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Posted by 5 Loaves Eatery on Monday, June 1, 2020

Blogger Aaron Oliver says the city cutting off access — via expressway ramp closure, CTA shutdowns, and the city’s curfew — will make it more difficult for potential customers to patronize the many restaurants owned by African Americans that reside on the South and West sides. Even though the city and state have released reopening guidelines as Chicago recovers from the pandemic, many restaurant owners tell Eater Chicago that city and state officials have failed them, leaving them to make difficult calls during this challenging time.

The obstacles for Chicago’s Black food scene are even greater, says Oliver, who’s been writing about Black-owned restaurants for four years at Seasoned & Blessed. That’s why he’s in April he assembled a list of Black-owned restaurants to uplift minority-owned businesses during the pandemic. They don’t receive the same resources as white-owned restaurants. Over the last few weeks, he’s encountered racism from those who question the need for such a list. Oliver describes those reactions as the “all restaurants matter” argument, which is derivative of the flawed “all lives matter” response, one that ignores systematic oppression to create false equivalencies.

Jeremy Joyce, who runs the website Black People Eats, has started a fundraiser for Black-owned restaurants that were looted, including Mabe’s Deli and Harold’s Chicken in Greater Grand Crossing, plus Kilwin’s and Caribbean Jerk Palace in South Loop. Joyce hopes to raised $20,000 and give each owner $500. If all goes well, he hopes to have the donations ready by June 19, which is Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates emancipation.

Over in Logan Square, restaurateur Esam Hani recruited a group of friends to stand watch over Red Star Liquors and his other businesses to ward off vandals, according to Block Club Chicago. The damage over by vandals on the North Side can have a ripple effect on marginalized populations. For example, South Side-born chef Lamar Moore (Vegas Chef Prize Fight) was working out of the Old Town Roots Handmade Pizza location to make meals for José Andrés’s charity, World Central Kitchen. Those meals were delivered for South and West side residents impacted by COVID-19. Moore has stopped making meals this week as he worries about his safety.

Hart was at a loss for words in terms of what the industry’s next step would be. One thing she won’t do is hide at home. She wants to be visible in her community, talking with other restaurant owners and cleaning up. Actions need to go beyond just swapping a social media profile photo with a black square.

“This is truly uncharted territory,” Hart says. “But I do know that I need to do something. I can do something,”

5 Loaves Eatery

405 East 75th Street, , IL 60619 (773) 891-2889 Visit Website

Brown Sugar Bakery

328 East 75th Street, , IL 60619 (773) 224-6262 Visit Website