The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the restaurant industry, with minority-owned businesses keenly impacted. Many Chicago diners focused on aiding North Side restaurants, which benefited large restaurant groups with deep marketing budgets. Whether international or not, that left out many Black and Latinx businesses on the city’s West and South sides. When emergency relief did arrive, it felt like too little too late for many.
In the wake of the pandemic and the racial reckoning that came from George Floyd’s murder, new programs emerged to help close the gap by providing resources and mentorship to Black-owned businesses. Three years later, efforts backed by big companies continue to offer vital support to startups that lack generational advantages even as coordinated legal attacks on corporate diversity programs have begun.
Chef Edward Lee of Louisville’s 610 Magnolia and the restaurant’s general manager and wine director Lindsey Ofcacek received national recognition for founding the LEE Initiative in 2018 to work to improve diversity and equality in the restaurant industry. During the pandemic, they partnered with Heinz and Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice to create an annual grant program to help Black-owned restaurants and food businesses with everything from start-up costs to disaster relief. Chicago beneficiaries have included Virtue in Hyde Park and Cleo’s Southern Cuisine in Bronzeville. This year, they’ll donate more than $1 million to fund up to 60 grants.
“It’s such a diverse group that receives these grants, from someone who is 22 opening their first restaurant to someone who has been in business for 50 years,” Ofcacek says. “There’s still so much work to be done and this program is young, but it’s amazing being able to call people to say ‘We’re here to support you.’”
Chicago’s Funkytown Brewery, founded by three childhood friends, benefitted from another program. Operating out of Logan Square’s Pilot Project Brewing, a taproom and incubator, they brewed four beers in their first 60 days, which helped them win a $10,000 prize from beer industry trade publication Brewbound’s Pitch Slam Competition.
They’ve since begun distributing their beers to northern Indiana and Wisconsin, growth that inspired co-founder Rich Bloomfield to quit his job as a project manager to focus on Funkytown. Co-founders Zack Day and Greg Williams say they’re planning on following him in the next month as the brewery looks for more investors and seeks to open its own space in Fulton Market by the fall of 2024.
Despite their early successes, Funkytown’s Black founders say they’ve struggled to get bank loans because they both didn’t have experience in how to best pursue funding and haven’t received useful advice from the banks they’ve been working with on how to prepare for future steps in the process.
“We’re a group of guys that grind it out and figure it out as these roadblocks come ahead of us,” Williams says. “Growing up, we were always told never give up, just keep pushing, and if you can’t figure it out on your own, ask someone to help you.”
This year, more help arrived after Funkytown won Samuel Adams’ 12th annual Brewing the American Dream Brewing & Business Experienceship competition, which gives them access to better business resources and a chance to collaborate on a special beer with the famous Boston brewery. Bloomfield is eager to ask the experts questions about accounting, beer chemistry, procurement, and logistics: “The press that we received has been great for exposure and people looking to visit the taproom and find our beers in the market,” he adds.
Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice started in response to the racial inequities found in the Paycheck Protection Program, but now also incorporates continuing education programs to help businesses with everything from insurance to growing their social media profiles. PPP more easily helped established businesses rather than new businesses owners that couldn’t submit tax records proving a need for relief.
“The contribution of Black culinary artisans in this country is extremely important and it’s not just about preserving businesses that are already there but supporting new businesses that are opening so that we don’t all end up in a place where it’s all chain restaurants and restaurants owned by wealthy restaurateurs,” Ofcacek says.
Less than 1 percent of the craft beer industry is Black-owned, and Day says the brewery is “bringing our culture to the beer industry and the beer industry to our culture.” Their beers take inspiration from R&B and hip-hop and they’ve conducted sampling to find flavors that would be better received by Black drinkers.
“Outreach has to be intentional,” Bloomfield says. “With Black people or women, if you don’t see yourself on a can and the marketing messages aren’t directed towards you, you’re kind of implicitly left out of the industry. We have to fight against that. When we go into Black neighborhoods we get a lot of pushback because people aren’t used to craft beer.”
Programs like the Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice and Brewing the American Dream help more than the direct winners by providing models of success for other entrepreneurs.
“Information is priceless,” Day says. “We encourage people to talk to people all the time and develop those relationships. We’re not all the way where we want to be and we’re not experts, but we’ve gone through a few things and we can tell folks about some of our trials and tribulations and maybe some potholes to avoid along the way.”