Whenever I used to tell someone I was in the restaurant business, they’d always respond by saying, “It’s a hard business.” True, I wouldn’t call the work easy, but I got plenty of joy from the experience — the camaraderie with staff, the simple daily routines, the interactions with regular customers. In the 40-plus years I spent as a restaurateur in Los Angeles and New York, operating places like Memphis, the Roxbury, Georgia, and Post & Beam, I lived for the sounds and rhythms of a busy dining room. If you’ve ever visited a Black-owned restaurant on a Friday night, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, well, you should as soon as it is safe to gather in public places again.
I’ve been a restaurateur nearly all my life. When I sold Post & Beam in South Los Angeles last summer, it was the first break I’d taken from hospitality operations since the late ’70s. And while, yes, the business was at times challenging, watching the events of the last several months from the sidelines was even more so.
When the pandemic first landed, I was working with the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency alongside Venus Williams’s design firm to restore the Historic Sunset Lounge, a former jazz club and stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit. From a distance, though, I spoke frequently with John Cleveland, the young African-American chef, first-time business owner, and father who gamely took over the reins at Post & Beam. As businesses were being shuttered and the restaurant industry appeared to be in free fall, it was impossible to ignore how steep the odds were against his survival.
A recent study revealed 40 percent of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. have shuttered since the pandemic began. John, however, maneuvered — he was not about to quit on his restaurant. He’s kept the lights on largely thanks to District 8 Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who contracted John to deliver meals three times a week to seniors. Additionally, sales have picked up from local customers ordering takeout. But he’s far from out of the woods. If you’re in LA, Post & Beam, chef John, and the staff would appreciate your support, so make a point to order food to go from there or another Black-owned business.
Then, amid the pandemic and its disproportionate impact on communities of color, we witnessed on video the brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. The latter act brazenly committed by police officers; the main offender with his hand casually in his pants pocket, sunglasses perched on his head, staring directly at America, while George Floyd breathed his last breath after eight minutes and 46 seconds with a knee on his neck. Since then, other instances — some on video — of controversial police actions while arresting Black citizens have emerged, including Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta and the tragic death of Elijah McClain in Colorado.
While there was sporadic looting, the protests in response both here and abroad were overwhelmingly peaceful. In certain instances, the looting may have been instigated by questionable agitators. Nonetheless, those images have been used to exacerbate the fear that “they” are coming for “us.” The diversity of those in the streets holding Black Lives Matter signs, though, sends an impossible-to-ignore message of unity.
In the wake of all this, a cleansing of sorts has emerged. Corporations are being asked to come clean about African Americans on their boards and in other positions of power. It’s not a good look. According to a recent article in the New York Times, of the 500 largest corporations in the country, there are four Black chief executives. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon have zero African Americans on any of their senior leadership teams. Film studios, major talent agencies, major music companies, the list keeps going — all deserve similar scrutiny.
Is the absence of Black executives in positions of power racism, indifference, or something else? Protests have given way to claims of a renewed commitment to being “inclusive.” “Support Black-owned!” is the move. Bon Appétit’s editor-in-chief recently resigned amid criticism over the treatment people of color received at the magazine. Even the NFL seems to be changing its tune, as the narrative about kneeling has regained its original intent; it was never about the flag or the National Anthem. NASCAR removed the confederate flag. NASCAR! Confederate statues are coming down. Zoom calls are proliferating with anxious, mostly well-meaning CEOs asking, “How can we help?” BET founder Bob Johnson has put forth a plan calling for reparations.
The question is: How long will this last? Especially given the constant cycle of breaking news and an upcoming presidential election competing for attention? Is this moment really a turning point for police reform and a commitment to closing the gap between white and black wealth — one that, according to an article in Brookings from February 2020, is “higher today than at the start of the century”?
My entire career has been spent in hospitality, and only recently have I felt an effort by the media to include businesses owned and operated by people of color. (An observation I shared with the New York Times in 2015 that led to a feature the following January, “A Belle Époque for African-American Cooking.”) With all that’s happened in the last few months, and as is common with friends I’ve spoken with, I find myself dealing with a wide range of emotions. Anger, frustration, tears, resolve to do something, say something. Concern for my Black son. I run the gamut almost daily. The collective pain of enduring systemic racism goes back centuries, its damage cumulative, passed forward through generations. As the Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson protest song from 1970 asked, “Who’ll pay reparations on my soul?”
Even in the midst of this collective moment of clarity — one spurred by the combined forces of COVID-19, George Floyd, and the demonstrations — chef John and the small business that he operates in South Los Angeles will continue to battle the conditions he’s always faced. In fact, facing strict new guidelines from the health department, including restricted occupancy levels to adhere to social-distancing requirements, will make operating a restaurant even harder and turning a profit even less likely than before.
John will still be unable to provide health care to his workers, as desperately as he wants to, and risks losing them every day to better-funded chains. With dramatically lower sales, he has had to lay off staff and cut hours for the remaining employees. His workweek will entail 70 to 80 hours on the job, away from his family. His ability to hit sales targets is further affected by the disposable income disparity in parts of South Los Angeles compared with other areas of the city.
It was funny, but not, when I read how one white restaurant chef-owner called American Express in anticipation of needing — and fully expecting — some financial help when the pandemic broke out. John and I laughed together, as we both knew the likely response if he or I had made that same call. Access to capital remains elusive for African Americans and Black-owned small businesses; for restaurants, forget it. Business ownership is a vital pathway to creating generational wealth.
African-American small-business owners have been fighting an uphill battle for far too long. Black-owned restaurants have often struggled to survive in marginalized communities. Severely undercapitalized, while resilient, and accustomed to surviving with less, those that make it through the current business climate may very well be on life support. Add to the normal demands of operating a small business the stress of driving, jogging, bird watching, or even sleeping while Black.
Sustainable structural change is way overdue. The issues John and other Black small-business owners face are not new: education, housing, jobs, training, inclusion, police reform, and access to capital among them. Large corporations and entire industries must be held accountable and include African-American executives as part of senior leadership while prioritizing funding programs for African-American communities, directed by those on the frontline, where resources are scarce. In Los Angeles, I bet smart councilmen like Marqueece Harris-Dawson and community leaders such as Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Karen Bass have viable ideas about how to use that help.
As local companies look to allocate substantial capital toward supporting Black-owned small businesses, and restaurants in particular, these companies should consider adding African-American board members who have had direct experience as operators. The entertainment industry alone can have a significant impact by increasing catering opportunities and selecting Black-owned restaurants for film and TV locations, paying location fees and simultaneously offering exposure. Black-owned business, the pandemic, and protests are the ingredients in a time calling for radical change. Whether or not what ends up on the plate is palatable remains to be determined.
Brad Johnson is a 40-year hospitality veteran, President of Post & Beam Hospitality and the former owner of Post & Beam restaurant.