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First Black Restaurant Week Celebrates Key Contributions to the Local Dining Scene

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Gov. Terry McAuliffe invited restaurant owners participating in Richmond’s first Black Restaurant Week to the Executive Mansion last week. And on Monday, Mayor Levar Stoney endorsed the event at a City Council meeting. No big deal.

But it is, of course -- in a city busting at the seams with good food that gets nationally recognized, black-owned restaurants often get overlooked. Three friends -- Shemicia Bowen, Kelli Lemon and Amy Wentz -- decided to do something about it.

“Memphis created the first black restaurant week,” Lemon says, and then news anchor Curt Autry of NBC-12 wondered on Facebook why Richmond didn’t have one.

Lemon, the dynamic host of “Coffee With Strangers,” a weekly video podcast that explores stories about interesting Richmonders and the things they do here, was ready for the challenge. And Wentz knew the organizer of the Tennessee event, Cynthia Daniels.

It was perfect timing, Daniels says. She was ready to expand to a national level and do other events in multiple cities. Lemon and her two friends could plan things locally while Daniels provided guidance out of Memphis.

Until recently, Lemon worked with Jackson Ward’s Mama J’s Kitchen handling publicity and managing catering. “There’s a major divide between black and white resources and education in the [dining] business,” she says.

Black-owned restaurants have shorter life spans, she says. Owners aren’t sure how to market their businesses or find chefs with the skills that diners demand in a competitive marketplace.

And there’s a more central problem -- one that goes deeper than the nuts and bolts of publicity and advertising. Lemon says that the kitchen staff feels that there’s a wide gap between cooks and chefs -- no matter who owns the restaurant. “Most black cooks didn’t go to culinary school,” she says. “They learned on the job. They don’t feel like they can call themselves chefs.”

There’s fallout from this perception. Many don’t think they have what it takes to open their own restaurants. And for those who do, Lemon says, “they might have an idea and get the property, but they don’t understand operational costs, the business side.”

The hope is that Black Restaurant Week, which ends March 12, will help remedy that insecurity.

Bowen, Lemon and Wentz -- all previous Style Weekly Top 40 Under 40 recipients -- started by finding anchor restaurants, including Mama J’s, to attract others, and there are now more than 20 on board.

“Each place will have something unique going on -- radio [broadcasts], live music, whatever they can think of,” Lemon says.

The plan is to offer a lunch special for $15 and a dinner special for $25. Croaker’s Spot, Brewer’s Cafe, Sugar’s Crab Shack, Sweet Teas Cuisine and Spoonbread Bistro are a few of those participating. You can find a complete list at facebook.com/brwrva.

“This is the first time some of them may ever sell out or be at capacity,” she says. “People need to be patient. The goal is to help them succeed.”

But the support goes beyond the restaurants involved. A portion of the proceeds will go to Renew Richmond, a nonprofit that teaches urban farming and health-based strategies in local communities with limited access to fresh food.

The organizers also want to encourage people to step out of their comfort zones and try unfamiliar restaurants. “My goal is to visit every place,” Lemon says. “I’ll be there, so let me know if you need someone to hang with.”

She also wants to see the energy from the week extending long after it’s over. “This is a week that won’t stop.”

Black Restaurant Week runs March 6-12. Lunch costs $15 and dinner costs $25. facebook.com/brwrva or blackrestaurantweek.com.

Editors' note: This story includes corrections to the names Mama J's, Shemicia Bowen and Cynthia Daniels.