Anyone who feels like there’s nothing fun and safe to do during the pandemic clearly hasn’t spoken with Shemicia Bowen, one of the three women behind the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience. For the food festival’s fifth iteration, she, Kelli Lemon, and Amy Wentz have pulled together a 10-day culinary journey featuring over 70 Black-owned businesses around town, running from March 5 to 14.
“With 27 food trucks and 43 brick-and-mortar establishments, we have a full menu of experiences for folks this year,” Bowen says. “We are trying to connect the culture of Richmond to the cuisine of Richmond, and that means going beyond soul food to include the full array of foods Black people provide this city.”
Some 2021 new additions to the long list of participating Richmond Black Restaurant Experience businesses highlight the diversity that will be on display in the coming weeks. Those looking for pizza can pick up a pie from Mommiana’s Dough in Shockoe Bottom. Jonesing for a smooth scoop of sophisticated ice cream? Check out Ruby Scoops on Brookland Park Boulevard. Those hungry for something altogether new to the city should explore the Jewish deli and African diaspora fusion of Soul Taco’s new pop-up concept: JewFro.
Folks can pick up food from participating businesses all festival long, but special events and virtual experiences are designed to make each day different. The festivities kick off Friday, March 5, with an Afrikana Film Fest virtual watch party of “Coming 2 America.” Mobile Soul Sunday on the 7th features three food trucks at each of nine significant sites for Richmond’s Black heritage including the Arthur Ashe Center, the Devil’s Half Acre, and the Rumors of War statue at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, among others. Wine tastings, game nights, painting classes, and even a DJ set honoring Notorious B.I.G. complete the rest of the lineup.
What began as just a week has since grown into a year-round celebration of Black contributions to Richmond’s culture and cuisine. “We purposefully hold this event outside of February because we are creating an experience that goes on 365 days a year,” Bowen explains. “This isn’t about Black history, this is about Black prosperity and sustainability. We want these businesses to be around for an entire generation.”
From providing personal protective equipment to crowdsourcing over $45,000 in assistance, the women behind the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience have worked tirelessly to keep Black-owned establishments afloat throughout the pandemic.
“One of the coolest things we did this summer was delivering checks to local businesses that were struggling and had no idea that such assistance was coming,” Bowen says.
With an anticipated 32,000 participants, this year the organizers say they expect direct revenue to businesses to eclipse $2 million.
“We want to reclaim and reimagine Richmond with the Black Restaurant Experience as a time for the city to become a tourist destination,” Bowen says. “People around the country should know Black Richmond is part of the hip new Richmond as well.”