Cuisine for the Culture

The Richmond Black Restaurant Experience kicks off its sixth year on Sunday.

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Following two long pandemic years working hard to keep the city’s many Black-owned businesses afloat, the women behind the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience (RBRE) are ready to feel the energy and excitement of in-person festivities again.

In 2021, Shemicia Bowen, Kelli Lemon and Amy Wentz took RBRE virtual to help stop the spread, but for this year’s sixth annual celebrations the trio could not be happier that folks will finally be able to pour into their favorite Black-owned establishments again starting this Sunday.

“We still have 40-plus restaurants participating,” says Lemon. “We like to humble brag that we only lost one restaurant during the pandemic, and we can’t wait to gather, eat and bring that love for the food and the culture we create together again. When you think about soul food and how Black people eat, whether that’s at a large table for Sunday dinner or wherever, there’s normally a story or a conversation that is more than just food. That’s why we named it Richmond Black Restaurant Experience.”

The numbers have a lot to say about the significance of RBRE to Richmond’s food scene. Over five years since its creation, RBRE has logged more than 76 participating restaurants, over $3.4 million in total revenue, more than $70,000 in philanthropic giving, and at least 141,000 patrons served, according to the organizers.

As in past years, the opening act will be Mobile Soul Sunday. With live music, more than 20 food trucks, and weather that is expected to peak over 80 degrees, the event is sure to recreate everyone’s favorite summer hang [Update: The second Mobile Soul Sunday at Monroe Park has been cancelled due to conflict with an ongoing Broadway in Richmond production].

Next Wednesday, March 9th, RBRE will be continuing their time-honored tradition of celebrating the life of the Notorious B.I.G. — “the greatest rapper of all time” according to Lemon — on the anniversary of his tragic death. The party will be hosted by DJ Lonnie B and held at Vagabond on Broad Street. Although that venue is not yet back as a full-service restaurant, the owners couldn’t resist hosting this beloved RBRE event. All proceeds will go to the Urban League Greater Richmond Young Professionals, a group of Black leaders advocating for greater educational, political, and social engagement within the community.

In alignment with RBRE’s slogan — “Where culture meets cuisine” - on Friday, March 11th the festivities will go beyond food at an Art 4 the Soul event hosted by Studio Two Three in Scott’s Addition. Guests will enjoy everything from a fashion show and a shop showcasing vendors of color, to a paint-and-sip event and live entertainment. In addition, Studio Two Three will be offering screenprinting of the RBRE logo on jackets, bags and aprons. And since it wouldn’t be an RBRE event without food, Teeny B’s catering will have a table piled high with soul food for sale.

Outside of the special events, Lemon says their main focus this year was to pack these restaurants and get lines out the door. "We are reintroducing Richmond to the culture of how to dine," she explains. "When folks go out, we want to make sure one of our restaurants is what you choose.”

To guide Richmonders’ restaurant outings, RBRE has printed plenty copies of its signature passport that lists all 40-plus participating restaurants. As it would be nigh impossible to patronize so many spots in one week, people can easily put the passports up at work, hang them on their fridges, basically just use them to plan their restaurant outings year 'round.

The dining diversity featured this year may be unprecedented in RBRE’s six years of existence. Representing the African diaspora, long-time Richmond favorite Addis joined the lineup. From Harlem Blues on Brookland Park Boulevard to Trio at Southside Plaza (the second restaurant from the owner of Jackie’s Southern Style Cooking) this year's edition of RBRE has new Black-owned businesses all over town to try. The addition of Suzy Sno, Rabia Kamara’s New Orleans style sno-ball shop, to the party is also a big win, according to Lemon: “For us to have this ice cream celebrity in Richmond and for her to open up a second location in historic Jackson Ward speaks volumes," she notes.

The magnitude of the mission is why RBRE’s founding ladies intentionally organize the festivities outside of Black History Month.

“All of Black cuisine and culture are so much bigger than just one week or month,” explains Lemon. “There are still people who have no idea about the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience or that there are over 100 Black-owned restaurants in this city.”