When last year's Black Restaurant Week brought in a cumulative $500,000 for the participating businesses, the organizers asked themselves what it meant. According to co-founder and co-owner Kelli Lemon, it meant they were doing something right, but there was also room for improvement and growth.
"We were very intentional about making sure people ate at these restaurants during the week," she says, referring to the black-owned businesses that participated last year. "We wanted to see what kind of impact we could have in our community being very specific about spending our dollars with these minority-owned restaurants."
Since last year, Lemon and co-owners Shemicia Bowen and Amy Wentz have re-branded their original concept and launched a new company: Virginia Black Restaurant Experience. Lemon says other Virginia localities have reached out expressing interest in holding similar events, and the company is starting with the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, March 4-11.
This time around, in addition to encouraging folks to dine at a list of black-owned spots (some of which serve their entire menus, others go with prix fixe) there will be an experience every day. Eight food trucks will kick it off at Abner Clay Park on Sunday, March 4, for Mobile Soul Sunday, and Lemon says the nearby Black History Museum, which is usually closed on Sundays, will open its doors that afternoon. Other events throughout the week include hip-hop karaoke at Good Tymes, a paint and sip at C'est Le Vin and dinner and dancing with Boomer Magazine at Ms. Girlee's. The culminating event, featuring small plates for $3-5 from local caterers will take place Sunday, March 11, at the Main Street Station train shed, which Lemon calls an "indoor food festival with a lot of soul."
When the organizers announced Black Restaurant Week last year, they got some heat for it.
"We got comments asking why we were making it for black restaurants only," Lemon says. "But it wasn't just our black community that showed up. As much push back and negativity as we got about segregating ourselves, a lot of people had never heard of any of these restaurants."
Lemon goes on to note that there is already a Richmond Restaurant Week. She says that encouraged black owners to get involved, but there's a waiting list.
"We tried," she says. "We don't want anybody to think we didn't try, and we'll continue to try. But we want to make sure we get exposure."
The trio partnered with the Office of Minority Business Development in an effort to share knowledge and resources with restaurant owners who may not have room in the budget for marketing, branding and social media.
"Those are some things that those [who] are in the business that have a structure for it take for granted," she says. "Some of these mom-and-pop shops just don't have the resources and all they want to do is cook.
Richmond Black Restaurant Experience has named Renew Richmond, a local organization that promotes urban agriculture in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, its nonprofit benefactor.
For information, check out vablackrestaurantexperience.com.