Black-owned restaurant patronage up in Silicon Valley, but surge fading
Mudai Ethiopian Restaurant owner Selam Tkabo prepares a spicy lamb dish Wednesday morning ahead of the day's lunch rush. Photo by Katie Lauer.

The surge of Black Lives Matter support has lifted area minority-owned restaurants despite the drag of stay-at-home orders, but the boost will not last without more equitable and lasting opportunities, some business leaders say.

The sudden demand overwhelmed some establishments.

When to-go orders spiked for lamb tibs, gomen, doro wot and traditional injera flatbread from Mudai Ethiopian Restaurant in San Jose, the kitchen could not keep up.

The increased traffic came after GrubHub and DoorDash highlighted black-owned restaurants, one response to Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Mudai was also one of a dozen South Bay restaurants featured on social media highlighting black-owned eateries, including Jubba Somali Restaurant in Almaden Valley and Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant in Midtown, which made it on a list by San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho.

While Mudai’s customers are already primarily non-white, manager Hagos Tekle said he welcomed the spotlight.

“Probably there were some people that never had stepped foot into the restaurant, but if they liked it, they will come back. That’s the way it works,” Tekle told San José Spotlight. “I want everyone to taste our food, so I didn’t have a problem being labeled as a black-owned restaurant, because we’re black.”

Photo courtesy of Mudai Ethiopian Restaurant.

Tekle estimated a 200 percent increase in demand for the restaurant near San Carlos Street and Bird Avenue but said business is starting to return to normal, attributing the blip to growing feelings of anger and hopelessness after Floyd’s killing and a nationwide reckoning of racism that led to local initiatives to benefit minority businesses.

Santa Clara County has about 60,000 black residents – some 3 percent of the population – and San Jose ranks fourth in number of black-owned restaurants, behind Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley, in the region. There are only 12 black-owned restaurants in San Jose, a city of more than a million residents.

Carl Davis Jr., Black Chamber of Commerce president, said he thinks these restaurant lists spark a new sense in some people.

“Your whole mentality changes when you say ‘you know what, I’m looking to support a black-owned entrepreneur’, or ‘I want to go to this black-owned restaurant,’” Davis said.

Changing the whole community

But the protest-inspired spikes in profits won’t have much lasting effect, he said.

In his 30 years representing black business owners, Davis said he still finds them left out of major opportunities, such as contracting jobs in Levi’s Stadium’s $1.2 billion construction. Luckily, he said “mom and pop” shops have a leg up on other industries, since good food and service mean people usually come back hungry for more.

That checks out for black-owned Back A Yard Caribbean Grill.

It has remained busy packing to-go jerk chicken, beef oxtail, barbeque spareribs and coconut curried tofu, but staffers at all three San Jose locations said it’s hard to judge the effect of the Black Lives Matter boost.

New customers are good, but not enough, Davis said.

“My heart is more about investing, he said. “Everybody supporting black restaurants now is a wonderful thing, but at the end of the day, we need capital infused into great ideas.”

Hurdles to investment 

Black businesses have more hurdles to leap, said Reginald Swilley of the Minority Business Consortium.

He said he worries about the number of black-run restaurants and businesses that won’t survive to reopen when the COVID-19 pandemic fades, due in part to less generational wealth to lean on.

At the consortium he finds issues of stricter code enforcement, rejected rental applications, denied loans and dried up PPP funds.

“The people who have, get more, and the people that have not, get less,” Swilley said. “But it’s a sad situation that in 2020, we are having to be patronized in a way that we’re not fully integrated into the business economy.”

Swilley said solutions must go beyond restaurant orders, but he’s more hopeful than most that the reexamination of racism will continue.

Leveling the playing field

For those supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, one answer to “what’s next” after dining out at local black restaurants is Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, according to Walter Wilson, a community leader in the Black Leadership Kitchen Cabinet as well as the Minority Business Consortium.

The measure would ask California voters to repeal its voter-approved ban on affirmative action, which boosts hiring minorities and underrepresented communities.

He said the repeal would level the playing field for those without the means to propel businesses by helping minorities and women access hard-to-reach business opportunities like state contracting for everything from paperclips to catering.

“By bringing affirmative action back to California to open up contracting, you’re going to open up opportunities that have eluded minority, black, brown and women businesses for 22 years,” Wilson said. “We’ve lost billions of dollars over that period of time.”

The measure passed along party lines last week, even after Assemblymember Kansen Chu, who is running for Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese’s vacated seat, stirred controversy after abstaining from the vote.

ACA 5 has moved onto the California Senate, where its approval for the Nov. 3 ballot is expected.

“It’s a permanent fixture to help people who are poor, disadvantaged and want to try to improve their lives,” Wilson said. “This is something that people can do – vote.”

Contact Katie Lauer at katie@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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