If you’re a fan of the tasty and affordable menu options from food events like Winterlicious, you’re going to love this season’s selection from ByBlacks Restaurant Week. The week long celebration of Black-owned restaurants gives foodies a chance to try new and exciting flavours on a prix fixe menu. The bi-annual event series launched in 2021, when co-founder Roger Dundas envisioned an opportunity for Canadians to experience diverse cuisines by Black-owned restaurants. Many Black-owned restaurants struggled during the pandemic, and as Roger explains: “We created ByBlacks Restaurant Week as a way to gain exposure for Canadian Black-owned restaurants during a time when things were uncertain.”
Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, it’s estimated that around 13,000 restaurants across Canada have permanently closed, while many others continue to struggle with financial debt as government support runs dry. We had the opportunity to connect with four restaurants participating in ByBlacks Restaurant Week, and learned more about their journey of the past three years and where they are now.
Powering through a pandemic
Over the past three years, Executive Chef and founder of Baccanalle, Resa Solomon-St. Lewis explains “we had to dig deep to pivot – changing our business model in the process.” Due to strict health regulations, many restaurants who traditionally had a dine-in experience had to adjust to a take-out model for an undetermined period of time. “85% of our business revenue was gone – we even contemplated shuttering our doors,” says Solomon-St. Lewis. Despite the challenges, these restaurants were able to persevere with the support of their community. Nicole Page-Charles, Owner of Sugarkane restaurant in Toronto had to close her business for two months during the height of the pandemic. “It was terrifying not knowing if we would ever open back up,” she says. “Eventually we were able to reopen with government support and in part due to the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement.”
Food builds community
From hidden recipes to generational cooking techniques, there’s something special about creating community within your kitchen. Part of the mission at ByBlacks Restaurant Week is for everyone to celebrate the rich culture emanating from a Black-owned kitchen. Chef and Owner of Jus Convenience, Patricia Whittier recalls her experience as a child being in the kitchen with her mother, “I used to cook next to my mom with a toy cast iron stove.” After 30 years of working in banking, Whittier finally decided to follow her passions and open up a restaurant after her son finished college. “I am fortunate to be raised by a community of strong Black women, starting with my mom.”
Tobias Brown, Owner of Tommies Jerk fondly remembers cooking with his mom. “I was her professional taste tester,” he says. “I would spend countless hours with her in the kitchen, learning.” These restaurant owners are not only inspired by their parents teachings, but their heritage as well. “It’s the love of culture and friendship that inspires my cooking,” Brown explains.
From Africa to the Caribbean
In part, the goal of ByBlacks Restaurant Week is to introduce people to types of food they may have not tried before. The food offered at this season’s ByBlacks Restaurant Week spans from African to Caribbean dishes and more. If you’ve ever travelled to countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Ghana, you’ll recognize how diverse each of these cuisines are relative to one another.
Unlike Winterlicious, ByBlacks Restuarant Week participants offer both dine-in and takeout options with their prix fixe menus. The idea is to lean in to the pivots each business has made due to the pandemic, and ensure that each restaurant is accessible however the customer chooses to dine.
Stronger than ever
Despite the challenges COVID-19 presented to these restaurant owners, they’ve come back stronger than ever. “We’ve learned to grow and adapt,” says Solomon-St.Lewis. Fostering community support from fellow business owners created a strong sense of solidarity and teamwork. Coming out of the pandemic, many restaurants were fortunate to have had the support from media outlets championing their stories. “Our customer base grew!” says Charles-Page. “People are intentionally supporting women-owned and Black-owned businesses now,” she adds. “We’re thankful for organizations like ByBlacks Restaurant Week for sticking with us during difficult times”.
ByBlacks Restaurant Week begins November 14 across Canada until November 20. Don’t forget to check out more incredible Black-owned restaurants participating in ByBlacks Restaurant Week: