September 21, 2020

In the Twin Cities’ Robust Dining Scene, Few Black-Owned Businesses

MINNEAPOLIS — Before the coronavirus decimated the restaurant industry, Minneapolis and St. Paul were being hailed around the country for their up-and-coming culinary scene.

Ann Kim, the owner of three acclaimed restaurants including the Korean-influenced pizzeria Young Joni, won a James Beard award last year for Best Chef Midwest. Lauded chefs like Tim McKee, Alex Roberts, Doug Flicker and Gavin Kaysen have kept the region on the lips and must-visit lists of gastro-tourists. Minneapolis has large Southeast Asian and East African neighborhoods with mom-and-pop restaurants that rival any of their kind in the nation.

But Minnesota has a marked scarcity of food businesses owned or operated by African-Americans. Of the more than half-million businesses that the 2012 census reported in the state, about 20,000 were Black-owned.

There are so few African-American food and beverage establishments in the Twin Cities that they are nearly impossible to find if you don’t know where to look — even on the Northside of Minneapolis, where more than half the residents are Black (in a city where less than 20 percent of the population is African-American).

Since the killing of George Floyd and amid continued protests against racial injustice, some restaurant owners, chefs and others have begun talking about ways to change that imbalance.

“I am a Black restaurateur and I am changing it by existing,” said Jared Brewington, 41, who has opened two restaurants. One of them, Funky Grits, at East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, was directly across the street from the site of Mr. Floyd’s fatal encounter with the police, before closing last October.

The other, Thigh Times Birdhouse, in the city’s gentrified North Loop neighborhood, closed during the pandemic. Mr. Brewington hopes to reopen in another location, and he has shifted his focus to plans for a new bar and restaurant, Cologne House Cafe, in rural Cologne, Minn., about 36 miles from Minneapolis., where he lives with his wife, Jenn, and their young daughter.

He and his business partner, Ben Brickweg, are working on a crowdsourcing platform to help L.G.B.T. people and people of color find capital to start businesses. He hopes it will inspire white people to invest in those projects. “Call it a guilt bucket, I don’t care,” Mr. Brewington said.

Dawn Drouillard, 49, and Eden Fitzgerald, 46, are the white co-owners of Fabulous Catering, known for their work for high-end clients and galas. The pandemic has so stymied their business that they plan to shut down.

But rather than quickly sell their building to the “white development people” who they say are already showing interest, Ms. Drouillard said they hope to find a way for people of color to acquire it.

“There are so many glaring inequities in our city,” she said. “We have a small, little piece of the pie to give. The only asset we have is our building.”

ImageDawn Drouillard and Eden Fitzgerald, co-owners of Fabulous Catering, which is closing due to the pandemic, are hoping to find a way for people of color to acquire their building.
Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

To that end, the partners have turned their facilities — just over a mile from the Third Precinct police station that went up in flames in the days after Mr. Floyd’s death — over to a food-relief operation called F12 People’s Kitchen, in which volunteers serve about 1,200 meals a week to homeless people living in a neighborhood encampment. The group is trying to secure funding — through grass-roots efforts on social media, as well as via Nexus Community Partners, an organization that helps community wealth building — and hopes ultimately to buy the Fabulous Catering building.

The collective envisions running it as a community kitchen that small food businesses can use, and where community members can simply get a hot meal if they need one. Gina Peña, 26, who identifies as “a young, queer, Black person who loves to cook,” is currently working as the group’s lead cook.

Eddie Wu, 41, who with his wife, Eve Wu, 40, owns the celebrated breakfast-and-lunch diner Cook St. Paul, said they are talking about not reopening whenever the governor gives the green light, and instead turning the diner over to people of color to run.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Mr. Wu, a white man who took his Korean wife’s surname. “I can use what privilege I have. Enough with white people.”

Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

Mr. Wu has never been content to quietly run a restaurant. When Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer in St. Paul in 2016, Mr. Wu placed signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Philando Castile Matters” on his marquee, drawing a backlash from some white customers.

Before Mr. Wu bought the diner in 2013, it housed Serlin’s Cafe, a 67-year old, white-owned restaurant slinging pancakes and hash browns. Under Mr. Wu’s ownership, the diner changed much the same way as its East Side neighborhood, which has attracted a large Southeast Asian population, serving dishes like bibimbap alongside the basted eggs.

Mr. Wu also offered the space to rising chefs and restaurateurs for pop-ups before pop-ups became commonplace in Minnesota, charging them little more than the night’s operating expenses. Now, the Wus want to extend that model, offering chefs of color, especially Black chefs, residencies of six months or longer, and perhaps living quarters upstairs.

Mr. Wu said he wants to see exceptional chefs of color get some of the recognition that now goes to “the boring white dudes that we’ve got a never-ending supply of here in Minnesota — which includes me.”

Allena Dancer, a 44-year-old Black woman who ran two one-night pop-ups at Cook St. Paul, is in talks with the Wus about taking on the first residency this summer. She said her project, called the Peach Eatery, would serve “soul comfort food,” like her peach cobbler and her husband’s Memphis-inspired smoked meat.

“For me, this means getting my name out there without worrying about all the overhead,” Ms. Dancer said. “People know Cook. This will give me a name to show people that there is good soul food, and it’s consistent, and it’s here to stay. My daughter is 3, and she already wants a kitchen. I want to leave a legacy.”