Where is the black leadership in the Twin Cities food and beverage industry?
Lachelle Cunningham’s Facebook profile reads like this: “Black Goddess/Mother/Extremely Driven/Visionary/Entrepreneur/Executive/Chef.”
For nearly three years, she’s been the executive chef at Breaking Bread, the North Minneapolis global comfort food–forward cafe founded by Appetite for Change (AFC), a nonprofit with a mission to create social justice through food. Breaking Bread’s aim is to “create new jobs, train local residents, and give confidence to other entrepreneurs who will become inspired to bring new business to North Minneapolis.”
That, and to serve up some mean buttermilk fried chicken and collard greens.
It’s a colossal project, and a fitting one for Cunningham, who thinks of the lack of black leadership in local food as a social justice issue. She should know—opening a restaurant is her own dream, and she’s fighting mightily to make it happen, as are many of the 80 or so black culinarians who make up a Facebook group dedicated to discussing the specific challenges of African American food entrepreneurs in Minnesota.
“There are successful black restaurants, just not in Minnesota,” she says. “No sit-down, no full-service. Where is that? Breaking Bread is not run by a bunch of restaurant people. It’s run by a nonprofit.”
True. But it’s a nonprofit creating a new path for the black culinary professional in the overwhelmingly white Twin Cities food and beverage landscape.
Roadblocks and Representation
“I thought it was cooking, but I like hospitality. The feeling you get when you give someone a nice meal and you can change their mood or how they feel,” says Gerard Klass, one of the most prominent local names in the Twin Cities black culinarian pool—which is notable, considering that he does not have a restaurant. Not yet.
He’s been with the Twin Cities–based restaurant chain Crave for about nine years, working his way up to regional chef, opening restaurants for the company both locally and around the country. In his “free” time (he also has a new baby) he’s running operations at his Klassics Pop-Ups, where his eclectic brand of seafood-heavy, West Indies–inspired soul food cooking is on the menu.
Though Klass feels like he’s on a satisfactory timeline to opening his own restaurant, he identifies a handful of barriers that are specifically burdensome to the black culinary entrepreneur. Klass went through culinary school, graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, which he says ultimately hurt many people like himself. The overwhelming debt that culinary school students incur, combined with low entry-level hourly wages in the industry, meant an instant stumbling block for a low-income graduate like him. “It’s hard to make a living at $12 an hour unless you’re working two or three jobs, which I’ve done.”
Next, since there are relatively few African Americans in positions of leadership in the culinary industry locally, it’s difficult to land jobs, considering that this is a “who you know” business. He makes the point that many of the most visible local restaurants today are owned and operated by those who once worked in the kitchens of a select few top chefs a decade ago—a tough social circle to crack if you’re new on the scene.
“If you don’t come from one of those trees, it’s difficult to get the attention of the dining public.” He also thinks that public can be complacent about their dining choices, and unmotivated to look beyond their comfort zones. Since the black-owned restaurants that we do have tend to be “off the beaten path” it’s even more difficult for them to draw attention.
Of the roughly 2.5 million black-owned businesses in the U.S. today, about 10 percent are in the retail, food, and hotel sector, and a majority of these businesses are concentrated in the South. As of 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that of the over half million businesses in Minnesota, about 20,000 were black-owned. There are few enough African American–owned food and beverage businesses in the Twin Cities that the number could be considered negligible.
By comparison, Minnesota’s restaurant industry is practically teeming with black leadership if you look under the hood of our brewery scene. In my research, I found only three black people working in local breweries, and only one in a leadership role.
“Black folks drink certain things, and it’s not local craft beer. It’s a stereotype, but it’s sort of true.”
– Tony Zaccardi
Tony Zaccardi, beloved bartender of Grumpy’s Northeast, raconteur, and local bar scene fixture (who also happens to be black) says he rarely sees black people drinking craft beer at his bar. He can think of only one dedicated craft beer-drinking regular who is also black, and he just moved, Zaccardi laughs. “Black folks drink certain things, and it’s not local craft beer. It’s a stereotype, but it’s sort of true.”
An important point, because naturally, any spark of interest begins with exposure. Sergio Manacero of Dona Chela is Uruguayan, and the only non-Caucasian beer brand owner I could find locally. He’s also of the strong opinion that people of color simply aren’t getting exposed to craft beer, thanks in part to preconceptions about the industry and the product.
One such is that craft beer can be expensive. “Financially, you may not want to spend $12 on a four-pack of sour, and instead you’ll grab a 12-pack of Bud Light or Modelo.” His Latin-style lager was developed in part to make craft beer more accessible to the beginning craft beer drinker.
Another is that breweries, and the craft beer scene in particular, can be intimidating, even bordering on pretentious. “I don’t want to go to a brewery and be told everything in a snotty way. And, maybe I don’t want to be snooty or pretentious myself.” He reminds me that plenty of white folks are put off by craft beer culture too, and that more easy-drinking craft beers that compare to big name labels (but made locally with high-quality ingredients) may be a step toward more accessibility.
But if introduction to craft beer is a matter of exposure, what are our local breweries doing about it?
“You can control who you market to,” says Dan Wellendorf, “Marketing Dude” at the North Loop’s Modist Brewing Company. “We all [craft breweries] stand to benefit from a diverse and strong customer base, and if I’m not seeking that, I’m not doing my job.”
Thanks to the brewery’s collaboration with GoMN’s Shut Up and Rap open night mic, Modist has been able to attract “the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen in a brewery,” says Wellendorf. Modist also plays hip-hop on their speakers most nights of the week, and they make sure to serve easy-drinking beers that are accessible to more people.
While he agrees that the craft brewery scene is very white “and Minneapolis is also really white,” perhaps arguments about socioeconomic barriers to the product have been blown out of proportion. “You can get a five dollar pint at Modist and you can get a five dollar pint at most breweries, and people always go out.”
But where do they go out? Down the road at Fulton Brewing, taproom bartender Seyara Smith says getting African Americans like her into the brewery is tougher because breweries “aren’t in our community.” But she salutes the work of Modist, for instance, because hosting hip-hop nights is a way of “meeting in the middle.”
Still, she loves her job, which she landed after one of the co-owners of Fulton, Ryan Petz, saw her up-selling Lonely Blondes at a State Fair beer garden and told her she should come work for him. She did, and she’s been loving the brewery life since April.
“I fucking love beer,” she says, having never loved it before going to work at Fulton. “I didn’t ever know it was such a situation. I was very naive—I didn’t know it could taste good.” Since starting, she’s turned her friends and family on to craft beer. “My entire family loves Lonely Blonde. We weren’t big beer drinkers, and when we did it was Milwaukee’s Best. I brought three cases of Fulton home on Thanksgiving and they loved it.”
“We make beer. It is the liquid of the people. So the very least you can do is get in front of all available customers.”
– Tucker Garrick
“We make beer. It is the liquid of the people,” he says. “So the very least you can do is get in front of all available customers.”
Fulton’s Director of Marketing, Tucker Garrick, “absolutely” sees more drinkers of color at Fulton than competing establishments, thanks to its geography in the heart of downtown near the light rail, but also in part to the brand’s emphasis on trying to reach “as many people who can legally buy beer.”
“We make beer. It is the liquid of the people,” he says. “So the very least you can do is get in front of all available customers.” Some creative tactics from Fulton include sponsoring Soundset, North America’s largest hip-hop festival, as well as working with local hip-hop artist Dwynell Roland as an unofficial ambassador of the brand, both sponsoring his endeavors, as well as hiring him to host Fulton events. But Garrick takes care to mention that he’s not trying to pander, but to simply take an interest in diverse people and awesome culture.
“And in the meantime, I can also sell a bunch of beer, which keeps the lights on.”
When I reach Elle Rhodes, sales merchandiser and marketing assistant at Indeed Brewing Company, I tell her she’s practically a pseudo-celebrity as one of about three black people who seem to be working in Minnesota’s brewing scene.
“That’s horrifying,” she laughs incredulously.
She started loving craft beer after some of her Uptown neighbors, (“obviously none of them black,”) introduced her to some when she was still deciding what she liked to drink. She dug it, and promptly started seeking out classes and events, and eventually started working for Lakes & Legends Brewing Company, and then Indeed. While she loves the product, she agrees that it’s “not marketed in a way that appeals to all people.”
And yet, she thinks its an evolution. The growing number of women working in craft beer being a decent comparison. “When Tiger Woods came out as a golf player, black kids started playing golf. Everything comes with time.”
The Capital Problem
The Twin Cities have been loudly applauding our recent culinary boom, with over 45 new restaurants opened in 2017 alone. But almost none of them are inclusive of black leadership, for a town that likes to wear its diversity on its shirtsleeve.
“If you look at the statistics, this is one of the worst places for us, right after Wisconsin, I think.”
Cunningham is referring to the widely distributed 2017 report by 24/7 Wall Street ranking Minnesota as the second worst state in the country for racial equality. Among other measures, the study found that the median income for a black household in Minnesota is $30,306, but a white household earns more than double that number at $66,979.
The obvious implication of that income disparity is a paucity of black wealth in the Twin Cities, and entrepreneurship is difficult to come by without cash reserves.
“Not very many people are [privately] investing in black businesses here.”
– Gerard Klass
And, says Klass, “Not very many people are [privately] investing in black businesses here.” Again, no wealth, no investment.
Cunningham calls access to capital “mystifying” for the American black population at large. Historically, mortgages and bank loans have been institutionally withheld from the African American population, and some will argue that those practices continue even today. She thinks cracking the code of “infrastructure, capital, and foundational support networks” will result in a sea change.
That same thinking is behind the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), a North Minneapolis based organization dedicated to “expanding economic development opportunities and building wealth for low- to moderate-income entrepreneurs in north Minneapolis and surrounding communities.” According to Ann Fix, program manager at NEON, there’s a “deep-rooted” distrust of institutions, lawyers, city departments, licensing, etc., when it comes to African Americans approaching entrepreneurship.
“It’s like ‘I want to have my own restaurant but I don’t want to go to the bank. I don’t want to go to a lawyer.’ So, we want NEON to be the trusted resource in the foodie world—to be a food business incubator offering tools and resources to increase the likelihood that those businesses will become successful.”
Cruise West Broadway, and it doesn’t take long to notice that with the exception of a handful of outlying storefronts like Breaking Bread, Sammy’s Avenue Eatery, and Wendy’s House of Soul, much of the food available to the North Minneapolis community are very familiar names: KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, et al.
NEON founded their Food Business Incubator in response to the dearth of healthy food choices available on the Northside, plus millions of area dollars flowing out of the community and into the coffers of enormous food conglomerates. How could more of those dollars stay in the community and go instead into the pockets of local black entrepreneurs?
Path to Opportunity
“I’m likening myself to Harriet Tubman,” says Cunningham, “being the great liberator of black restaurateurs in the Twin Cities.” Her vision is a consulting firm dedicated to technical assistance and financial literacy for the hopeful black restaurant owner—a concept that earned her a place as a semi-finalist of a Bush Fellowship.
But first, her own place. Helping her realize that dream is part of the “push” from Appetite for Change and Breaking Bread. Once she vacates her position at Breaking Bread, another black chef can take her position, and she or he could eventually move on to start their own place, and so on.
Michelle Horovitz, co-founder and executive director of Appetite for Change, puts it this way: “Black chefs obviously don’t have the same opportunities [as white ones]. The culinary industry is an Old Boy’s Club. It’s hard to work your way up unless you come from that same circle.”
Seyara Smith echoes that sentiment in brewery culture. “Plenty of people of color love beer, but to just walk [into a brewery] with an application?” She trails off.
Appetite for Change is making a new circle. A recent $470,981 Bush Foundation grant will help them fund a more rigorous on-the-job training program. Though she doesn’t have firm stats, Horovitz says that many of Breaking Bread’s on-the-job trainees come via word of mouth, armed with resumes that may not get them hired at a traditional restaurant.
“Maybe they’ve worked the line just a little, or maybe they’ve worked in fast food, or maybe they’ve hosted at a restaurant.” From there, Breaking Bread picks up where that interest and abridged experience left off, readying them for better jobs in the industry. She mentions that some of their best staff have come straight out of the corrections system, possibly an untapped labor pool for any restaurant in search of staff in a notoriously shrinking staffing well.
“More breweries need to say ‘This doesn’t look right,’ and try to change it.”
While time, creativity, marketing, patience, and nonprofits are all important to be sure, Seyara Smith’s direct, non-passive aggressive statement above is surely just as important.
Whether we like it or not, many white Minnesotans are complacent. They’re used to looking around and not seeing black people in food and beverage spaces. For my own part, I’m very accustomed to being the only brown face in the room. In Minnesota, for all of our liberalism, we don’t do much to fix the divide. It’s like we think just holding progressive values is enough.
But it’s time to look around, Twin Cities food and beverage lover. Is whiter than white a good look?
If not, let’s say it out loud. And then, let’s change it.