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Protests Inspire Some To Make A New Pit Stop Amid The Pandemic: Black-Owned Barbecue Restaurants

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Keren Carrión
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KERA News
Juan Reaves, co-owner of Smokey John's Bar-B-Que in Dallas, prepares a customer's order.

In the last few months, Black owners of barbecue restaurants in North Texas say the pandemic has presented new challenges for their businesses, like slashing catering and in-store sales.

The thought of biting into juicy, fall-off-the bone barbecue is still drawing North Texans out of their homes — despite the pandemic. But as locals stop by to indulge their cult-like obsession with the iconic Texas staple, their favorite neighborhood joints look a little different.

In the last few months, Black owners of barbecue restaurants in North Texas say the pandemic has presented new challenges for their businesses, like slashing catering and in-store sales.

But following the protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in early June, some said their stores are seeing surges in business — some shorter and others longer-lived — due to the rise in support for Black-owned businesses.

It has meant a season of financial highs-and-lows as entrepreneurs are seeing two of the country’s most significant headlines of the year — civil unrest and a pandemic — play out in their budget books. And though Black America has deep roots in barbecue history, their contributions to the field have long been overlooked in favor of their white counterparts.

Off the Bone Barbeque

Black-Owned BBQ in Dallas: Off The Bone

Husband and wife Dwight Harvey and Rose Broussard are the co-owners of Off the Bone Barbeque in South Dallas, where they’re known for their baby back ribs, sausage and a host of unique side dishes, like their blue cheese and bacon coleslaw. They said in the weeks following the protests, they saw a ton of new faces.

“But I would say that those are more temporary because we no longer even see those anymore,” Broussard said. The last three weeks of July were especially quiet.

Though temporary, Broussard said the heightened visibility for her store led to other media attention like the local Fox station KDFW’s story featuring her restaurant. After the story was on TV, she said the restaurant saw a boost in sales.

“We got quite a lift from that,” Broussard said. “They were like, ‘oh, we saw you on TV. We wanted to come here and support you.’”

While the initial wave of post-protest support may have faded, the impact of the pandemic persists. Broussard said their total sales are down roughly 20-30% compared to this time last year.

The Paycheck Protection Program loan (PPP), part of a federal loan forgiveness program for businesses that retain employees, helped them keep their employees, but the last few months have been full of obstacles.

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Keren Carrión
Off the Bone Barbeque co-owner Rose Broussard cuts into a fresh pan of cobbler.

“I think the federal aid part is definitely required for a small business like ours to stay afloat,” Harvey said. “No other way we can do it.”

Catering has also been hard-hit after nearby office buildings transitioned to remote work. They had to find new ways to adapt, like targeting consumer product companies that are still working on-site.

In the last three months, there were three weeks when catering sales were higher than prior year, but sales have plummeted as low as 50-52% of what they usually do during weeks in the red.

Then, there was the skyrocketing price of meat, like beef which doubled in price from early March to May. Prices have decreased since then, but Broussard said the surge in pricing forced them to increase menu prices.

“You know, people would come and say ‘yes, we want to support you’ and they look at the prices and they go ’wow.’ And understandably, they know what has driven those prices up,” she said.

Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que

Black-Owned BBQ in Dallas: Smokey John's

In 2013, Juan and Brent Reaves officially took over Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que, their father’s store established in Dallas on the corner of Lemmon and Mockingbird in 1976.

They describe their barbecue as “deep grandpa and grandma style” with influence from the Carolinas towards Memphis, a bit of Texas spice and the sweet of Georgia. Their dad, “Smokey” John Reaves, brought the tradition of hickory-smoked barbecue from East Texas.

Juan and Brent said the wave of support for Black-owned businesses brought in significantly more Black customers and some new white customers who wanted to support the business. The Reaves brothers estimate the number of new customers almost doubled in the weeks after the protests.

“So I think across the board, the initiative to support Black businesses has helped sustain us through the pandemic,” Brent said.

He notes they’ve developed a customer base of Black millennials who weren’t familiar with the store previously, but want to support it now.

“What's happened is now through this whole period is kind of bridging an age demographic gap that we were aware of,” Juan said. “But it's been blatantly obvious now because of the new interest, particularly through social media.”

It’s that engagement with the community, whether through social media platforms like their Instagram page, features on local TV or store specials that they say has really helped their business.

At the end of March, they partnered with the Dallas Mavericks to deliver meals to health care workers, which was highlighted by local Fox station KDFW. They said the re-running of that story in the following weeks brought a lot of traffic to their store. They also saw a huge surge in business during their “Freedom to Freedom” promotion from Juneteenth to July Fourth.

“We had the biggest Juneteenth we'd ever had in the history of our business,” Juan said. “For that day, it [year-to-year sales] was probably about 400%.”

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Keren Carrión
Juan Reaves, co-owner of Smokey John's Bar-B-Que in Dallas, prepares a customer's order.

From around March to the end of July, overall sales were up 11-18% compared to the same months last year. May and June helped to offset the lows of March and April caused by the pandemic, Brent said — especially those record days during promotions.

But they’ve also faced some major challenges — like the cancellation of the Texas State Fair, which Juan calls a “huge blow.” The annual event brings in over a third of their yearly revenue. In 2019, the Reaves brothers won a Big Tex Choice Award for their Big Red Chicken Bread, fried chicken on a Big Red flavored frosted doughnut.

Now, they’re trying to recover some of their lost concessions revenue by selling meal packages through the Big Tex Fair Food Drive-Thru.

Even so, “there’s no way we can make all that up,” Juan said.

Looking Back As A Way Forward

Despite barbecue having a legacy in the Black community that stretches back to the time when enslaved Black chefs served as pitmasters, Black-owned restaurants and Black chefs often don’t get the same recognition as their white counterparts.

“If you look at the history of barbecue, African-Americans have often been the standard bearers for great barbecue,” Adrian Miller, a James Beard award-winning culinary historian and certified barbecue judge, said. “So it's just ridiculous in this moment to not have African-Americans celebrated for the significant contribution that they've made to this really popular food.”

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Keren Carrión
At Off the Bone Barbeque, baby back ribs are a signature menu item.

Miller, who is a Black man, once worked as a White House adviser to former President Bill Clinton. Now he’s finishing up his latest book Black Smoke, which chronicles the history of African-American contributions to barbecue. In his own words, the book’s about “reorienting the barbecue narrative from a black perspective.”

Miller said it all starts with understanding where barbecue really came from. It’s Native American in origin with some meat grilling and preservation techniques from Europeans and Black Americans. But back in the day, when barbecue was as labor-intensive as cooking an animal over a trench, it meant enslaved Black Americans were the ones doing all the cooking.

“White barbecue and Black barbecue were actually synonymous because it was pretty much African-Americans who were making the barbecue and white people were eating it,” Miller said.

Historically, barbecue has long been part of Black entrepreneurship. Many Black Americans worked as “freelance barbecuers” as Miller calls them, before and during the Civil War. There's even a story of Mary John, an enslaved woman in Arkansas who made enough money doing barbecue to buy her freedom.

But now, when barbecue is more popular than ever, those origin stories are often forgotten or overlooked. Miller said in the barbecue community in particular, tensions about those historical contributions are even more heated now because the food is so popular.

“People are making a lot of money off barbecue — and it's usually not the African-Americans,” he said.

Miller cites two factors in the 1990s that have contributed to the exclusion of Black barbecue chefs in popular media: the rise in TV coverage and prominence of white chefs like Food Network’s Bobby Flay, and the lack of diversity in the competition circuit, which can be expensive and time-intensive to get into.

He said when it comes to food from other cultures, chefs should follow through on three levels: honor the dish by making it well, acknowledge where you got the dish from and economically compensate the people you got it from.

A Pattern Among Black-Owned Small Businesses

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Keren Carrión
More than 70% of small Black-owned businesses are worried about a lack of customers, according to an economic disaster survey by the Texas Association of African American Chambers.

Off the Bone and Smokey Johns’ economic ups and downs are emblematic of what many Black-owned businesses in North Texas are experiencing.

Harrison Blair, president of Dallas’ Black Chamber of Commerce (DBCC), said it has been encouraging to see the support for Black businesses, especially given the hard-hitting impact of the pandemic.

More than 40% of Black-owned businesses in the state say they could close because of the pandemic, according to the preliminary results of a statewide survey by the Texas Association for African American Chambers of Commerce. More than 50% of businesses who responded said they had lost 50-100% of their revenue.

Blair said similar trends are playing out across North Texas. He said the pandemic has clearly exacerbated issues, like a lack of capital and access to banking, that have burdened Black businesses throughout modern history.

“This is really a lack of infrastructure to really support the entire community that needs capitalization,” Blair said. “So we're really pushing for a systemic change that we think will un-redline access to opportunity like that.”

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The Texas Association of African American Chambers - Economic Disaster Survey (preliminary results)
In this survey, roughly 100 Black-owned small businesses from across the state shared their concerns when it comes to the pandemic's impact on their stores.

According to Ashley Harrington, director of federal advocacy and senior council for the Center for Responsible Lending, 90% of minority-owned businesses were locked out of the first round of federal stimulus funding, whether from issues completing the application or not knowing about the funding.

Recognizing that gap, DBCC started a program to walk businesses through applying for emergency funding.

Dallas-based entrepreneur Joseph Akintolayo offered his MyCARESApp to DBCC in order to help local small businesses apply for federal relief programs. The app cuts the three-hour process down to 30 minutes by using a conversational chatbot to gather information from users and fill out their application.

Blair said his team at DBCC was able to help over 300 small businesses get access to over $5 million in federal funding through the app. Now, they’ve offered the app to the city of Dallas to help other small businesses.

“We think that this is something that will outlive the pandemic,” he said. “So this will help a lot of small Black businesses, who may not speak the language of banks, quickly submit loan applications and really tell their story the way a bank is asking for it financially.”

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Blair said his team is also focused on ensuring the current wave of support of Black businesses is sustained by corporate partners, from their boardroom discussions to community outreach. One concept, a guaranteed pool fund, would encourage local companies to increase community investments.

A guaranteed pool means that private corporations, foundations and even cities would become funders of personal loans for entrepreneurs, instead of family members like aunts or parents serving as guarantors. There’s currently only one other lending mechanism like this in the U.S.

“That way across this entire region, any bank or participating institution you walk into, you can capitalize...,” Blair said.

Juan Reaves of Smokey John’s said the movement to support Black-owned businesses makes a difference because it brings change from within communities of color.

“It affects households. I mean, there's a ripple effect in communities when you do that,” he said.

He just hopes that support is reaching other minority-owned small businesses, not just the restaurant industry or barbecue establishments — which have long brought devoted customers through the door with their morsels of melt-in-the-mouth Texas classics.

Got a tip? Email Elizabeth Myong at emyong@KERA.org. You can follow Elizabeth on Twitter @Elizabeth_Myong.

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