How Can the Portland Restaurant Industry Show Up for Black Lives?

For the past several months, Portland has reverberated with the cries of protestors denouncing police brutality and demanding justice for the police killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd — along with those of Portlanders Tete Gulley, Quanice Hayes, and Patrick Kimmons. Thousands have expressed solidarity with the movement, whether by marching, participating in staged “die-ins” in the street, or providing support for the protestors who continue to show up night after night. Facing tear gas and rubber bullets, Portlanders have continued to show up night after night for direct action, even as media coverage has dwindled in recent months.

Portland’s restaurants, and the people who run them, are seemingly no exception: Food carts like Kee’s Loaded Kitchen have used their Instagram accounts to educate their followers on instances of police brutality in the Portland area; Vietnamese cart Matta donated sales to the George Floyd Memorial Fund; and bottled cocktail company Straightaway gave $2,000 to Unite Oregon.

But the complicated relationship between some of the most visible actors in the city’s restaurant scene and its communities of color, particularly its Black community, has posed some profound questions about the best way for restaurants to support the Black Lives Matter movement and its broader goals of racial justice. How can an industry plagued by a history of appropriation and performative allyship meaningfully support Black communities, especially in the midst of its own ongoing reckoning with systemic racism and the devastating economic headwinds of a pandemic? And how can these commitments to support Black communities persist beyond a few social media posts and initial responses?

For many in the industry, these questions aren’t just hypothetical. In July, for instance, a white local chef, inspired by the “bloc of moms and dads protesting” known as the Wall of Moms, attempted to independently organize a “Chef’s Bloc” to march for Black lives. While well-intentioned, like other activist blocs that had formed in recent months to show solidarity — which, at their best, can alleviate the burden of the marginalized, who are forced to overcome the effects of discrimination on a daily basis on top of advocating for a more equitable society — it was also an example of how much still needs to be done within the industry to center the work, needs, and perspectives of the Black people that activists claim they want to help.

A woman stands in a greenhouse

Nikesiah Newton serves meals at the Meals4Heels station during the Sideyard Farm’s BIPOC market. Newton is the creator of the late-night delivery service, which provides meals to sex workers.

A starting point for the restaurant industry to support racial justice is to address shortcomings within itself, according to Nick Charles, a former staffer at Yonder — the hit fried chicken spot owned by Maya Lovelace — who spoke out this summer over the restaurant’s treatment of employees and its whitewashing of Southern cuisine. As a restaurant city, Portland is known in part for establishments that have a tendency to “find inspiration” in the cuisines of people who do not benefit from their critical or financial success. So the work, at a basic level, “just starts with an appreciation of whatever culture’s food you’re serving,” Charles says. Staff “needs to be taught better about how to explain the culture of the food. We can’t get away from food service and bar service without telling these stories. It allows racist ways to creep in because you’re muting a whole sect of people by not telling the story of their food.”

A key problem, Charles notes, is the lack of representation of BIPOC in restaurants, especially in leadership positions. “There are a lot of Black and brown people in the food industry, but not as many as you’d expect,” he says. What he has experienced as a result is that “as a front of house Black person, a lot of times I had to start in the back of house even though all of my experience was front of house … you have to prove yourself more as a Black or brown person.”

At a minimum, improving restaurant culture for BIPOC workers, especially in restaurants with white ownership, requires creating an inclusive atmosphere that fosters meaningful feedback and dialogue between management and staff. “No matter what, every restaurant has to have someone that’s designated that you can speak to that isn’t a manager or owner,” Charles says. “If you want to build a healthy work environment, build those healthy relationships.”

That perspective is echoed by Nikesiah Newton, the creator of Meals4Heels, a late-night delivery service that caters to sex workers, in part to avoid the toxic culture she experienced in traditional restaurant kitchens. A more equitable industry means “being upfront with creating safe spaces; having systems for staff to voice concerns over racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc.; listening to those that do have concerns; and checking your own privilege,” she says.

Still, the most straightforward way to address the lack of representation and opportunity for Black people in the industry is to direct money and resources toward Black-owned bars and restaurants. BIPOC business owners, especially Black entrepreneurs, have faced exceptionally difficult barriers to entry in Portland: The city’s century-long history of racist displacement as it developed has pushed Black business owners further and further from the city center: A number of development projects in Portland’s history, from the expansion of Emanuel hospital to the I-5 expansion, specifically impacted Black neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland. In the last decade, the number of small business loans given to Black Oregonians has dropped 96 percent. This is why, Newton says, “showing up to me means buy Black, buy Black, support Black.”

A man prepares food in a restaurant kitchen

Sous chef Danté Fernandez preps takeaway orders at Magna, a Filipino restaurant in SE that regularly donates and serves food to justice organizations around the city.

Beyond working to fix the problems of equity and opportunity within the industry itself, for aspiring allies who want to engage in direct activism, the most important thing is to connect to the communities with whom they’re trying to show solidarity, and engaging with the work that is already being done, according to Danté Fernandez, the sous chef at SE Clinton Filipino restaurant Magna. Fernandez spends much of his free time volunteering as a parent, and regularly attends protests. “They should find a pre-existing [organization] or start one with a Black person who already works within the community” if they’re looking to support Black Lives Matter, he says. “Everybody wants people to start showing up but once they start showing up, they start taking over and it starts being about them and less about Black lives.”

In a throughline with how white-owned restaurants in Portland frequently co-opt cuisines of cultures that aren’t their own, white chefs and owners, in their attempts to show up, whether intentionally or not, can position themselves as leaders or faces of the movement if they don’t proceed with care. “That’s what I’m seeing with a lot of chefs going out and trying to do their things — they’re not connecting with the community like they should,” Fernandez says. “I want white people to show up, I want them to be there and speak up but they don’t need to take a leadership role.”

There is a genuine peril in leadership being co-opted by people outside of the community, which is that the focus on what really matters can be lost. “People were so focused on the feds and that was a distraction,” Charles says. “We’re out there trying to fight the police in the streets every night; that’s inevitable at this point. But we need to refocus the entire movement on [Black lives] if we want to accomplish our goals.”

“I think the biggest thing,” Charles adds, “is that you have to let the Black voices lead.”

Ultimately, allies in the restaurant industry need to bring the same energy and commitment to transforming kitchens, to protesting, and to activism, and it’s work they should do in collaboration with the communities and people they’re trying to uplift and amplify, wherever they choose to focus their efforts. “Building basic relationships with Black culinarians is key,” Newton says. “We can do this over a meal, over a drink, over making cheese, or feeding houseless folks in our community.”

Celeste Noche is a documentary and editorial photographer based in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.

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