Lessons from Black Restaurant Week in our Segregated Food City

CHICAGO — Vanetta Roy refuses to resign. After speaking to the Chicago entrepreneur, I became convinced that this is one of the reasons his self-built restaurant chain, Surf’s Up, is thriving in such dire circumstances.

Thursday, we started talking by chance.

I scanned the menus online for a Chicago Black Restaurant Week joint for a late lunch.

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Roy’s welcoming restaurant counter at 71st and Crandon greeted me at “Hennessy Wings”.

Surf’s Up manager Mallory Harris introduced me to the restaurant’s special of the week, “7-Dollar Hollar”, a chicken and fish combo with fries for $7.22.

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A masked woman, most certainly a regular, tried to convince me that the grilled shrimp was a must order.

Both ladies seemed disappointed but not surprised that I declined their suggestions in favor of the chicken wings and shrimp combo smothered in house cognac sauce, served on a bed of deliciously thin fries.

Harris insisted that I try the fried cookies. I did. Everyone should.

While I waited, Roy’s husband, Mike McDowell, entered the tiny dining room decorated with life-size portraits of the couple’s late friends – Spencer Connor, a well-dressed former employee with a megawatt smile, and the legend of the Chicago street basketball player Bryan Leach – who bookends a menu of delicacies that can change daily based on what’s available and affordable at wholesale food markets.

Photos — and a counter that’s one of the few on the South Shore not covered in bulletproof glass — signal to visitors that Surf’s Up is owned by people who care about the neighborhood and respect those who live in it. made it special.

“I’m from the South Side. My mom was an accountant at South Shore Bank. I know how South Shore was. It was like Hyde Park. Busy,” McDowell said. “I see South Shore coming back like Hyde Park.”

Just then my order was served. It was love at first bite, a crisp sweetness tangled in a subtle kiss of cognac and citrus that tastes like summer.

(Mark Konkol/Patch)

McDowell, who does the grocery shopping for Surf’s Up, said inflation caused by pandemic-related supply chain issues has made the price and chances of sourcing ingredients uncertain. Surf’s Up doesn’t often sell crab legs because they’re almost impossible to find at an affordable price for regulars in the neighborhood.

Pandemic-related supply chain issues have caused the price of chicken wings, for example, to nearly double. Catfish fillets went from $57 to $130. And a $9 bag of potatoes now sells for $34.

By loudspeaker. McDowell introduced me to his wife, who was in Atlanta looking for franchise opportunities.

Roy is a Chicago public school special education teacher on leave of absence for the restaurant chain. His brother Eric Roy started Surf’s Up in Hillside. It didn’t last. A second try on Chicago’s West Side met the same fate. Vanetta Roy didn’t want to give up. The menu, the kind of stuff her grandmother made, was too good not to keep trying.

Nearly eight years ago, McDowell and Roy rented the 71st Street storefront. Since then, Surf’s Up has mushroomed into 11 other franchise locations in the city, suburban area and one store in Alabama, Roy said in our phone conversation.

This has not been easy. Few people pay attention to it most of the year, she said.

“Chicago Black Restaurant Week is a big supper because we don’t get the media, the marketing that white restaurants do. On the one hand, we don’t have the money. The banks don’t give us loans. “Marketing is extremely expensive. Most small, black-owned restaurants don’t have the money for these things, and we don’t get regular media attention. Unfortunately, we aren’t watched from the same way. We are overlooked,” Roy said.

“It’s like we didn’t exist before Chicago Black Restaurant Week and Juneteenth. Those are the only two times a year when black restaurants matter or exist. During those times, we get a little more business. … But this restaurant week hasn’t been as impactful, so far. Business has been extremely slow. At this point, a lot of people have been out of work… It’s a terrible time for the restaurant industry. . … Supporting us has to be more than twice a year. has to be with things that will help us stay open.”

Since the dawn of the coronavirus crisis, that kind of support has been hard to come by, Roy said.

Despite good credit and six checking accounts at Chase, the bank denied her a business credit card. Chase also initially denied her application for Federal Paycheck Protection Loans because they could not verify that Surf’s Up had a business checking account, she said.

“I had to go to the branch and report that my business checking account is at Chase. What that told me was that this happens to a lot of black businesses. If it wasn’t for the racial profiling, what is it,” Roy said. “They approved my PPP the next day, a Saturday. … That’s what we’re up against.”

Even some grant programs that aim to support small businesses in neglected minority neighborhoods, like South Shore, are out of reach because they require homeowners to have matching funds, the owner of Surf’s Up said.

“The mayor says they have this grant or grant. But they’re blocking most of us from getting it. Take Neighborhood Opportunity Funds. They’re going to give us $250,000 in grants. Sounds good until you were getting the facts about it, how you have to have $250,000 to get it,” Roy said. “If I had $250,000, I wouldn’t need to apply for your grant.

Last year, Roy learned that the struggles of black-owned restaurants are not limited to underserved neighborhoods. She opened a Surf’s Up store on the Gold Coast, one of Chicago’s wealthiest ZIP codes, in an $8,500-a-month storefront on Division Street to foodie media fanfare.

“The police called me so many times. The fire department said I was charged with illegally selling alcohol. Chicago city inspectors came twice. They said they were so sorry that I had to go through that,” Roy said.

A regular customer left a voicemail saying she liked Surf’s Up food, but complained that “Africans” hanging out to eat and socialize were “not a good thing for our neighborhood”. Another white customer unhappy with Surf’s Up closing before accepting an online order called Roy a “Black b—-” and the N-word,” Roy said.

“There was no way I was paying $8,500 a month to be talked to like that. … It solidified me.”

When Roy shut down Surf’s Up’s Old Town location, the move didn’t even garner a footnote in the foodie media. But no matter the problem — pandemic shutdowns, denied loans, inaccessible grants, an unwelcoming neighborhood on the wealthy side of town, or skyrocketing prices for seafood, chicken and potatoes, Roy keeps pushing forward. .

“The alternative is for you to quit, and that’s not for me. I feel like the potential [for Surf’s Up] is there. I want to succeed. I will succeed,” she said. “Being a black woman, I’m not going to let these disabilities and these roadblocks stop me. Otherwise, I would never have anything in life. If I’m not wanted, I don’t need to be there.”

Roy said that’s why she was in Atlanta on Thursday for Chicago Black Restaurant Week.

“I’m going to open a restaurant in Atlanta. The demographics are different. The city is 50% black. I’ve seen the mayor’s support and the community in Atlanta is different from Chicago, which is so segregated,” she said in our phone conversation. “We don’t get any support from [City Hall], from the community. We do not receive the media. We don’t understand banks. We don’t get anything in Chicago.”

I’m grateful that Venetta Roy isn’t letting any of that stop her.

Try Surf’s Up Hennessy wings and shrimp, and you’ll know what I mean.

Marc Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Prize-winning series “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” He was producer, writer and narrator for the docuseries “Chicagoland” on CNN and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary “16 Shots.”

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