First foodies help turn icon into industry
Since then, lines have regularly stretched a block. Ben's Chili Bowl has now expanded to a sit-down restaurant Ben's Next Door and outlets in both FedEx Field and National's Stadium. Patrons can order the chili and half-smokes online.
John William Templeton, author of the first national directory of African-American restaurants, projects similar dramatic growth for similar businesses in the food sector as the cultural icon of black food transforms into an industry in his book Say Grace and Wipe Yo' Hands: BlackRestaurant.NET's Guide to America's Black Restaurants.
Policies-- along with the presence of the First Family, whose visits have ranged from New Orleans' Dooky Chase to Omaha's Mamas-- will support that trend. The administration has had a focus on urban development not seen in decades, including funding to end "food deserts," wide areas without access to fresh produce.
First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move and White House garden accentuate the focus on preventive health and better nutrition enshrined in the Affordable Care Act. Entrepreneurs ranging from Chicago's Quentin Love with his eight restaurants and grocery store to Tallahassee's Soul Vegetarian to Los Angeles' Simply Wholesome are filling that gap.
Another site of celebration was B. Smith Union Station, where an Election Night party filled the picturesque former Presidential Waiting Room. The ubiquitous owner, with three restaurants among her brand, has set a path for leveraging taste into global markets. One can find her Olive Oil in grocery stores nationally or her home products in department stores.
The late Sylvia Woods, who passed just days before the 50th anniversary of her Harlem restaurant, also made the leap into national distribution with more than 40 products. The memory of Columbus, Ohio restauranteur Bill Williams has become the national brand Glory Foods.
Say Grace and Wipe Yo Hands highlights several dozen manufacturers meeting the increasing demand for African-American cuisine such as Baldwin-Richardson Foods and service firms like Gourmet Services, which operates corporate, college and school cafeterias along with airport concessions.
The passage of the five-year transportation bill with a renewed disadvantaged small business policy will open more doors into transportation food venues.
Templeton expects a growth trend mirroring similar mainstream acceptance of Chinese and Mexican food over the past 20 years. The economic downtrend delayed this shift, he notes, but improving economic conditions and more business savvy among African-American food entrepreneurs will accelerate the pace.
"Black restaurants are known for touting the celebrities who visit, but increasingly the chefs and owners are becoming celebrities in their own right with books and frequent television exposure," he adds. One of the objectives of the book is to raise the visibility for travelers of local heroes like Jackson's Peaches Ephraim, who has been an anchor of Farish Street since the Civil Rights movement, or Alouette's in Charleston, preserving Gullah cuisine.
Catering and business travel have been overlooked as ways for large companies to practice corporate social responsibility. However, food spending has an immediate impact on job creation in communities with high rates of unemployment. The book highlights more than 700 venues where buyers can add flair to their business events.
As co-founder of National Black Business Month, Templeton has pinpointed food as one of four economic trends to drive growth among the two million black businesses. The creation of the first 50 Top Names in Black Food event last August coalesced pioneers who had never met. "We had farmers and chefs and sub-Cabinet officials together connecting the dots," he recalls of the Harlem gathering.
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