Food Writer On The Future Of Black-Owned Restaurants In The Bay Area
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
It has been a crushing year for restaurants - pizza shops, burger joints, taquerias. I mean, so many places have had to close indoor dining for large stretches of the year, relying on takeout and outdoor patios to stay afloat. But here in California, even outdoor dining isn't an option in some places as coronavirus cases continue to spiral out of control. San Francisco Chronicle food writer Justin Phillips is worried - not only about the fate of the restaurant industry but also about the future of Black-owned restaurants in the Bay Area, places that made him feel just a little more at home there.
Justin Phillips, welcome.
JUSTIN PHILLIPS: Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So you wrote about all of this in the Chronicle, and you start off by describing what it feels like to be inside one of your favorite spots - the 2nd Half Sports Lounge. Can you just paint a picture for me? Like, what would it be like to step inside that place?
PHILLIPS: It was almost like stumbling into a house party, like a house party filled with the coolest people. You may not know them, but they would treat you like you were their best friend. You mix that experience with barbecue, with colorful cocktails, with a lot of laughter, with sports played on the TV. When you left, you could feel that experience, like, in your bones the next day.
CHANG: Well, you wrote that you feel like the Bay Area can, quote, "be an easy place to feel lost in, especially when you're Black and you aren't seeing many Black people." Can you talk about that some more? Like, how did you first feel when you landed in the Bay Area?
PHILLIPS: You know, I quickly realized, you know, as a Black person that moves out here, you have to put in extra work to be able to build community just because, you know, there aren't many of us here. And I think that was kind of exacerbated with me being in the food world and there being even fewer Black people.
CHANG: So then, how important were these restaurants - these restaurants owned and operated by Black people - how important were they in your life in the Bay Area to help sort of fill that void?
PHILLIPS: Right. They were significant because if you're a Black person looking to build community with Black people out here, that's where you're going to be able to find them. So it was kind of, like, gathering places. And you kind of, like, quickly expand your network because you can meet one person who'll be like, oh, you should be my friend - you know, he might be a barber. Or you should meet my friend - he makes smoothies at his house and sells them in his neighborhood.
CHANG: (Laughter) Yeah.
PHILLIPS: For me, it became my anchor - like, restaurants became the anchor for me out here.
CHANG: I love that. Well, I am also curious what it was like during the racial justice protests, when a lot of these restaurants were still able to continue serving, at least outdoors. Did it feel like that community that you're describing evolved a little?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. Everyone was talking about trying to support Black-owned businesses. It wasn't just going out to eat. It felt like, you know, like, a political act for a lot of white people. But I talked to a lot of business owners who said that their customer base had always been the same for a long time. But once the George Floyd protests started, they started seeing, like, a lot of diversity. And it wasn't just people swinging by to do takeout orders. Like, they would reach out, email the business to see how it was doing, say they lived nearby. Those spaces became places where people really connected. It was kind of - it was really unique to see. But after a while, that has started to wane. And that's kind of why I wrote this piece. A lot of these places are worried that, pretty soon, it's going to be it.
CHANG: So if some of them don't survive, what is your fear of what would happen to Black culture in the Bay Area well after the pandemic is over?
PHILLIPS: I just have this feeling that it might be erased a little bit. In the Bay Area, you already don't see many Black people. And then on top of that, you don't see the places where they hang out. You don't see their culture represented at a Jamaican restaurant or something like that. You start to lose the connection with that community. And I just worry that people won't see Black culture in a region where, you know, they really should be able to see it.
CHANG: Justin Phillips is a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. Thank you so much for joining us today.
PHILLIPS: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.