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Richmond Black Restaurant Week invites diners to try something new

RICHMOND, Va. – Richmond may be hosting its first Black Restaurant Week, March 6 to 12, but it has already surpassed other participating southern cities with the number of featured restaurants.

It even has an official proclamation from the city’s mayor, as well as backing from the governor.

The intent of the event is to reach the local foodie community with the food and stories of black entrepreneurship, and to promote economic diversity.

The inspiration was the Memphis Black Restaurant Week, founded by Cynthia Daniels, which launched last year.

From there the dominoes fell into place – because, of course, there were local connections.

Daniels is friends with Richmonder Shemicia Bowen.

Amy Wentz, founder of the organization BlackRVA which connects the community with black-owned businesses, is a shared friend.

An event like this was already on Kelli Lemon’s radar.

As the former business manager at Mama J’s, Lemon said they had been approached about hosting soul food week and soul food festivals — but they never did.

Mayor Levar Stoney issued a proclamation for Richmond Black Restaurant Week. Gov. Terry McAuliffe invited participationg restaurants to his Black History Month mixer. Left to Right, Kelli Lemon, Stoney, McaAuliffe, Shemicia Bowen, and Amy Wentz. Photo: Kelli Lemon

Gov. Terry McAuliffe invited participating restaurants to his Black History Month mixer. Left to Right, Kelli Lemon, Mayor Levar Stoney, McaAuliffe, Shemicia Bowen, and Amy Wentz. The mayor issued a proclamation for Black Restaurant Week. Photo: Kelli Lemon

Lemon, a social entrepreneur, is promoting the event. She’s a self-professed “RVA Change Agent” – someone who “tries to change the way we look at this city, through a social perspective– be it food, music, events.”

Daniels, who was already thinking about involving more Southern cities, advised them not to reinvent the wheel.

Birmingham and St. Louis also launched the event this year, with Daniels’ guidance (Houston and Chicago already have separate designated weeks).

Daniels told the trio that they just needed to get 10 restaurants to participate.

“And we laughed,” Lemon said, because they had about 50 restaurants they wanted to invite.

After all, Richmond is a foodie town.

But let’s take a little quiz.

How many of these 20 restaurants have you heard about?

Here’s the 2017 RBRW lineup: Family Secrets, Croaker’s Spot, Mama J’s , Southern Kitchen, Nomad’s Deli, Brewers, Chef Mamusu’s Africanne Restaurant, Sugar’s Crab Shack, Loft Seventeen, The Speakeasy, Ma Michele’s Café, Cary 100, Charles Kitchen, Sweet Teas Cuisine, Ms. Girlee’s, Spoonbread Bistro, Traditionz, Inner City Blue’s, The DM Restaurant & Lounge, and Big Herm’s Kitchen.

The group organizing Richmond Black Restaurant Week. Far Left is Amy Wentz, in the middle is Shemicia Bowen and on the right, Kelli Lemon.

The group organizing Richmond Black Restaurant Week. Far Left is Amy Wentz, in the middle is Shemicia Bowen and on the right, Kelli Lemon.

Lemon is betting you have only heard of a few, but not most, of them.

“They need this exposure…,” she said. “Without this week — some of these restaurants cook great, but they don’t do new things.”

Utilizing a team of volunteers, the event is providing minority-owned restaurants with marketing opportunities that are otherwise cost restrictive, Lemon said. The goal is “to promote Richmond food tourism and multi-cultural engagement.”

Lemon is hoping that the community floods these restaurants.

“That these mom and pops, or minority restaurants, get the exposure they need for future dining, and get on the radar for the food scene,” she said.

She pointed out that the chef of Charles’ Kitchen in the West End is a “very well known, talented chef, but he’s not getting the exposure.”

“This is the week of exposure,” Lemon said, “but we need you to help sustain them.”

The team wants diners to “grab a friend that hasn’t tried these places and step out your comfort zone.”

Lemon suggested that diners also buy a gift card and plan for another visit.

She reminded diners that some of these places will be busy – make a reservation or be open to trying a new place if one is already packed.

The organizers also asked themselves, Lemon said, “how do we make it different and have more impact for the community we serve?”

That’s when Renew Richmond was brought on as the non-profit beneficiary.

Lemon hopes that RBRW will highlight the ways Renew serves underprivileged communities.

A dish of food featured at Mama J's, located in Jackson Ward.

A dish of food featured at Mama J’s, located in Jackson Ward.

Renew, founded in 2008, works with five schools and multiple groups to create urban gardens and provide education to kids, adults, and families about healthy eating.

“Their work is happening in our communities, where food deserts are occurring,” Lemon said.

Excutive Director Saajida Chohan said the proceeds from RBRW will help develop Renew’s largest site, the Farmstrong East End Community Center (located next to Armstrong High School), into a multi-purpose learning facility.

Members from the East End community will be able to gain skill-based, hands-on experience within a variety of activities from growing food to learning how to build furniture.

Participating restaurants paid a fee that went into a pool, with funds used to market the event and 10 percent of that pool going to Renew. There will also be opportunities during the event to make a direct donation to Renew.

Restaurants will offer two-course lunches for $15 and three-course dinners for $25. A map is laid out on the RBRW website, along with menus.

It’s not just about dining either, several places will provide entertainment at night.

On the last day there will be a Trolley Brunch tour.

“It puts a joy in my heart to expose these gems here in Richmond,” Lemon said. “I think this week is the start of something bigger.”

PARTICIPATING RESTAURANTS