Observing Black Food Friday
A conversation with geographer Bo Zhao
This week’s burgoo paddler is Ghost Kitchen CHS. To learn more about Ghost Kitchen CHS, visit ghostkitchenchs.com.
Today’s headline references a grassroots initiative by KJ Kearney to promote dining in Black-owned restaurants on Fridays. You’ll find the social media campaign at blackfoodfridays.com.
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Zhao, along with colleagues from Oregon State University, the University of Arkansas, and the University of South Carolina, recently looked into whether corporate efforts to encourage patronage of Black-owned restaurants are effective.
Their case study—one of the first to use cellphone data to estimate restaurant visits—showed a “Black-owned” label on Yelp doesn’t spell success for a restaurant.
We talked by phone about the research, published last month in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
And don’t forget: There’s more where this came from.
Hanna Raskin: To start, tell me why you got interested in this topic.
Bo Zhao: During the past several years, we observed the influence of COVID, and the murder of George Floyd, and Asian hate, and so on, so forth. And we noticed the community thinking about, "OK, now what we can do?" And we did realize a lot of this allyship is well intended, but are they really helping? We're thinking about how we can better support communities of color.
HR: The implication of this scholarship is that supporting Black-owned restaurants is significant. But I can imagine someone saying, "Really? That's what you're going to do for anti-racism? You’re going to order shrimp-and-grits?" So how significant is that as allyship?
BZ: So, this is a great question. What we noticed was there was a peak of Black-owned restaurant visitation at the very beginning of 2020. And then visitation is down sharply from January to March. Then around May, at the initial phase of the labeling campaign, we did notice (an) increase. It's even higher than at those restaurants without the label.
But looking to the end of the year, the visitation to Black-owned restaurants dropped even faster than other restaurants, which give us concern…And more than that, we also noticed racist comments to Black-owned restaurants.
HR: Maybe just walk me briefly through your methodology, in terms of how you're identifying the businesses, and who was patronizing them.
BZ: Sure. We are getting the visitation data [for restaurants listed as “Black-owned” on Yelp] from a company that aggregates mobile phone data. Basically, they're getting 4 percent of all mobile phone pings, indicating location and time of visits to a place.
Industries use the data for development strategies, like which is the best location to build a store. But it has a lot of other uses in academia, as it statistically represents the whole population of the United States.
HR: And this is all anonymized, right? There are no privacy concerns?
BZ: Definitely. They only capture how many unique persons have visited a place, rather than who. And then we can compare the [number of] visitations between the Black-owned restaurants and those without a Black-owned label in 20 major cities.
In certain places like Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, the visits to Black-owned restaurants are less than [visits to restaurants] without the ownership label.
In New York, there are a huge share of Black-owned restaurants, but their [visits] seem similar to non-Black owned restaurants.
So, we are a little bit hesitant to draw a universal conclusion. But in places in California and Texas, some Black-owned restaurant owners, they are really concerned about this campaign, because they think it will tokenize their restaurant. And they are aware of the potential of being attacked by those racist comments.
But I do notice these tech companies, and a large portion of society, really want to help. So how can they do better? The first thing first is to listen. To listen when the community of color speaks. Because every time we try to implement some specific agenda, we actually invoke more emotional and psychological labor from the community of color. So listening is important.
And secondly, to understand the integration of technology is not always positive, even if your intention is positive.
HR: Right. And what I think you also suggested in the paper is that this mechanism for measuring results should be utilized, right? It's not enough for a company to say, "Buy Black," and then not figure out if that's what people are doing.
BZ: Yeah, definitely. In the paper, we emphasize, how we can implement place-based relief strategies, rather than doing a federalized strategy.
The Black-owned restaurant research is just one [way] we're reaching out to supporting and serving communities in United States with technology. Another major community we're engaged with is the LGBTQ community.
For example, one thing we notice is the decline of the LGBTQ sociable place. It's kind of against common sense, because people might be aware that there are a lot of LGBTQ-friendly restaurants, and even Starbucks became LGBTQ friendly. But actually, the sociable place is declining.
As a group of Asian scientists, we are trying to make sure that we are not representing African Americans. But by having GIS data, we can use technology to engage in social movements, and also to better support communities.
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