A new study from the University of Washington found much of the outpouring of customer support for Black-owned restaurants during the summer of 2020 was short-lived.
While COVID-19 devastated the restaurant industry, researchers found most Black-owned restaurants were disproportionately hit in 2020 by a drop in visitations across various U.S. cities.
As Black Lives Matter protests sparked calls for racial justice and equity in the weeks and months following the murder of George Floyd, tech companies including Yelp, Instagram, Google and DoorDash began rolling out label campaigns that highlighted Black-owned businesses more prominently.
Researchers behind the study, published online last week in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, sought to investigate the effectiveness of label-based campaigns, and to reveal potential drawbacks.
Researchers identified Black-owned restaurants highlighted on Yelp across 20 U.S. cities and used cellphone location data to estimate visits to restaurants with and without the label. The study found there was an initial spike in interest toward restaurants identified as “Black-owned” compared to ones for which the owner’s identity was not reported.
But by the end of summer 2020, the support waned, said University of Washington associate professor of geography Bo Zhao, who led the study through the Humanistic GIS Laboratory.
“I think we can see all the tech companies’ support is well-intentioned, but the question is how can we make this allyship more sustainable,” Zhao said. Researchers from the University of Arkansas, University of South Carolina and Oregon State University also contributed to the study.
For Talya Miller, co-owner of the soul-food restaurant The Comfort Zone, the massive surge in support from customers in June and July was a mixed blessing.
People who had never eaten at The Comfort Zone before waited in lines out the door, Miller said. After weeks of crushing losses brought on by COVID-19 lockdowns, sales at Black-owned business soared, she said.
But, Miller said, the uptick had its drawbacks. Her restaurant became ineligible for a second round of PPP loans because of increased revenue. Some new customers made offhand insensitive remarks about the food or about Black people. At least two people began calling the restaurant to make violent threats, forcing Miller to report the incidents to the police.
Eventually the lines disappeared.
“It was a double-edge sword,” Miller said. “That was nice, but when those people went back to the normal way of doing things, that income left.”
Black-owned businesses across the United States have shared that identity-related labels added by tech companies have done more harm than good, Zhao said. Some owners cite new levels of harassment, experience a flood of fake reviews, or fear the loss of customers because of the label.
“As researchers, we need to critically reflect on those features [and] think about how companies can better support communities,” Zhao said.
In response to the study’s findings, tech companies could add the ability for owners to opt out of label-based campaigns, Zhao said. Local governments could also consider using mobile-phone location data to provide more specific and direct relief to struggling businesses.
Disparities in visits between Black-owned restaurants and those for which ownership was unreported in 2020 varied among cities reviewed. Black-owned restaurants in Detroit and New Orleans saw a significant drop in patronage in the first year of the pandemic, while Black-owned restaurants in New York fared better.
In Seattle, researchers found Black Lives Matter protests appeared to influence an uptick in visitations to Black-owned restaurants, Zhao said, with customer visits steadily decreasing after the summer of 2020.
But through fall and winter 2020, there was fluctuation. During some weeks, visitations were higher at Black-owned restaurants compared to restaurants where the owner’s identity was unreported, or vice versa, Zhao said.
That “inconsistency” is in some ways a good sign, according to Zhao, indicating that in Seattle there are similar levels of interest in Black-owned restaurants and in unreported-identity restaurants.
A June 2020 report from The National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that Black-owned small businesses were hit hardest by COVID-19. U.S. Census Bureau data revealed that the number of Black small business owners dropped from about 1.1 million in February 2020 to about 640,000 in April 2020.
But interest in supporting Black-owned businesses soared in the summer of 2020. From May 25 to July 10, there were more than 2,500,000 searches for Black-owned businesses on Yelp, compared to about 35,000 over the same time period in 2019, according to a company report.
Tony Hayes, owner of Classic Eats in Burien, said he noticed in summer 2020 that UberEats flagged his restaurant as Black-owned, a label he never requested.
Business took off, Hayes said, though he said it’s hard to say whether the designation was the driving factor. At the time, Hayes promoted Classic Eats heavily on social media, and several media outlets highlighted the restaurant, which opened in 2016. New visitors who had previously never heard of his restaurant before summer 2020 are now repeat customers, he said.
“The first month [of the pandemic] we closed down, then after that I came out swinging,” Hayes said. “It hasn’t tapered off at all, we have more business now” than before the pandemic, he added.
A Washington Post analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates Black business ownership now is higher than pre-pandemic levels. Black-owned small businesses opened last year at the fastest pace in at least 26 years, according to The Washington Post.
One of those new small businesses is Shewa-Ber Bar & Restaurant, which owner Mike Tsega opened in 2021 after COVID-19 delayed opening plans for a year. While the pandemic’s impacts are still felt and business has been slow to pick up, “we’re not going to stop,” Tsega said.
But Tsega said he and his business will be successful regardless of being labeled online as “Black-owned.” Tsega said he has never personally described his business as such, and dislikes the idea of focusing on his racial identity.
“I want people to come in not because of my color, it’s because of my service, [because] I try to cook the best food,” Tsega said.