With challenges ranging from the uncertainty of what the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic means for their business to worker shortages, some of Baltimore’s Black-owned restaurants say they also deal with harassing behavior and spurious complaints rooted in racism.
That can be manifested in repeated calls to the city’s nonemergency line, 311, about their businesses, actions they say affect them financially and emotionally. In a city that is 57% Black, numerous Black restaurant owners say some people try to shut them down.
“It pisses you off,” said Stacie Norwood, the owner of the Caribbean-themed restaurant Peppa Flame Restaurant and Lounge, located in Locust Point.
Over the past two years, Norwood estimates that various city entities — from the liquor board to the health department — have been contacted more than 200 times in unsuccessful efforts to shut down her business. None of these complaints resulted in citations, city records show.
Nick Mosby, the Democratic president of the Baltimore City Council, said people who repeatedly make unfounded complaints to city agencies need to be reprimanded, and vandals and those intimidating businesses also should be held responsible. While a member of the state House of Delegates in 2020, Mosby met with six Black business owners who were grappling with weekly, in some cases daily, spot checks due to unfounded 311 complaints and fraudulent 911 calls.
“There’s this constant overenforcement on them in comparison to the counterpart businesses in the area,” Mosby said. “They would try to go dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ whether it was about trash removal or whether it was about people illegally parking ... to an overenforcement around noise. I talked to places like the liquor board who knew certain callers would constantly call about certain establishments.”
Democratic City Councilman Zeke Cohen sees a connection to the city’s limited number of Black-owned restaurants.
“The same reason why there aren’t many major Black developers in the city is the same reason why you don’t see as many larger Black-owned restaurants,” Cohen said. “Being Black, being an immigrant means overcoming racism, means overcoming systems that are not designed in your favor.”
Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said in an email to The Baltimore Sun that Black Baltimoreans have made significant contributions to the city’s culture, and Black business owners shape its economy.
“We must celebrate and embrace this rather than allow Black restaurant and bar owners to be bullied,” Scott wrote. “As long as I’m mayor, Black-owned businesses are here to stay.”
Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore City NAACP, said Black restaurants face racism in Baltimore. Little’s organization has been contacted by at least a half dozen restaurants alleging a variety of hostile acts, from false health department complaints to whisper campaigns meant to tarnish reputations.
“We should be clear that we have seen the overenforcement of rules applied to Black businesses,” Little said. “It’s one of the ways that white supremacy is at work. There is a set of standards that are applied to Black people. And there are a set of standards applied to other people.”
The Sun spoke with more than a dozen Black-owned restaurants across the city about their experiences dealing with harassment. These are some of their stories.
In the more than three years that Candice Bruno has owned and operated Old Major, a neighborhood bar in Pigtown known for its craft cocktails and Caribbean cuisine, she has put up with customers who make snide comments questioning how a Black woman could buy a building without drug money, the occasional egging of the property and near physical confrontations with a white neighbor who dumped feces at the bar’s door.
But April 30 was the breaking point for Bruno. She found the same neighbor sprawled across the entrance of the property next to the bar, which Bruno also owns. When Bruno asked the woman to move, she was peppered with obscenities and racial slurs.
Bruno obtained a peace order May 19 against the woman, who did not respond to requests for comment from The Sun.
“It’s very sad and unfortunate, but not surprising,” Bruno said. “I knew this day was going to come when she finally said the ‘N-word.’ She had no problem repeating it. She has genuinely been a terror.”
In addition to the battle with this particular neighbor, Bruno said there have been items stolen or things dumped on the property — all by white people caught on security camera or witnessed by employees.
“Unfortunately, you feel white resentment,” said Bruno, who is considering relocating.
One of the most well-known instances of a Black-owned business facing harassment occurred in 2020 at Ice Queens, a New Orleans-style snowball shop in Locust Point.
Owner Dasia Kabia, 23, has experienced racist comments and callers making unfounded complaints to 311. Signage for the business has been destroyed and trash has been left at the front door. One white neighbor went so far as to ask Kabia if she researched the neighborhood before opening, telling her that a business like hers was “unwanted” in Locust Point.
Jacklyn Berry, a Locust Point resident and community organizer, held a block party for Ice Queens in August 2020 to raise awareness about the harassment and enough money to replace the vandalized signs and install lighting outside Ice Queens.
Still, Kabia said, she endured months in 2021 of an older, white man who lives on the same street attempting to intimidate her, including leaving dog feces on her stoop. Even after being caught on a security camera and told by the police to stop, the man continued the harassment, Kabia said.
“He came down to the shop, and it was 11 o’clock at night,” Kabia said. “He looked in the window and I was so uncomfortable that I didn’t stay home for a week.”
In May, Kabia filed a peace order against the man, who did not respond to requests for comment from The Sun. The order, which was in effect until November, requires him to stay away from Kabia’s business, stop vandalizing her property and not harass the staff. Kabia did not seek to renew the order when it expired.
Peppa Flame Restaurant and Lounge
It only took a “couple days” after Peppa Flame’s opening in 2019 for the harassment to start, according to Norwood, the owner.
In addition to the hundreds of complaints that have been filed against the restaurant with city agencies, trash ranging from McDonald’s bags to dirty diapers has been left in and around the entrance, Norwood said.
“It’s so much stress on top of all the other stress of owning a restaurant,” she said. “Sometimes I want to walk up and down the street with a bullhorn and curse them out. But we try to stay to yourselves.”
Norwood said Democratic City Councilman Eric Costello told her that neighborhood residents wrote a series of Facebook posts dedicated to shutting down her business.
Costello calls the harassing behavior that Black restaurants endure “ridiculous and disgusting.”
“I’m going to continue to make sure that small business owners are successful and don’t have to deal with harassment,” he said.
A Southern American dining and entertainment venue, The Civil opened in 2019. The Mount Vernon spot has live music during the week and the liquor board has visited the establishment for noise complaints about 200 times, said Paul Thomas, the owner.
“Religiously, every Friday, the liquor board task force would come through, all uniformed. They look like the SWAT team when they come in and they disrupt service,” Thomas said. “I’ve been to places down in Fed Hill and Fells Point and Harbor East, primarily white restaurants, and I’ve never seen a response like this.”
Nicholas T.R. Blendy, deputy executive secretary for the Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City, said the agency’s inspectors adhere to its 311 response policy, which calls for all complaints to be investigated. He did not address questions about the means of those inspections.
”I’ve been in compliance for three years, but it’s just the constant harassment,” Thomas said.
The Civil also has received almost weekly letters with racist statements since its opening, he said. The anonymous letters shared with The Sun called Civil patrons “Black racists,” and that they were “going to be the cause of someone to be shot” and that they were “trying to take over Charles Street.” The letters also referred to Black patrons as “loud, obnoxious, mean, nasty and ignorant” and that they had “no dignity.”
RYMKS Bar & Grille
When Trevor White opened Clutch Sports Lounge in Canton in 2011, business was good at first. A good mix of customers came in and the occasional Baltimore Ravens player would even make an appearance. By the second year, everything changed.
“As long as the Black crowd or the Black community stays as a minority then everyone is comfortable,” said White, who is Black. “When they are the majority, other races tend to be less and less comfortable.”
Canton is a majority white neighborhood, with Blacks making up less than 5% of the population, according to Baltimore’s Department of Planning. Without support from neighbors, White said he was forced to shutter his business in 2014.
In late May, White opened the soul food restaurant RYMKS Bar & Grille (pronounced remix) in Little Italy, which is also a majority white neighborhood. So far, the reception has been good, said White, who owns the eatery with two business partners who are also Black.
“Our landlord took us around and introduced us to other business owners. We had a business owners meeting — and met at the Italian Lodge. We had no push back,” he said. “As people see us open and doing events, they will come and talk to us.”
Despite the welcome, White said he plans to start a Black Restaurant and Bar Association to support and advocate for other Black businesses.
The attitude of Black restaurant owners has changed in recent years, White said.
”Before we were asking for permission [to move into these areas]. It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic for us to be able to capitalize into moving into these communities,” he said. “Now, we’re not asking for permission anymore.”
Stephanie Garcia was a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covered issues relevant to Latino communities.