Station North Arts Cafe Gallery is one of the restaurants participating in the Black Restaurant Challenge, a promotion encouraging diners to visit two black-owned restaurants a week thoughout February. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Casey Jenkins never could have predicted that the tickets for his Black Restaurant Challenge kick-off would sell out in 30 minutes. But just like that, they were gone.
Jenkins, the owner of Birdland Sports Bar and Grill, is calling for Baltimore diners to eat at two black-owned restaurants per week throughout February as part of the Black Restaurant Challenge. During the promotion, which runs Feb. 2-25, a group of African-American-owned eateries will offer discounts and specials.
The challenge was born last year when Jenkins was thinking of a way to drum up interest in the swath of black-owned restaurants that have cropped up in Baltimore. For inspiration, he turned to the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the viral campaign that had hundreds of thousands of people spreading awareness about Lou Gehrig’s disease by dumping ice water on their heads.
“I said, ‘Look at all these people dumping buckets on their head. We should do a black restaurant challenge,’ ” Jenkins said.
Black chefs still account for a small fraction of kitchen leadership, but their presesnce is growing locally and across the country. In 2015, 15.2 percent of chefs and head cooks nationwide identified as African American or black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, up 67 percent from 2011, when the group accounted for 9.1 percent of chefs nationally.
Jenkins didn’t have much time to market the challenge last February, but this time he got other African-American restaurateurs involved early. Each participating eatery paid $75, which goes toward maintaining the website and marketing the promotion.
The challenge encourages diners to share photos from their visits to participating eateries and challenge others to do the same.
The promotion will launch with a party Feb. 2 at the Baltimore Visitor Center. The 1,000 tickets available for the free event were snatched up in the first half-hour they were available, Jenkins said, and the Facebook event has garnered interest from more than 43,000 people. That told Jenkins he was onto something.
“There’s no way that I thought it would be as popular as it has been,” Jenkins said, adding that corporate sponsors such as Visit Baltimore and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore helped promote the monthlong event.
So far, about a dozen restaurants, carry-outs, food trucks and caterers are getting in on the challenge, many offering discounts and specials throughout the month.
Jenkins' restaurant, Birdland Sports Bar & Grill, is not participating in the promotion. He said he is working to sell the restaurant while he prepares to reopen Darker Than Blue, a cafe he previously owned, next year.
The Big Bean Theory in Mount Vernon Marketplace will offer several specials for the challenge. They include a cup of seafood gumbo with toasted cornbread; vegan spaghetti with “meatless balls,” served with roasted veggie noodles, garlic naan and salad; vegan meatloaf with smashed potatoes, greens and carrots; and lightly-battered fish, sauteed garden veggies and brown rice with lentils. Those dishes will double as specials for Vegan Restaurant Week, an overlapping promotion running Feb. 9-18.
Chef Mac’s Louisiana Cuisine, a Baltimore caterer, offers traditional Louisiana fare such as muffaletta sandwiches, blackened salmon, Cajun chicken kebabs, Louisiana po’boy sandwiches and zydeco bread. The company’s Black Restaurant Challenge specials were not immediately available.
Chef Taueret Khepera Thomas offers a personal chef service, catering and culinary classes through Khepera’s Kitchen. Thomas operates her personal chef service during the week from her commercial kitchen in Baltimore’s Abell neighborhood, and the space doubles as a brunch cafe on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. During weekend brunch service throughout the Black Restaurant Challenge, each customer will have the chance to enter a free raffle to attend a cooking demonstration and tasting with a guest.
Vegan soul food restaurant Land of Kush is participating in the Black Restaurant Challenge and Vegan Restaurant Week (Feb. 9-18). The Seton Hill eatery will offer 10 percent off its platters (typically $12.99), which come with an entree, two sides and a 16-ounce drink. Entree options include vegan ribs, curry “chickun,” lentil burgers and vegan crab cakes. Customers must mention the Black Restaurant Challenge to receive the discount at Land of Kush, also a founding member of Vegan Restaurant Week.
Shareef’s House of Wraps has locations in East and West Baltimore, as well as a roving food truck. The eateries offer all halal and kosher foods, such as sandwiches, hot dogs, platters, salads and, of course, hot and cold wraps. The eateries’ specials were not immediately available.
Station North Arts Cafe Gallery and its sister eatery at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Nancy by SNAC, serve breakfast and lunch on weekdays. Both cafes will feature their popular North Carolina barbecue pulled-pork sandwich and corn bread during the Black Restaurant Challenge. At press time, owner Kevin Brown said he had not yet determined a discount for the sandwich.
Sully’s Seafood & BBQ, a carry-out in the Frankford neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore, offers a variety of seafood platters, sandwiches, barbecue and fixings. Sully’s Black Restaurant Challenge specials were not immediately available.
For Jasmine Norton, oysters are a family affair. As the chef and owner of the Urban Oyster, a mobile oyster bar in Baltimore, she serves up casual, approachable versions of the sometimes-intimidating delicacy.
Terra Cafe in Charles Village serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, with options such as omelets, paninis, sandwiches, salads and wings. The Black Restaurant Challenge specials at Terra Cafe were not immediately available.
Jasmine Norton, owner of the Urban Oyster pop-up eatery, will hand out $2-off coupons at the Black Restaurant Challenge kick-off event. Norton hopes the cards encourage guests to visit the Urban Oyster’s pop-up at R. House Feb. 12-18, when the stall will offer $1 oysters daily from 5 p.m. to close.