Much of the outpouring of customer support for black-owned restaurants in the summer of 2020 has been short-lived, a new study from the University of Washington has found.
As COVID-19 has devastated the restaurant industry, researchers have found that most black-owned restaurants were disproportionately impacted in 2020 by a drop in visitation in various US cities.
As Black Lives Matter protests have sparked calls for racial justice and fairness in the weeks and months following the murder of George Floyd, tech companies including Yelp, Instagram, Google and DoorDash have started roll out label campaigns that more prominently feature Black-owned businesses.
The researchers behind the study, published online last week in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, sought to investigate the effectiveness of tag-based campaigns and reveal potential downsides.
The researchers identified black-owned restaurants highlighted on Yelp in 20 US cities and used cellphone location data to estimate visits to restaurants with and without the label. The study found that there was an initial spike in interest in restaurants identified as “Black-owned” compared to those where the identity of the owner was not reported.
But by late summer 2020, support waned, said Bo Zhao, an associate professor of geography at the University of Washington, who led the study through the Humanistic GIS lab.
“I think we can see that all the support from tech companies is well-meaning, but the question is how can we make this ally 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 soul-food restaurant The Comfort Zone, the massive increase in customer support in June and July has been a mixed blessing.
People who had never eaten at The Comfort Zone before lined up outside the door, Miller said. After weeks of crushing losses caused by COVID-19 lockdowns, sales black-owned businesses soared, she said.
But, Miller said, the rise had its downsides. His restaurant became ineligible for a second round of PPP loans due to increased revenue. Some new customers made flippant and insensitive remarks about the food or 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-edged sword,” Miller said. “It was good, but when those people went back to the normal way of doing things, that income went away.”
Black-owned businesses across the United States have shared that identity-related tags added by tech companies have done more harm than good, Zhao said. Some landlords cite new levels of harassment, experience deluge of fake reviewsor fear losing customers because of the label.
“As researchers, we need to think critically about these characteristics [and] think about how businesses 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 tag-based campaigns, Zhao said. Local governments could also consider using cellphone location data to provide more specific and direct help to struggling businesses.
Disparities in visitation between black-owned and unreported restaurants in 2020 varied across the cities surveyed. Black-owned restaurants in Detroit and New Orleans saw a significant drop in footfall in the first year of the pandemic, while black-owned restaurants in New York fared better.
In Seattle, researchers found that Black Lives Matter protests seemed influence an increase in visits to black-owned restaurants, Zhao said, with customer visits declining steadily after the summer of 2020.
But in the fall and winter of 2020, there were fluctuations. During some weeks, visits were higher at black-owned restaurants than at restaurants where the identity of the owner was undeclared, or vice versa, Zhao said.
This “inconsistency” is in some ways a good sign, Zhao said, indicating that in Seattle there are similar levels of interest in black-owned restaurants and undisclosed restaurants.
A June 2020 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that black-owned small businesses were the hardest hit by COVID-19. Data from the US Census Bureau revealed that the number of black small business owners rose from around 1.1 million in February 2020 to around 640,000 in April 2020.
But interest in supporting Black-owned businesses skyrocketed 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, up from about 35,000 during the same period in 2019, according to a corporate report.
Tony Hayes, owner of Classic Eats in Burien, said he noticed in the summer of 2020 that UberEats flagged his restaurant as black-owned, a tag he never asked for.
Business took off, Hayes said, though he said it was hard to say whether designation was the driving factor. At the time, Hayes was promoting Classic Eats on social media, and several outlets featured the restaurant, which opened in 2016. New visitors who had never heard of his restaurant before the summer of 2020 are now regular customers, he said.
“The first month [of the pandemic] we closed, and then after that I swung out,” Hayes said. “It hasn’t diminished at all, we have more business now” than before the pandemic, he added.
A Washington Post analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates that black business ownership is now above pre-pandemic levels. According to the Washington Post, black-owned small businesses opened last year at the fastest pace in at least 26 years.
One such new small business is Shewa-Ber Bar & Restaurant, which owner Mike Tsega opened in 2021 after COVID-19 delayed opening plans by a year. While the impacts of the pandemic are still being felt and business is slow to pick up, “we are not going to stop,” Tsega said.
But Tsega said he and his business would succeed, even if they were labeled online as “black-owned”. Tsega said he’s never personally described his business as such and doesn’t like the idea of focusing on his racial identity.
“I want people to come not because of my color, it’s because of my service, [because] I try to cook the best food,” Tsega said.