When KJ Kearney created Black Food Fridays, he had no idea that a history-making period of protests, demands for justice and renewed support for the Black Lives Matter movement was about to happen.
“That was just serendipitous,” he said.
The concept was simple: Order food from a Black-owned business on Friday, and share a photo of that food on social media with the hashtag “Black Food Fridays.” It had a ring to it, like “Taco Tuesday,” and Kearney envisioned it could easily become ingrained in a person’s weekly routine.
“The hashtag-ability of it just works,” Kearney said. “It rolls off the tongue.”
Kearney launched the hashtag April 5, right as restaurant owners were struggling through the coronavirus pandemic and in need of support. He had made a map of Black-owned restaurants in the Charleston area a couple months earlier that has since grown to feature about 80 businesses.
It was catching on quickly, but Kearney said interest really started to spike when people took to the streets, and the national conversation turned to racism and racial inequality.
More people started searching for local Black-owned businesses to support as a way to show solidarity.
According to Google Trends, there was a surge in searches for the phrase “Black-owned businesses” in South Carolina from May 30 — the first day large-scale demonstrations were held in the state — to the following week.
During a virtual conference with Charleston-area tourism officials last week, an editor from the magazine Condé Nast Traveler said that “Black-owned bookstore” was the top search term on their website.
VaLinda Miller, the owner of Turning Page Bookshop in Goose Creek, has seen a spike in new business as people buy up titles like “White Fragility” and “How to Be an Antiracist.”
For some, this increase in support comes at a critical time, right as business owners are trying to recover from losses caused by COVID-19 and the ensuing economic shutdown. And, while businesses of all kinds were hurt by the health crisis, a recent study showed Black-owned small businesses were disproportionately affected.
Businesses owned by African Americans closed at substantially higher rates than those owned by other races, according to the analysis from Robert Fairlie of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Black-owned businesses also appear to be benefiting less from federal aid programs.
But there’s hope right now that the support Black business owners have seen during the ongoing protests will be a shift rather than a temporary surge.
“I think this is the new normal now,” said Ment Nelson, a Varnville-based artist who runs a Twitter account about Black-owned businesses in South Carolina.
Nelson’s own life has been significantly impacted by the rise in support, he said. Just about a month ago, he was posting on Twitter about how difficult it was to sell art and get eyes on his social media posts during the pandemic.
But, at the beginning of this month, his Instagram posts started getting 1,000 likes in the first hour, and orders for his art started pouring in, he said.
“In May, I thought I was going to get evicted,” Nelson said. “That’s just to show you how extreme a difference there was from last month to this month.”
Nelson said he also saw a bump in followers and participation on his account for Black-owned businesses, which he started more than a year ago. In addition to sharing posts boosting everything from skincare products to food trucks to fashion lines, his tweets on the account feature people like Kitty Black Perkins, a Spartanburg native who was the first Black designer for Barbie.
“A lot of these people that I tweet about, I feel like they change the narrative about what it means to be from South Carolina,” he said.
The account is “an energy, a perspective and a mindset,” he said. A simple follow can get these businesses and these messages in someone’s social media feed on a regular basis.
That’s part of the appeal of Black Food Fridays, too, Kearney explained. It’s a habit-forming model that gets people thinking about spending their dollars at a Black-owned business at least once a week.
“What’s encouraging is that I didn’t hide it behind a cutesy message,” Kearney said. “I’m telling everyone it’s Black Food Fridays. I think it’s showing, in some small way, a conscious awakening.”
The initiative is making a real difference, said Danetra Richardson, owner of Swank Desserts, a specialty bakery in Summerville. She’s seen an increase in followers on social media and in business since Black Food Fridays began.
“I’ve had a lot of people come into the shop that otherwise would not have known about us,” Richardson said.
The question, of course, is why this support and this interest hasn’t happened to this extent until now. That same question is being asked about the protests themselves, pushes to remove Confederate monuments and other initiatives that many feel are long overdue.
Online resources to find and support black-owned businesses already existed, like S.C. Buy Black Locally, which lists about 250 businesses in the state. Candace Pringle, who started the directory about five years ago, said she wanted to create more visibility for these firms.
“If you can find somebody, you can shop with them,” Pringle said.
The directory lists everything from real estate companies to event planning businesses to hair salons.
Submitting an entry to the directory has always has been free, and Pringle said she’s happy to help business owners who aren’t tech savvy to set up an entry. Her hope is to “try to level the playing field for entrepreneurs,” she said.
Doing something like seeking out a Black-owned businesses in a directory or making a routine of eating at Black-owned restaurants on Fridays may seem small, Kearney said, but it can have a “grand economic impact” as people become more intentional about where their dollars go.
“Where you spend your money is a political act,” Kearney said. “If you go to a Black-owned restaurant on Friday, I want you to share it, but, at the end of the day, it’s about the money you gave that restaurant. That’s where the change happens.”