The fourth annual Richmond Black Restaurant Experience shows that in a city gaining a reputation as a food destination, black restaurants and black culture are an essential factor.
As the first week of March approaches, black restaurant owners and cooks all over Richmond prepare for the fourth annual Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, a week-long celebration of black excellence in the culinary world. Established by Amy Wentz, Shemica Bowen, and Kelli Lemon, RBRE was founded on the premise of giving black minority restaurateurs the same exposure other Richmond restaurants have been given in recent years.
“There was just a need for the black culinary industry in Richmond, that has a presence amongst [the black community],” Lemon said, “but wasn’t getting the national exposure, as Richmond was starting to make all these lists for being this foodie town.”
Over the past couple of years, several lists from publications like Bon Appetit, Insider, and Yelp have named Richmond as an up and coming destination for food lovers. With the national spotlight on the city, many restaurants have made the most of this attention by being involved in the city’s several food festivals.
According to the founders of Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, Richmond Restaurant Week — a twice-yearly event that has been known to be very competitive and exclusive — has had a lack of representation for black restaurant owners. So they decided to create that representation themselves.
“We didn’t wait to be asked to be sat at the table, we just built the table,” Lemon said. “We just decided that we don’t have to wait to celebrate our culture.”
The goal of RBRE, Lemon said, is to introduce all of Richmond to black culinary ownership through a “celebration of cuisine.”
“We just want to make sure that when we are looking at Richmond as a whole, [black restaurants] are not left out of that whole,” said Lemon.
Over the past four years, RBRE has showcased over 20 restaurants, food trucks, and caterers each year, and has partnered with several non-profit organizations aimed to help the black community in Richmond.
This year RBRE, which has several sponsors including Dominion Energy, the City of Richmond, and the Virginia Lottery, will feature 35 different restaurants, food trucks, and caterers, including Mama J’s, Soul Taco, Southern Kitchen, and Chef MaMusu’s Africanne on Main. For a full list of participants, visit vablackrestaurantexperience.com.
RBRE will also be partnering with the Urban League of Greater Richmond Young Professionals (ULGRYP) as their non-profit beneficiary. In the past the RBRE has partnered with several food related organizations, but this year they decided on the ULGRYP because of their many initiatives that promote philanthropy and community engagement among young people of color, while also uplifting and finding the resources needed to support these individuals.
Although the main attraction to this week’s festivities is the food, Lemon also said that the goal is to focus on ALL artists of color in Richmond. According to Lemon, this week is about the complete black Richmond experience, not just the food.
“One of the things that we felt was missing this week was the art component,” Lemon said. “We look at food as art, but then there’s also music and fashion, hence these other activities planned.”
This year’s Richmond Black Restaurant Experience begins on Sunday, March 1 and lasts for eight days. The full schedule is as follows:
- Sunday, March 1: Mobile Soul Sunday- Food Truck Fest at Kanawha Plaza, 12-5pm (Get tickets HERE)
- Monday, March 2 thru Wednesday, March 4: Restaurant Focus- just eat, go to black owned restaurants and enjoy yourselves
- Thursday, March 5: Afrikana Film Festival- Film Screening of Boss at Black History Museum and Cultural Center (‘dinner and a movie’), 7-9pm
- Friday, March 6: Ready to Give- “Basement sweaty” dance party in the ‘Rabbit Hole’ at Vagabond
- Saturday, March 7: ART for the Soul- Fashion, art and music showcase with culinary delights at Studio Two Three, 5-10pm (Get tickets HERE)
- Sunday, March 8: Stick a Fork in It! – Chef demos and cooking contest put on by Richmond chefs and caterers at the Altria Theater, 12-5pm (Get tickets HERE)
All revenue from ticketed events like Mobile Soul, Ready to Give, Art for the Soul and Stick a Fork in It! will go to Urban League of Greater Richmond. As far as the restaurants themselves, check their social media pages for any food and drink specials offered throughout the week.
In the past, RBRE has been accused of being racist for having the word ‘black’ in the title. Lemon responded by saying that they don’t mind getting slammed for putting that word if it means people are now able to learn about something new and get out of their comfort zone.
“We created something because no one else would let us in,” Lemon said. “So people can be exposed to something different and start a conversation.”
Lemon, who is also the owner of Urban Hang Suite, a social cafe located at 304 E Broad St, acknowledges that there’s a lack of communication between the diverse groups of people in Richmond, which is why she built the cafe; to start that conversation.
With its controversial history, Lemon refers to Richmond as a tale of two cities; there’s Richmond and there’s RVA. Richmond is the food deserts, lack of affordable housing, lack of public transportation, high crime, and poor education. And then there’s RVA: the James River, craft beer, great food, and a good place to start your business. Lemon says that because of the city’s long history of division and segregation, these two places don’t know each other.
“Black Richmond knows, feels and is ready to take back our heritage,” Lemon said. “White Richmond wants us to forget about it; ‘The past is the past; we’re not that anymore’.”
Although black Richmond is still struggling in terms of opportunity, Lemon said that events like RBRE are letting the world know that, “Yeah, Richmond has a very horrible history, but what has come out of it is pride, leadership and a sense of belonging.”
At the end of the day, Lemon just wants people from all races and all areas of the city to come out and enjoy the vibes and atmosphere.
“Grab your family, grab your friend, grab your coworker, and go experience this with someone,” said Lemon. “There are a lot of different options, and we took care of everyone’s dietary needs.”
Appreciation of local culture in all its forms is Richmond Black Restaurant Experience’s ultimate goal, Lemon said.
“We just want people to think outside the box and celebrate a culture that in Richmond is truly vibrant.”
Photos courtesy Richmond Black Restaurant Experience