Read Part I of our decolonizing lunch series.
Living Cities’ New York City and Washington, DC offices are both located in busy, downtown metropolitan neighborhoods where restaurant chains like Pret-a-Manger abound. These chain restaurants have the infrastructure and technology to facilitate easy ordering and delivery, and serve the many office buildings around them with so-called typical American fare. Customer service is consistent, delivery is generally punctual, and our staff members tend to be familiar with the dishes served.
Over the last year, we started looking for real-time opportunities to better align internally with our programmatic focus by supporting businesses owned by people of color. Staff members across the organization who were charged with securing lunch for various meetings and events began researching POC-owned restaurants and caterers.
We soon realized that perhaps the biggest challenge to diversifying our pool of food vendors would actually be finding restaurant owners and caterers of color. Google searches like “Black-owned restaurants nearby” yielded very limited results, so we tried work-arounds like “soul food” instead—working under the assumption that certain types of restaurants were more likely to be owned by POC. At times, we would call restaurants directly to inquire if the owner was a person of color, although asking, “Is this a Black-owned restaurant?” can be a bit awkward. Sometimes the person answering the phone did not even know the owner, let alone the owner’s race and ethnicity.
These encounters led to even more questions: What do we mean by vendors of color? African-American? Chinese? Dominican? Does Italian count? Do we only want to support businesses owned by POC, or is it enough that a restaurant employs POC? What if there are two owners, and one is a POC and the other is white? Is POC even the right term to be using?!
Suffice it to say, shifting away from white institutional norms in even the simplest ways, like ordering food, was harder and required more additional labor than we expected. When Google didn’t yield enough results, I reached out to personal networks outside of work, and requested recommendations from staff and external partners. I searched hashtags like #blackcatering on Instagram, and slowly but surely began to get disciplined about doing the extra work required to consistently do business with caterers of color.
But the work didn’t end there! Before we began this shift, I tended to use apps and online services like GrubHub and UberEats to place orders, which made the transaction extremely convenient. I was able to secure food within 24 hours or less and even track the order. However, most POC caterers that I found independently are not listed on these apps, and there was no easy service to facilitate ordering and delivery. Efficiency was a challenge because oftentimes a single person, usually the owner of the company, had to buy, cook, deliver a farther distance, and manage payment for every order.
Staff also had to become accustomed to some changes. In many cases, meals were no longer individualized, but instead buffet-style. Several caterers specialized in vegan/gluten-free dishes, so those became the bulk of some of our lunches, rather than a side dish. Meat-eaters expanded their palates to incorporate vegetarian options. We shifted away from eating traditional American food like sandwiches and salads regularly, in exchange for an expanded menu of different flavors that represented multiple cultures and dietary needs.
Part of my job success depends on the flawless execution of events, including catering. The first time a vendor of color showed up 30 minutes late, or a staff member complained that the food was too spicy, I was inclined to default to the easier methods of securing lunch using the usual methods. Luckily, I was already learning that shifting away from white institutional norms requires innovation and intentional effort.
In order to shift the lunch ordering ‘system,’ I had to expand my approach and accept some growing pains. Supporting vendors of color may include not only extra time to locate them and procure their services– placing orders further in advance—but also better quality communication, and most importantly the compassion to allow for hiccups. As we move from the transactional to the transformational relationships needed to move equity work forward, I chose to work to understand challenges POC caterers face, and sometimes offer vendors a second opportunity to make the best impression. Since applying this approach, I have been met with customer service that is full of care, humanity and excellence. The food vendors of color who we have developed relationships with over the last year always go the extra mile to make sure all our needs are met!
Now, staff members look forward to learning each month about the people and companies behind our food, and tasting something new! Personally, as a gatekeeper of organizational dollars, I feel satisfaction knowing I am doing my part to support the creation of jobs, income and wealth for people of color, in line with our organizational mission.
For your convenience, some of my colleagues have compiled a list of tried and true caterers and restaurants owned or operated by people of color. The bulk of them are in NYC and Washington, DC, with a few added options in cities where we have worked. Next time you have a company event, we hope this resource can be useful for you.