RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Richmond Black Restaurant Experience kicked off this weekend with Mobile Soul Sunday.
8News was able to interview RBRE co-founder Shemicia Bowen who spoke to the importance of uplifting and supporting their restaurant partners all year round and not just during Richmond Black Restaurant Week.
Shemicia Bowen is on a mission to change the perception of Richmond through food. Five years ago, with the push of a Memphis Black Restaurant Week curator grew the idea to have a similar event in Richmond.
Since then, Bowen and her business partner Amy Wentz have been off to the races.
Bowen said she would like to say that she always thought Richmond Black Restaurant Week would garner the attention and acclaim it has today. But truth is, she and Wentz had no idea what they were agreeing to when they started their new foodie adventure together.
“What we learned, we learned very quickly, is that Richmond was excited. The Black restaurant scene was looked at as a niche market of the Richmond foodie town that we know– that we are now known for,” Bowen said.
The Black restaurant scene in Richmond before the launch of Black restaurant week had been underrepresented.
“There are some beautiful gems across the city that Richmonders just didn’t know about. Some were new, but some had been in place for a long time,” Bowen said.
Now, Richmonders and people from surrounding counties and states come to Richmond to experience Black Restaurant Week, held this year on March 7 through March 14.
“I want to make Richmond look cool to people outside of Richmond. Sometimes there is a veil about what other people think Richmond is. We are still a bit in the shadows of our past,” Bowen said. “I think that as we amplify these opportunities people from outside of our city limits can say that’s not the Richmond that I heard about. That’s not the Richmond that I expected to hear.”
This year, foodies have the opportunity to experience 43 participating Black restaurants. The kick-off event on Sunday featured 27 food trucks across nine different historically Black locations and landmarks across the city.
“That’s new for us this year and a direct result of COVID-19,” Bowen told 8News.
RBRE organizers wanted to ensure that Richmonders were still able to enjoy delicious food while staying COVID-19 safe. So, they restructured this year’s Mobile Soul Sunday from one centralized location to nine different spots across the city.
Food trucks were parked at the Arthur Ashe Center, Black History Museum VA, Henry Marsh Elementary School, Heritage Federal Credit Union, Dorothy Height historical marker, Devil’s Half Acre, Rumors of War at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia Union University and the Maggie L. Walker Statue.
“The locations signify Black leaders and Black leadership and their contributions to Virginia and to Richmond,” Bowen said.
Richmond Black Restaurant Experience has seen tremendous growth in the last couple of years, Bowen said. The number of participating restaurants continues to grow.
“This year, our 5th year, these restaurants are going to eclipse 2 million dollars in revenue,” Bowen said. “That is real dollars circulating through Richmond. That is real dollars circulating right back to these business owners, could be small businesses, in a time when they need it the most.”
Following Richmond Black Restaurant Week last year, many Black-owned restaurants were forced to close because of COVID-19 restrictions in Virginia. Some restaurants remained closed throughout the summer because of civil unrest in the city, Bowen explained.
During this time, organizers of Richmond’s Black Restaurant Week stepped up to the plate by creating a GoFundMe to raise funds for restaurant owners who need the money to survive.
That’s when Richmond Black Restaurant Week became Richmond Black Restaurant Experience. Organizers switched gears and branding because Bowen said they want to be able to promote and amplify Black restaurants 365 days of the year and not just during their restaurant week.
“I understand that the livelihood of our community comes through small business. We recognize that the livelihood of the small business is in the fabric of what Richmond is and the fabric of what Richmond contributes to the rest of the county,” Bowen told 8News.
This year’s restaurant week looks different because of the ongoing pandemic. RBRE has put together fun virtual experiences like paint and sip, wine tastings from home, a live DJ event, as well as a bike ride, game night and Bae day.
“What we are also doing is giving a cultural glimpse. You now have a cultural entree into a community that connects us through food,” Bowen said. “We can disagree about a lot of things but we typically do not disagree about friendship, fellowship and good old-fashioned food.”