How Killer Mike Is Using His Restaurant to Fight Food Insecurity in Atlanta
“People who support Bankhead Seafood will get a chance to continue participating in its legacy.”
If you want to know what Atlanta is passionate about, just listen to its music. From the glorification of lemon-pepper wings and freeze cups on Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” to Future’s post-Magic City adventure on “Magic,” Atlanta’s culture and landmarks always find their way on to records. And it’s the “Bankhead Seafood making me hit that door” line on Goodie Mob’s “Soul Food” that nods to one of the longest-running Black-owned restaurants in the Westside.
Bankhead Seafood, opened in 1968 by Helen Harden, has been the beating heart of the Grove Park neighborhood for over 50 years. Beloved for its classic seafood boxes and affordable prices, the restaurant was a hub for family meals and the Black community. Then, due to a staff shortage and Harden’s waning health, it suddenly closed in 2018.
Needless to say, Atlanta wasn’t having it, and thankfully neither were Bankhead natives Michael Render and Tip Harris, better known as Grammy-winning rappers Killer Mike (of Run the Jewels) and T.I., respectively. Within months, the duo acquired the property and business name from Harden and vowed to keep Bankhead Seafood alive.
“It’s a bad thing for those who are in the community as a legacy resident to lose control,” Render told WABE earlier this year. “It’s bad for corporations to come unasked and simply enforce their rule. But nothing is wrong with ‘re-entrifying’ your community.”
Considering the looming threat of gentrification and outside development in Bankhead -- like the construction of three-story townhomes starting in the low $400Ks within a community whose median household income is well under $50,000 -- their involvement in the Westside landmark’s revival is a revolutionary act of Black leadership. Sure, changes are on the way (from menu additions to the sale of alcohol to renovations) but they’re largely leaving what people love about the classic eatery alone.
The excitement over the return of Bankhead Seafood boiled over earlier this spring when it was announced that a mobile food truck would also be hitting the streets. But anyone following the wild tale that has been 2020 knows what happened next.
“Oh, shit,” Render told us about his first reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We put a lot of time and money into it, and just as we were getting set on going into construction, COVID happens.”
Render stepped into the spotlight this year during protests in Atlanta, delivering a stirring speech alongside Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and has been a voice of moderation for the Black community amid a chaotic time.
Meanwhile, the food truck was able to successfully navigate the pandemic and continue operations throughout the spring and summer, while the restaurant build was put on hold. But Bankhead Seafood’s brick-and-mortar location made sour lemons into lemonade, pivoting to use its space to lend a hand to the local community during one of the most trying and unpredictable times.
With a lack of accessible grocery stores and medical equipment, the pandemic hit the residents of Grove Park especially hard. The area is widely regarded as a ‘food desert,’ a term defined by the USDA as “areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.” This only worsened when Giant Food, one of the last nearby grocery stores, abruptly closed its doors in February 2016, the effects of which still impact the community.
“There’s no grocery store, no pharmacy, no place to get fresh vegetables,” said LaTonya Johnston, the founder and executive director of PAWKids, nonprofit enrichment program, said in a video released in June. “The only place you can really go and get hygiene products is from the Family Dollar down the street.”
What the community really needed, especially during the pandemic, were basic food supplies and toiletries. And an organization like PAWKids just needed to find the right partner.
“PAWKids sits right next door to Bankhead Seafood, and there used to be a lot of tension,” Johnston says. “People in the neighborhood were saying ‘You know you’re a small entity on the block. Bankhead Seafood needs your space, so they’re gonna try to buy it and take it from you. That was the talk for months.”
But that wasn’t the case. Once they talked in person, the two groups realized it was more about collaboration than competition.
“Mike and his team actually came down, and they met with me,” Johnston says. “Mike called me to the side, and he's like, ‘Look, I don't want to buy PAWKids. You are an African-American woman doing the work for my community. We want you here. We want to partner with you -- let’s make this work.”
The original exchange led to Render’s unwavering support of PAWKids and the eventual partnering with Bankhead Seafood. Johnston remembers telling Render that genuine support would mean a lot more than a half-hearted donation, which led to the following Instagram video in which he urges his 1.6 million followers to donate at least one dollar to PAWKids’ cause.
“Although LaTonya’s not from Bankhead, she gets it,” Render says. “She has an organization that fulfills a lot of goals that many people wouldn’t even think of. We know the good that she’s doing directly within the community.”
In May, Bankhead Seafood partnered with PAWKids, and gathered in front of the future restaurant to serve 500 meals and gift families with $500 cash -- all in the name of providing COVID-19 relief as well as food security for the community. Since then, the partnership has managed to distribute more than 2,000 meals a week to those in need on the Westside.
“Giving back is not something you do just in times of pandemic. It’s not something you do because it’s Sunday, and you feel guilty because you didn’t go to church. It’s not something you only do on holidays,” Render said. “It is an essential part of the human existence that comes from living on the Westside.”
Render says that the restaurant is now meeting and talking with contractors, so faithful patrons can let out an exuberant sigh because Bankhead Seafood’s brick-and-mortar location is still slated for a grand reopening in 2021. The Black-owned restaurant has survived through multiple eras of Atlanta -- from the Civil Rights Movement to the 1996 Summer Olympics. It’s only right that Bankhead Seafood powers through the uncertainty of 2020 and uplifts its community along the way.
“People living in this community are getting a chance to work [here] without commuting 30 minutes elsewhere, and people who support Bankhead Seafood will get a chance to continue participating in its legacy,” Render says. “I’m willing to bet that we’re going to be a lot more philanthropic than a lot of the major corporations that just plop down and are culturally not from Bankhead or aren’t working class Black people.”
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