Food & Drink

How This Restaurant Directory App Is Helping Black-Owned Restaurants Around the Country

How a Brooklyn couple is revolutionizing the tech space one restaurant at a time.

Anthony Edwards Jr. and his wife created EatOkra to highlight Black-owned restaurants nationwide | L: Marcus Branch / Thrillist; R: Courtesy of EatOkra
Anthony Edwards Jr. and his wife created EatOkra to highlight Black-owned restaurants nationwide | L: Marcus Branch / Thrillist; R: Courtesy of EatOkra

My discovery of EatOkra resulted in a deep sigh of relief as my days of sifting through numerous search results for “Black-owned restaurants near me” had finally come to an end. EatOkra is an app created by Anthony Edwards Jr. and his wife, Janique Bradley, that provides a database of Black-owned restaurants and even connects you to your favorite delivery app if the option is available. But what originally started as an easier way to discover Black-owned restaurants in Brooklyn has grown into a megahub of Black eateries across the country. 

Edwards spent six years in active duty for the Army and three years in the Air Force Reserve. His experience as an avionics technician and his passion for technology helped him make a difference in his local community. After leaving the Army, Edwards attended Fordham University to study computer science and eventually went to coding bootcamp to learn more about web design.

“The app came about initially because my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, had just moved to Brooklyn from the Bronx,” Edwards said. “We wanted to support the local community and we wanted to get to know Brooklyn.” 

Like myself, Edwards and Bradley took to the Internet to search for restaurants in their neighborhood and came upon related articles, social media posts, and blogs, but realized that a better idea would be to develop an app that highlighted Black-owned restaurants on one centralized platform. The name of the app developed from an homage to one of the primary African foods transported to America during the slave trade.

Donna Drakes and her son Jamal Joseph are the owners of Cafe on Ralph | Marcus Branch/Thrillist

“The name comes from the okra seed, which is cut in half. Okra was a seed that was brought over during the slave trade,” he said. “Originally we wanted the app just to be called ‘Okra’ but that was taken, so since it was a food app, we thought to just throw the word ‘eat’ in front of it or after it and it worked.” 

Together, Edwards and Bradley set out to create a resource that would organize data and make it easier for people to search for places according to their geolocation. 

And that, they did. Since its development in 2016, EatOkra has been downloaded roughly 75,000 times by hungry and curious souls seeking good food. However, the couple’s desire to explore their local neighborhood was fueled not only by wanting to try all Brooklyn had to offer, but also to literally put Black-owned spots on the culinary map in areas of gentrification. 

Gentrification takes many forms in the boroughs of New York City, most notably through a significant increase in rent since 1990, which pushed out many low income native residents and in turn, many potential business owners who could not afford the price of renting a space.   
 
Edwards’ commitment to helping Black-owned businesses stay afloat by showcasing them on EatOkra is rooted in the unfortunate reality that Black restaurant owners do not receive as much monetary support as other business owners, resulting in their businesses closing at higher rates. 

“I don’t want to see us close so often. It’s difficult to stay in the restaurant business and we at least would like to help the restaurants get past the one-year mark,” Edwards said. “Black restaurant owners have typically not been given the same opportunities financially as their peers.”

Still, Black-owned businesses on average receive less funding and financial support from bank lenders due to discriminatory practices and have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. A survey conducted by Color of Change and UnidosUS in May found only 12% of Black and Latinx small business owners received the temporary funding they requested through the Paycheck Protection Program. Almost 75% reported they received no funding and 21% are still stuck waiting to hear if they will receive any assistance.

A 2017 economic analysis released by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer showed Black-owned businesses declined from 2007 to 2012. Many classic Brooklyn spots have been around for a while like Soco which opened in 2011 and Cheryl’s Global Soul in 2006. But there are other restaurants on the app that opened within the last five years, including Greedi Vegan in 2018, Tilly’s in 2017, and BK9 in 2015. 

The Bergen's owner, Ty Brown, is currently in the process of opening a second location | Marcus Branch/Thrillist

The Bergen, located in Crown Heights, just opened on January 15 of this year and owner Ty Brown has kept his business up and running ever since thanks to support from his staff and the local Brooklyn community. 

Over the past few weeks, various lists of Black-owned restaurants around the country have circulated social media platforms after the murder of George Floyd caught the attention of the world. Along with these lists, EatOkra also features the casual burger, wings, and seafood joints which has created a surge in business. 

“Just like we see the diverse amount of people at many of these rallies and marches, the feedback has been very diverse,” Brown said. “It’s not just Black people looking for Black businesses to purposely support. It’s a very diverse audience of people and as the owner, I’m blessed that I don’t have to work in the restaurant so as I’m hanging out around the restaurant and people are coming up, they are mentioning that they came because they saw our name on the lists.”

The possibility of being denied a loan or funding from a bank was never a concern for Brown as he said he was able to self-fund The Bergen through saving properly, setting money aside and taking the process of opening a business step by step. 
“I’m self funding the next few projects and it’s not because I was born rich but because I don’t want to experience those setbacks or downfalls,” he said. “We have enough working against us.”  

He is currently in the process of opening up a second location with the assistance of local investors, who he said have played an integral role in making community-based economics work. 

“We are working on The Bergen 2, and we will take on 4 to 6 investors so we can share the economics and success of The Bergen,” Brown said. “I’m happy we don't have to go to a bank or submit documents and be turned down for whatever reason. If we continue the communication, we can find the right people in the community willing to learn how to invest, learn how to join our coins together, make things happen and build from business to business.”

Cafe on Ralph serves a variety of brunch and breakfast dishes, including yogurt parfait and baked pancakes | Marcus Branch / Thrillist

The effects of COVID-19 on restaurants in New York City were severe as many restaurants temporarily or permanently closed, or are now offering adjusted delivery and takeout options. One spot not too far from where I live is Cafe on Ralph, an airy brunch-focused spot that serves one of Edwards’ favorite dishes: vegan pancakes topped with Cassis puree, coconut butter, and edible flowers.

Donna Drakes and her son, Jamal Joseph, are the combined force behind the Bed-Stuy cafe which recently began offering grocery delivery to help the local community in the midst of COVID-19. Drakes is also the owner of Brooklyn Beso, which provided her with the experience and financial capital necessary to take over Cafe on Ralph from its original owners in 2018. 

“I had an idea of what I wanted, I had the help, and I was financially equipped to do so versus when I first started,” Drakes said. “It was way easier building Cafe on Ralph.”

Aside from EatOkra, Cafe on Ralph also appears on multiple New York-based lists and as a result, Drakes said there’s been an increase in customers and followers on their Instagram page. Like Brown, Drakes also wants to see change in the future regarding the support of Black-owned restaurants. 

“I don’t want what happened 100 years ago on Black Wall Street to happen again. I think it’s not really just a Black or white thing, it’s a human thing,” she said. “People don't understand what it takes to run a business, how hard people work or what they had to go through to get the doors open. The community should all come together.”

EatOkra is one way the community is coming together. The response has been positive according to Edwards, who told me he and his team are in the process of adding nearly 3,000 more restaurants to the app’s database. He said this, of course, is too high of a number for him and his wife to get through in a timely manner, so they have started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to expand their staff. 

“We’re asking for help from the community because they seem really passionate and excited about what we’re doing,” Edwards said. “We just want to make our data more broadly used and more accessible. We don't want to miss any of the restaurants, but that's something we’re going to need help with and one of the main reasons we’re crowdfunding.” 

Kristen Adaway is an editorial assistant at Thrillist. She's probably on her way to get a shrimp po' boy from The Bergen right now. Follow her on Twitter.