This story is part of QnotesCarolinas’ special project “Stories of Black LGBTQ Resilience and Economic Mobility,” which seeks to connect responses to economic security and upward mobility to the lives and futures of Black LGBTQ people. It is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
To learn more about solutions journalism, visit solutionsjournalism.org.
Food is a delicious part of culture. People look forward to partaking in holiday dinners, community feasts and regular evenings around the kitchen table. The lack of food, or food insecurity, is still a crisis 38 million Americans deal with every day .
According to FeedingAmerica.org, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased that number to more than 42 million, including a potential 13 million children. In listing some facts on food insecurity, Feeding America says that increased rates of hunger experienced by Black, Latinx and Native American communities are attributed to systemic racial injustice. Not included in their research are the staggering rates of hunger among LGBTQ communities of color. Numerous studies point to the increased difficulties faced by those dealing with the combined oppression of race and sexuality.
We’re talking about communities who don’t just suffer from systemic poverty, bias and stigma, but also people who know something about resilience and resourcefulness.
Food trucks are part of that.
These mobile chefs and deliverers of good eats are part of a quest for Black economic mobility that strengthens our economy through entrepreneurship while also increasing access to quality food in traditional food deserts.
Michael Faniel is a local young Black gay man who can throw down in the kitchen. He’s also working his way towards owning and operating his own food truck. His dream for “The Smoke” food truck hasn’t come to life yet, but he’s well on his way. As a budding entrepreneur, Faniel is steering a course for his own economic mobility. “The thing is, I had to know that I was going to be capable of making the idea a reality,” he says, “I’ve been talking about this since 2018 but it wasn’t until 2021 when I met a woman who builds, sells and owns her own food truck and commissary kitchen, that I actually started bringing my dream to fruition.”
Brookshire Commissary Kitchen in Charlotte offers assistance with buying, owning and operating food trucks and catering businesses. Entrepreneurs like Faniel have the opportunity to learn about successful business practices, proper licensing, food prep safety and can even utilize the professional kitchen to prep meals for catering gigs. For Darlene Clarke, the manager of Brookshire, Black economic mobility isn’t purely about material independence and wealth though. It’s also about civic involvement. While she’s guiding entrepreneurs in the details of food truck ownership and catering, she’s also urging them to seek upliftment through voting in local elections and holding local representatives accountable. An LGBTQ ally, Clarke is heavily invested in the economic mobility of the community.
Faniel is grateful for the help. “Can I tell you what she did for me, to make me feel like anything is possible?” he recounts, “We went into her office, and the first thing I discussed with her was my credit. It’s not the best. She gave me a person at Equifax to contact to help me rebuild my credit.” Clarke then provided advice on getting a loan. She directs entrepreneurs to have four banking strategies to be able to run a business successfully. “She told me she applies these strategies to her business and her personal life,” says Faniel.
“You can’t do anything without credit,” he says. Faniel knows that it takes so much more than just a food truck to make his dreams come true, “Good credit is the backbone to my economic mobility.” In the meantime, funding is still an obstacle. He launched a GoFundMe.com page and has been doing pop-up catering gigs to build his reputation. Good old-fashioned word-of-mouth referrals have been key.
Funding is an obstacle to many entrepreneurs, especially in the Black and LGBTQ communities. Forbes reports that entrepreneurs tend to start businesses when the economy is buoyant and flourishing, and few will consider 2021 the year to launch a business as the world is just picking itself up after the pandemic impacted most economies negatively.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), roughly 70% of all new businesses survive for the first two years. Beyond that, the chances of success fall to about 50% at five years.
However, home-based catering and food trucks have kept popping up the past few years, including during the pandemic. Though some people are struggling to make ends meet, food trucks are pretty popular when people are still hesitant about dining indoors.
When all is said and done, having a food truck or being a successful entrepreneur is not all that’s important to Faniel. He also wants to help the community. On his GoFundMe.com page, Faniel states that “He welcomes the hurt, the hungry and the happy into his world of culinary comfort with delicious dishes that put smiles on lips and hope into hearts.” His plans include offering meals to non-paying customers in need as well.
Black Food Truck Fridays
Cathay Dawkins launched the famed Black Food Truck Fridays in Charlotte nearly five years ago. He wanted to ensure that the Black Business Owners Corp, an organization he founded, could drive support to as many Black-owned businesses as possible.
Accountability is important to Dawkins. It is something that he has been building since 2014, when the BBOC (Black Business Owners of Charlotte) Marketplace was just a Facebook group. It grew so rapidly it was in the top 10 of all Facebook groups with a 90% engagement rate. With the assistance of three friends, Rosalind Richmond, Shemaine Pickens and Maleka Anderson, BBOC Marketplace transformed from a popular Facebook group to an official organization, now a 501(c)(3) non-profit. With a structure in place and folks from other cities taking notice, BBOC has since expanded to do more than serve as a networking tool for Black professionals. Dawkins was no longer satisfied with the provision of workshops, seminars and monthly membership meetings that focused on Black business development.
In 2017, BBOC launched a marketing campaign — Charlotte Black Restaurant Week (CBRW) to empower Black Owned Restaurants. Dawkins wanted to make sure “everyone eats” during Charlotte Black Restaurant Week, so the organization hosted a charity event called 2Fish5Loaves. It’s held each year on October 21, the birthday of his beloved deceased grandmother, Helen Gray Westfield. The 2Fish5Loaves event became a collaborative effort in 2020 when CBRW partnered with Block Love Charlotte, another non-profit that cares for neighbors experiencing hardships. It became a meaningful effort to reach more people and exceed the nearly 500 people they routinely feed during Charlotte Black Restaurant Week.
When the campaign started, BBOC had over 500 registered members, representing over 40 industries. That’s when Dawkins, never one to stop striving for more, created signature events like Black Food Truck Friday. The annual event soon morphed into quarterly ones, and as popularity continued to grow, it became a weekly event that Charlotteans of all races now flock to.
Black Food Truck Fridays provide opportunities for food trucks, retail, artisans and service vendors. To date, the event has over 700 registered vendors, traveling beyond the Charlotte area, and is attended by an average of 1500 patrons. It has proven to be so successful that chapters have been launched in Columbia, S.C. and Atlanta with a goal of launching three more within the next five years.
Every year BBOC events drive $1.7 million back into the pockets of hard-working entrepreneurs and into the Charlotte community. With all that goodness, you might imagine BBOC has faced challenges as well.
“I had to invest my own money into BBOC until 2018,” says Dawkins, “Everything was free — membership, entry into events. Even when we started Charlotte Black Restaurant Week, I was still investing my own money.”
Dawkins went on to say how sponsorship and volunteers are continuously being sought. When asked about the importance of BBOC efforts and its connection to Black economic mobility, he notes that historically Black communities have not had access to resources, “No one is gonna just give [to] us without seeing it as a handout. However, we understand the needs of our people. [Because many of us] live in the margins.”
“We are able to take those lived experiences and help our people,” says Dawkins.
When asked what the staple ingredient is for the Black community, Dawkins concludes, “We see entrepreneurship as the key to ending economic disparities.” He and his team, along with the many supporters of BBOC, are all making great strides in local economic equity and the mobility of Black communities in Charlotte and beyond.
Charlotte Black Restaurant Week returns this year with two full weeks starting October 18. To learn more, visit bboclt.com.
For updates on Black Food Truck Friday, follow the Facebook group or follow them on Instagram @blackfoodtruckfridays.