WEST TOWN — When Bridgette Flagg opened Soulé in West Town nearly three years ago, her cajun and soul food dishes drew customers from outside the neighborhood to her 33-seat restaurant on Chicago Avenue.
Flagg’s recipes come from Sunday family dinners at her grandmothers’ homes. Fried catfish is a crowd favorite.
But amid nationwide protests overs the death of George Floyd — and with that, renewed focus on supporting Black communities — Flagg has seen a boost in new customers, she said.
Flagg, a Black woman, credited the boost to social media campaigns urging Chicagoans to patronize Black-owned businesses. She’s even had strangers offer her donations.
“I’ve never had that happen before,” Flagg said.
Soulé, 1931 W. Chicago Ave., is one of dozens of Black-owned restaurants name-dropped in lists of Chicago businesses to support in the spirit of uplifting Black entrepreneurs. The campaigns have been popular on social media.
Even as protests continue, activists and community leaders have promoted such businesses as a way for people to immediately do something tangible with their advocacy of Black lives.
Some businesses, such as Asrai Garden and Field and Florist in Wicker Park, went so far as to suspend their own sales and direct their customers to lists of Black-owned businesses.
How much of a difference have these campaigns actually made?
That data may be hard to quantify, but anecdotally the campaigns are working, said Chicago food writer and photographer Aaron Oliver.
Oliver’s seen an uptick in click-based referrals to Black-owned restaurants originating on his website. The data comes with a caveat: The majority of clicks are benefitting North Side restaurants.
Popular Wicker Park and West Town spots like Mr. Brown’s Lounge, Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern have seen higher click rates than restaurants on the South and West sides, Oliver said.
Oliver said he’d like to encourage supporters of the movement to venture outside their neighborhoods.
“The North Side is always ‘OK’ in terms of Black-owned business support,” he said. “My focus and drive was always to the South and West sides. … That’s where the majority of our Black businesses are.”
Based on Instagram posts, Oliver said many South and West side restaurants were still boarded up last weekend, unable to do business. Just one weekend of lost takeout revenue affects their bottom line, he said.
“Keep the energy going, keep supporting them even after everything is said and done,” he said. “I’m not saying you have to go there every day, but keep them in mind. Hit up a different business … . Do a repost or something. Any type of thing to drive a point home.”
‘I’ve Never Seen This Level Of Support’
The boost isn’t limited to restaurants. In Hyde Park, The Silver Room’s online store saw its biggest week of sales last week, said owner Eric Williams.
Many of the purchases were “pro-Black” items, such as Black Lives Matter flags, he said. Web analytics show about 80 percent of last week’s sales originated from social media.
“I’m 50 years old, I’ve been in this business 25-plus years. I’ve never seen this level of support in my life,” Williams said. “I do feel like there’s been an awakening and an awareness from all communities, but especially white communities … . There are people who are definitely, genuinely taking a look at themselves.”
Williams said he hoped newfound support for Black Chicagoans does not stop with buying a Black Lives Matter sign and hanging it in a window.
“Yes, donate money, but do some work,” he said. “Really, really study, really talk with your friends. That’s my larger hope. … To take a look at myself and say, ‘How can I be anti-racist?’ Rather than just giving $400 to somebody.”
Like all Chicago restaurant owners, Flagg was forced to pivot her business model to full-time carryout due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In doing so, Flagg was able to continue employing her kitchen staff, many of whom are formerly incarcerated. Her new customers are supporting those staffers just as much as they’re supporting her, she said.
Because Flagg’s takeout business has been strong during the shutdown, she said it’s hard to quantify how much of her recent boost is due to the social media campaign.
But she’s noticed a lot of new faces.
“I believe it worked,” she said. “My numbers were kind of the same, but … I do think that it did bring people in, people that didn’t know about it. On social media, they’re saying, ‘Hey, it’s my first time, the food was amazing.’ I think it really did help.”
Flagg asked Chicagoans to continue sharing lists of Black-owned businesses on social media.
“Keep posting on social media,” she said. “It doesn’t always have to be about the money. Getting the Soulé name out there … . Support doesn’t have to be monetary.”
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