Discover grants helps Black-owned restaurants stay afloat

Cuzzo’s Cuisine is one of four Charlotte restaurants to earn $25,000 prizes from Discover’s Eat it Forward initiative.

Four Black-owned Charlotte restaurants won $25,000 each from Discover’s Eat it Forward program.

Leah & Louise, 22 Street Kitchen, Hot Box Next Level Kitchen and Cuzzo’s Cuisine Food Truck represent four of Discover’s 200 awards to Black-owned restaurants across the country. Restaurants have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Black-owned businesses are struggling to access funding to stay open as the disease economically and physically disproportionally impacts the Black community.

“COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on businesses across the United States, and we want to help effect positive change by offering financial support to Black-owned restaurants, a segment of the economy that has been disproportionately impacted during this pandemic,” Discover Executive Vice President and President of U.S. Cards Julie Loeger said in a statement. “Through this campaign, people across the country can support their favorite Black-owned restaurants. By sharing the names of these establishments on social media, it not only helps promote these businesses, but it also nominates them for a chance to receive $25,000.”

Eat it Forward runs through Oct. 31. Discover committed to giving $5 million to Black-owned restaurants, which are nominated through social media. To make a nomination on Twitter, tweet and mention the restaurant’s name and include @Discover, #EatItForward and #Sweepstakes. On Facebook, tag the restaurant in the comments of a Discover post asking for nominations for Eat it Forward. Instagram nominations consist of a photo posted by the user about the restaurant. Include #EatItForward, #Sweepstakes, tagging @Discover and the restaurant in your post. Make sure to @ both Discover and the restaurant in the caption as well. If the restaurant does not have an Instagram, you must still include its name in the caption.

Weekly drawings will conclude in November.

Leah & Louise is a modern juke joint based at Camp North End. The concept from James Beard-nominated Chef Greg Collier and his wife and business partner Subrina Collier was set to open in March. Then the pandemic hit, forcing them to shift their business model and menu for to-go style eating. They added a lunch menu the first month and family-style supper as well as opening the dining room in June.

They offer both indoor and patio seating which has helped them face the challenge of operating at a reduced seating capacity. However, as the weather gets colder, not as many people will want to sit outside, which necessitates adding heaters.

“It’s getting cold, and we had the benefit of people sitting outside,” Greg said. “Now we can add heaters so we can make sure that people can be comfortable in the wintertime outside.”

The Colliers participated in Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden’s Black Economic Summit at Camp North End on Sept. 23. Subrina asked Biden about what relief he would provide for restaurants and other small business owners. She pointed to the struggle minority business owners have faced in accessing national aid throughout the pandemic, as well as being forced to reduce staff and hours.

“Outside of getting to meet Vice President Biden and how wonderful that was, we needed an answer, because a lot of us in the restaurant community right now, we’re hanging on by a thread,” she said at the summit. “On the national level with the paycheck protection program, we know how that was fumbled by certain banks, and small Black businesses weren’t able to [access it], specifically a lot of the restaurants. We wanted some type of indication that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of the restaurants that are struggling and trying to hold on.”

The Colliers are also planning an outing for their staff to thank them for their work during the pandemic.

“We haven’t been able to do anything for them,” Greg said. “They just come to work, work as hard as they can. Some of them had to take pay cuts, hour changes and most of our employees are still here. We want to do something nice—an outing—a day to just kind of go and enjoy themselves, not worry about work, not worry about bills.”

The Colliers also intend to add a walk-in order station before November to serve lunch.

“There are so many things that this money is going to allow us to do, that we had been planning to do, but COVID-19 slowed those plans down,” Greg said.

Cuzzo’s Cuisine is known for its lobster mac and cheese and classic and gourmet Southern style. Co-owners and cousins Andarrio and Anglee Johnson bring their Low Country South Carolina upbringing to their style as chef and front of the house, respectively. Since April they have provided free lunch to children ages 12 and under, feeing over 500 children.

Creole fusion food truck 22 Street Kitchen launched in February. Owner Felicia Reese saw a loss of business during the beginning of the pandemic, as Uptown’s corporate scene dwindled, so did the lunchtime draw.

“We lost a lot of business going to corporations and downtown and festivals and things like that, but we gained some business by going to apartment complexes and neighborhoods,” Reese said. “As restrictions have eased up, we’re now going to breweries and other companies that are looking to celebrate their employees who are going to work [in-person].”

22 Street Kitchen also faced supply challenges from products not being available to an increase in prices. Funding from Eat it Forward will allow them to expand to a delivery operation, as well as providing employees who have been with them throughout the pandemic a paid vacation.

“We’re going to now offer delivery for some of the corporations that are running second and third shift,” Reese said.

Michael Bowling opened Hot Box Next Level Kitchen inside Southern Strain Brewing in 2019. He saw fellow chef and friend Russell Jackson, who owns Reverence in New York City, about Eat it Forward, but didn’t look deeper into it beyond seeing in on Jackson’s social media. Black Food Folks co-founder Clay Williams, an advocacy group for Black culinary professionals, reached out to Bowling about nominating Hot Box. They met through the James Beard Foundation, during Soul Food Sessions, which Bowling and the Colliers are co-founders along with fellow Charlotte chefs Jamie Turner, who creates deserts for Hot Box, as well as Jamie Barnes and Gregory Williams.

“They sent [photographer] Jonathan Copper over here to do some photos, and our social media manager Chrissy Carter started our campaign, and people started nominating us,” Bowling said. “When you enter these sweepstakes types of things, you never think you’re going to win. We got nominated hard for two weeks, and then I just moved on with life.”

Bowling found out about the Discover award in August.

“It was a Friday night in the restaurant,” Bowling said. “I’m working, and Chrissy keeps calling me, and I’m just like, ‘why is she calling me? It is 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night. What does she want?’”
Bowling got off the phone with Carter and read the Instagram message from Discover that they won.

“I just yelled out to my guys, ‘we won!’ and they’re like, ‘we won what?’” Bowling said. “I said, ‘we won the Discover award!’ Everyone in the dining room heard us, and they started clapping, and it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulder because we accrued debt and got behind on some things and this money was going to allow us to get back where we need to be.”

As they operate out of a brewery, Hot Box was closed during the first phase of the pandemic which limited traditional operations to selling beer to go. Online food orders are now part of the business model, but the transition was difficult.

“Because people only came here for beer and they happened to be able to get food originally, they weren’t coming for food, they were coming to pick up beer because the breweries sell beer to go,” Bowling said. “We had never done online ordering and delivery or any of that before. That wasn’t one of the options people knew us for. They knew they could come get a drink and get something to eat. We pretty much weren’t doing any businesses during Phase 1. It was pretty much just me and one of my sons [Izaiah and Nicholas Bowling], because I didn’t really have to pay them or myself. My sons would come to work, because they wanted to help, and I wasn’t really paying myself. We were lucky because the brewery let us slide on our rent while we were closed down. If it hadn’t been for that, we wouldn’t have survived. Right now, we’re a break-even restaurant. We’re not saving any money, but we’re not losing any, either.”

Around the first of the year, they intend to open a food truck extension of the restaurant based in West End, which is where Bowling wants to open a brick and mortar restaurant eventually.

Ahead of their one-year anniversary, they will have different chef specials, as well as a cookie decorating class with Turner for kids for Halloween.

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