Grilled chicken hot dogs with fresh strawberries, feta cheese and spicy arugula, folded in a fluffy bun. Sweet potato cheesecake topped with a toasted marshmallow topping. A rich banana pudding with cinnamon and snickerdoodle swirls.

Is your mouth watering yet? That’s the hope of the owners participating in Black Restaurant Week, which returned this month with its fourth iteration in the Greater Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area. The celebration is more than just an opportunity for fun food discounts, though — the main goal of the promotional campaign that kicked off Sunday and will last through July 30 is to give more visibility to Black-owned culinary businesses.

Lashauna Jones, who owns Sporty Dog Creations with her daughter Daejonne Bennett, said the event, which she is participating in for the second time, has opened doors to networking opportunities that have been monumental for her growing business.

“I’ve gotten connected with so many people that have led to money [and] customers who’ve been excited to know that we’re not just Black-owned, but women-owned,” Jones said. “Those people have been continuing customers. Any opportunity to grow my consumer base is exponential for a small business.”

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Black Restaurant Week has also allowed Jones to take part in opportunities the organizers offer, such as free entry-level business registration in national culinary organizations and access to small business grants and business development training.

With the right connections and visibility, Jones is confident that the flavors of her specialty hot dogs — her most popular, the Baltimore Black Sox Dog, is an all-beef or vegan hot dog with black-eyed pea chili and caramelized onions — can speak for themselves. “We just got awarded nationally by PETA for our vegan dog,” Jones said. “We have one of the top 10 hot dogs in the nation.”

Yet challenges remain. “The pandemic makes it difficult for a small business to recover,” Jones said. She hopes to ensure a more stable cash flow by selling her wares wholesale, but said it’s hard to push her products through a market that doesn’t have a lot of minority owners.

“How many new hot dog makers have you really seen out there?” she asked. “Typically, you don’t see a women-owned minority business in that industry. The challenge overall is are we even capable?”

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 20% of U.S employer businesses were minority-owned in 2020. According to a Black Restaurant Week press release that cites the Independent Restaurant Coalition, 1.1 million minority-owned businesses often face heightened challenges and disparities when securing business funding, and like Jones, face a market that has disproportionately fewer minority owners.

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Sumayyah Bilal, who owns Codetta Bake Shop, said she cashes in on several outlets to ensure a cashflow strong enough to support her business, such as deliveries, catering, corporate and custom orders, wholesale and retail.

It’s her second year participating in Black Restaurant Week, during which she will feature some of her most popular products and summer flavors ― such as a fresh peach cobbler cheesecake that sells out almost every weekend — for both her new and mainstay customers.

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“Any opportunity that we get to be featured on platforms that highlight Black-owned restaurants, we kind of jump at the chance,” Bilal said. She has found success with it in in the past: Larger-scale collaborations have helped Bilal form relationships with some of the city’s big players, leading to catering opportunities for her small business with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Domino Sugar, Under Armour, the CIAA tournament’s opening reception, Live Baltimore’s Birthday Bash and state Comptroller Brooke Lierman’s inauguration.

Bilal doesn’t have a physical store yet, and currently operates from the kitchen at Light Street Presbyterian Church with retail hours on Friday and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and again from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., a session Bilal calls “Codetta After Dark.”

Keeping any sort of storefront is difficult as the effects of the pandemic continue to take a toll. According to data from Technomic, a restaurant research firm, there were roughly 72,000 fewer restaurants last year than in 2019. The firm said the number may fall even further, and that even by 2026, the number of restaurants aren’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels.

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Crazy Puddings owner Jamal Wiggins whips up cream and sugar in a smaller capacity at his brick-and-mortar shop on West 25th Street. He specializes in banana pudding jazzed up with specialty flavors such as Strawberry Crunch and snickerdoodle.

“Coming up with the different flavors is unique in its own way,” Wiggins said. “I may be in a market walking down the aisle, and some cookies I may see, and I’m like, that’ll go good with banana pudding. It just comes to mind.”

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He’s hopeful Black Restaurant Week will help him gain more visibility as he continues to look into acquiring a bigger storefront.

“I’m trying to expand as a business, a bigger space, different area,” he said. “I’ve been here about three years now, so definitely time to upgrade and change the scenery.”

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Visibility is also the main focus for Olamide Adeshina, the media and marketing director at Posi’s Kitchen, who wants more people to know about the flavors of Africa. A specialty Nigerian restaurant owned by brothers Olamiposi Lawal and Dolapo Lawal, Posi’s boasts popular dishes such as pounded yams and melon seed soup, herb lamp chops and shrimp kabobs.

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“Restaurant weeks usually bring about more people into the city,” Adeshina said. “I think visibility is a problem these next few weeks can address.”

Check out a full list of the eateries participating in Black Restaurant Week.

Sunny Nagpaul has been a freelance reporter since 2017, and covers arts and culture & homelessness and housing. She enjoys creating video newscasts, and has in the past worked in child care, as a line cook, and is interested in learning investigative tips for deeper stories.

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