This past Wednesday afternoon, Rakeem Saunders, a masked 19-year-old, waited outside Yardie Spice, an iconic Haitian-Jamaican restaurant on Krome Avenue in Homestead. He’d been yearning for his favorite dish for quite a while.
“I came here to pick up my jerk chicken,” he said, a smile melting in the summer heat. “I guess I have to eat it at home.”
Miami-Dade restaurants have been opening and closing ever since the pandemic broke out in March, leaving people like Saunders confused and sometimes disappointed when trying to stop in at their favorite eateries. County-mandated closings have left restaurants – among the hardest hit businesses by COVID-19 – scrambling to get by on delivery and pickup orders.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are approximately 2 million Black-owned businesses in this country, representing roughly 10% of American businesses overall. Restaurants make up less than 1% of that but are some of the most visible victims of the shutdown.
Jackson Soul Food, owned by Shirlene Ingraham and managed by her daughter, Cartanisha Jennings, is one of the community’s best-known restaurants.
“Before the pandemic, we were a thriving business,” said Jennings. “We were adding new things onto the menu every other week. Everything was going perfect.”
The restaurant’s most popular dish, shrimp and grits, often went out to customers via Uber Eats and Grubhub, which Jackson began using last year as its following grew. Business had increased 30% from 2019 until the coronavirus hit and dining rooms were first ordered closed in March.
Ingraham and Jennings chose to temporarily shut down its Overtown restaurant but kept their Opa-Locka location open for pickup and delivery.
“Leaving the Overtown site open would have endangered employees and customers. That hurt because the dining rooms accounted for 50% of our revenue,” said Jennings.
The family applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and received enough funds to keep paying its staff for a couple of months. Soon, though, the federal money will run out.
“We’re trying our best to keep everyone employed,” Jennings said. “We had to cut hours. Some of the staff have found side hustles. It’s hard, but I feel blessed to have our employees, our family and the love of our customers.”
“We’ve been open for seven years and every year it gets better,” said Jean-Paul Cadotte, owner of Yardie Spice. “But we’re new to dealing with a pandemic.”
Haitian-born and raised, Cadotte opened the restaurant – serving a variety of Caribbean food such as jerk chicken, oxtail, plantains and many other dishes – in 2013 with his Jamaican wife, Rochelle. The word “Yardie” is a term for members of the Jamaican diaspora.
After being closed for more than two months, Yardie Spice reopened the first week of June for dine-in service. Plenty of folks ordered the jerk chicken and oxtail, but more recently customers have focused on the sweet chili salmon, which is served with white rice and spicy guacamole.
“People began to order my favorite dish to cook, the sweet chili salmon,” said Cadotte. “When a guest sees the plate, their eyes light up and they say, ‘Oh, wow! I want to have that!’”
On July 6, the restaurant – like others countywide – was forced to close again. Cadotte received a PPP loan that will last for two months. He has had to cut back his employees’ hours. He recently leased a space next door, Felix’s Cafe, that went into foreclosure mid-July because of the pandemic. He hopes it will bring in more business after the pandemic and help him keep his staff.
“Our restaurant relies heavily on tourists, not just locals,” said Cadotte. “We have dropped in sales by about 60%. It’s been a low spot. [But now] I want to expand the dining room. Make it nice for customers to come in. More seating, more customers.”
Risking it all
Another business that has surrendered its profits so that employees can keep their jobs is Manjay, a modern Caribbean restaurant located in the Citadel. It was opened in February 2019 by two Haitian-born, raised and married restaurant owners, Christian and Sabrina Dominique. Christian’s grandmother had a restaurant in Haiti and the couple wants to continue the family tradition.
Before the pandemic, the business was doing well, showing steady growth each month. But with the first dine-in closure in March, Manjay sales dropped by 20% and continued to do so. The restaurant had to find a way to keep employees working.
“For two weeks, we had to close,” recalled Christian Dominique. “It was too risky for the employees to work. But I kept paying them their salaries. After a two-week period, I knew I couldn’t keep paying them if we weren’t operating. I contributed myself to their salaries. Whatever sales we make, everything goes to their salaries, the cost of goods sold and rent. We’re operating at a loss.”
Business picked up by at least 60% when dine-in service resumed.
“We started to feel like normal,” said Dominique. “It wasn’t like the numbers we had last year, but it was close to it, between 75% and 80% of what we were doing last year.”
But with the second closure order in July, sales dropped dramatically as Manjay returned to delivery and takeout.
“Now we sell less than 30%,” Dominique said. “It’s not catastrophic, but it’s really bad.”
In May the restaurant received a PPP loan to help cover employee salaries and rent, but it was meant to last just two months. Dominique applied for a federal disaster relief loan but was denied.
“Right now I’m using my savings and the money we’re making from take-out and delivery to keep the business floating,” Dominique said. “At any given point and time, you have employees that might lose their jobs. They have families too. That’s the hardest part for me.”
Lives in danger
Arline's Soul & Seafood Restaurant in Miami Gardens is also facing hardships.
“Before the pandemic, business was growing,” said owner Prancetta Washington, who started the place with her husband, Rawn Washington, in 2006.
“We were doing well before COVID. Our fried conch and breakfast are so popular,” she said.
It was hard to bear the loss of revenue after the temporary closure of dine-in service.
“I had 11 employees. Two of them, I had to let them go, and the others had to switch to part-time,” said Washington.
She received a federal loan, brought them all back, then saw business rise by 80% during the reopening – only to see it drop after two weeks. The loan ran out nearly three weeks ago. The staff has been limited to working just one or two days a week.
“It’s hard for the staff to work,” said Washington. “I feel like they’re putting their lives in danger because they have to interact with customers. But we have to keep the doors open to survive.”
To find more information on how to support Black-owned restaurants and to find one near you, visit dine.black and Black Pages Miami, or download the app EatOkra.