Black History Month 2022: Celebrating African American Cuisine
As Kapitus continues to celebrate Black History Month, we are turning our attention to the contributions that African Americans have made to the foodservice industry. Did you know that foods and dishes that we take for granted as American staples, such as black-eyed peas, jambalaya, okra, and rice pudding all exist because African Americans brought them to this country?
We also have African Americans to thank for savory, smokehouse barbeque restaurants. The first African American restaurant, Jones Bar-B-Que, was opened in 1910 by Joseph Jones in Mariana, AR. The establishment was originally named “Hole-in-the-Wall” because it was literally “just a window in a wall where they sold smoked meat from a washtub” in the backwoods of Arkansas, said Hubert Jones, nephew of Joe Jones who operated the restaurant in the 1960’s, in an old interview.
The restaurant was eventually moved across town and renamed Jones’ Bar-B-Que. Remarkably, it’s still in operation today and is run by descendants of Joe Jones – James Jones and his wife Betty under the name Jones Bar-B-Que Diner. The restaurant has been recognized by the Encyclopedia of Arkansas as the oldest restaurant in the state, as well as the first one owned and operated by an African American Family. It also credits Joseph Jones as the first person to create a business out of the smokehouse barbeque cooking style.
While the restaurant simply looks like a humble house from the outside, residents still flock to it for the original smokehouse barbeque flavor that it introduced in 1910. In 2012, the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to American Culinary Arts, presented its “American Classic” award to the diner.
This Week’s Profile
Following the opening of Jones Bar-B-Que, African Americans have had a proud history in the
foodservice industry – a sector that is particularly difficult to survive in for anyone. One example of this tradition can be found in Chicago – Bitoy’s Sweet Treats, a boutique, black-owned gourmet food company that offers homemade gelato, popcorn, hand-dipped apples, cheesecake jars, infused beverages and confections to the Austin area on the city’s West side.
Kapitus had the pleasure of having a conversation with its founder, Layla Bitoy-Dillon, on what drives her success and how she was able to overcome the hurdles posed by the pandemic and being a black business owner.
The Grit of a Small Business Owner
Few people are tougher or have to overcome more obstacles than a small business owner, and this especially rings true for Bitoy-Dillon. Like most small businesses – especially food service businesses – Bitoy’s Sweet Treats was hit hard during the pandemic and was forced to temporarily close for a short time in 2020. After receiving a Neighborhood Opportunities Fund Grant from the City of Chicago, the shop reopened in July 2021, only to be hit with two burglaries on top of rising food costs and rising wages.
Those hurdles, however, didn’t stop Bitoy-Dillon, who showed the toughness and grit of most small business owners by plowing through and reopening anyway.
“After battling multiple burglaries, vandalism, rising food costs, and overall compression that the pandemic has had on the world and especially small businesses, we have continued to thrive,” she said. “Most importantly, I am grateful to be able to continue to provide jobs and pioneer pivotal shift for business sustainability in an underserved community (Chicago’s Austin Community) during the pandemic.”
Infusing Her Own Tastes
Bitoy’s Sweet Treats was launched in 2015 by Layla Bitoy-Dillon after she visited Italy and fell in love with Italian homemade ice cream. Bitoy-Dillon decided to infuse her family-favorite flavors into homemade gelato, and now sells flavors such as banana pudding, sweet potato pie, peach cobbler and red velvet.
Bitoy-Dillon said she became a small business owner not just to follow her passion for the food service business, but because she also became disillusioned with the corporate world as well.
“I became a small business owner for a few reasons,” she said. “First, I watched my father run a successful business and thought it was so cool that he was his own boss. Second, I wanted to create a culture and environment with the supporting operating models and systems that I knew worked. My corporate background focused on management consulting, and I had an opportunity to learn what the big guys were doing great and not so great. Fourth, I was tired of outperforming on my job yet not receiving proper pay and value for my skills and talent.”
Overcoming Racial Disparity
Bitoy-Dillon said that she has had to overcome hurdles as a African-American business owner, especially when it comes to access to capital and business mentorship programs.
“I have faced the challenge of not getting a seat at the table,” she said. “Far too often, I have the credentials, certifications, and a superior product, but I am overlooked, or not even aware of the opportunity. Largely that can be attributed to social equity gaps and also operating in a underserved community where the leadership doesn’t have the resources, capacity, and knowledge to assist. Furthermore, even when applying for government funds from some of the recent SBA initiatives, we were met with roadblocks on receiving funds due to lawsuits blocking programs and initiatives set out for social equity.”
Technology and Customer Relations are Key
When asked what makes her business unique, Bitoy-Dillon said that the quality of her hand-crafted products, personalized customer service and pivoting to eCommerce has enabled Bityo’s Sweet Treats to thrive, even during the dark days of the pandemic.
“In a nutshell, we are one of the few African American-owned sweet shops providing handcrafted gelato, popcorn, and confections in an underserved community,” she said. “Our products, quality and service would be what makes us unique. This sounds pretty basic, but it’s the truth. We focus on our key products made fresh with love and serve it with a smile.
“What makes our business unique is that we have blended personalization with technology. This model allows us to provide long lasting relationships with our customers but with a bit of technology to help out with process flow. We have successfully pivoted to e-commerce (AMAZON Marketplace) and virtual fundraising as alternate customer acquisition channels during the pandemic.”
Bitoy-Dillon said that the COVID-19 pandemic set up hard challenges for her and the company’s 10 employees, but she has been able to overcome them with competitive pay and safety protocols.
“Our culture creates a unique space to work with competitive pay,” she said. “We treat our employees good and want to retain them. We also have COVID-19 safety protocols in place to ensure their safety and the safety of our customers. Rising food and supply costs are killer. We try to balance our prices with specials or deals to help customers understand our challenges but ensure they are still getting value. In general, we try to find alternate ways to package and innovate on a daily basis. Our menu is ever-changing, and we have fun with it.”