Black food founders recognize progress, call for trust and community
Back in 2019, Lilian Umurungi-Jung launched Mumgry, a successful line of all-natural nut butters. Like the rest of us, she had no idea what global chaos would upend the world for the next three years. And, like many entrepreneurs, she questioned if she could continue with her business.
But her uncertainty was put on ice one day when Beyoncé showcased Mumgry on her website, among more than 100 other Black-owned brands.
The impact of the shoutout was immediate. It led to orders from across North America, and Umurungi-Jung says it gave her business a platform. "We took that opportunity and said, 'Okay, now we're going to do really cool things that are going to impact our community and different people.'"
Umurungi-Jung is part of Vancouver’s growing crop of Black food entrepreneurs seeing success and awareness. They span consumer-packaged goods (CPG), restaurants, bars, and other food service businesses.
But despite recent movements forward on social progress and attention on Black culture, there is still work to do. The Straight spoke to many food-focused Black business owners who highlighted progress and the power of trust and education to create positive change. They also reflected on ongoing challenges unique to the community.
With a 60 per cent failure rate, the food service industry is a difficult business. But for Black restaurateurs, challenges can begin before the first dinner service. Case in point: Cullin David, chef and co-owner of Caribbean-focused Calabash Bistro, recalled resistance to the eatery’s concept in its very early stages.
He had explained the concept to a white patron at an establishment he worked at before, and the response was, "Well, your food's amazing, but I just don’t think it'll work in Vancouver. I think it’s a mistake." David says that person’s reasoning was obvious: they believed Black food in Vancouver was not going to make it. Fortunately for local foodies, Cullin ignored this person's advice. "I heard that and I took it and I was like, 'No, I just don't agree with it at all,'" he said. Thirteen years later, Calabash Bistro is now a city staple.
Even once operating, Black businesses can face increased challenges or scrutiny. Cullin remembers going to a bank with his co-founders (one Black and one white) and he could see the lack of trust from the people they were meeting. "We had to get creative on how we presented," Cullin said. "We had a white guy in our partnership group, so we actually utilized that to our advantage, which we shouldn't have to do."
Umurungi-Jung shared a similar view on how being Black has had an impact on getting financing for Mumgry—not a decade ago, but today.
"What I've noticed is that there are far greater hurdles, in my experience, versus my non-Black counterparts," she said. "I know that, factually… I've heard directly from loan providers themselves, saying, 'We've never seen this type of examination before. Yours is very intense compared to anything we've ever seen before.'
"When you hear things like that, it's hurtful."
Asha Wheeldon, the founder of Kula, an Afrocentric plant-based foods company, echoed statements about the extra work Black entrepreneurs must do to get equal consideration. Although more Black-owned businesses have emerged, she said "there are barriers when trying to sustain and grow our businesses due to minimal support and willingness to engage. Specifically, as a CPG brand, it’s been challenging to get our products on retail shelves."
But when times are tough, positive words of encouragement can help entrepreneurs to keep going.
"You reach a point where you kind of… feel defeated, but what keeps you going is the community," Umurungi-Jung said. "It’s the people who say, 'Okay, well, I'm not going to stop supporting you guys. I really need you to be in this store.' And it just motivates you to keep going."
Community is a recurring theme when it comes to what has enabled and motivated these entrepreneurs. But everyone we spoke to says the mere size of Vancouver’s Black population can hold it back too.
According to the 2022 census, just 1.6 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s 2.6 million residents identify as Black. Christopher Boreland, owner of Elbo Patties, said that because the city’s Black community is so small, "you still have to go outside" of it for sustained growth and support.
"If you're only dealing with the same circle, meeting Black entrepreneurs, helping Black entrepreneurs, we will go a long way," added Justin Tisdall, a co-owner of Juke Fried Chicken. "But we're also not necessarily changing the minds of people on the other side of that circle."
Fortunately, Tisdall believes the wheels are in motion to elevate Black perspectives and entrepreneurs in the city. "There are Black coalitions. There are all these things that are starting, which hadn't happened years ago, partially because there probably weren't as many of these businesses, or these businesses didn't have a voice. They needed to be able to connect with each other," Tisdall noted. "So now that we know we have the tools, I think it's great to see people starting to utilize them and starting to use their voices in positive ways."
As for what’s needed from people outside of the Black community, Umurungi-Jung says trust and transparency are key. "I think that there's a huge lack of trust when it comes to certain people in positions that can hold back your success."
For these entrepreneurs, it feels like Black History Month can be a time when there is a bit more trust and space for them. But they wish it extended to the rest of the year. "I’m Black every day all day," Boreland said. "But when we're talking about how people show up in support, there's definitely an influx of it during this month, as short as it is. I would just basically say, it would be nice [if] they kept that same energy the other 11 months out of the year."
"I love being busy," he said, "but I hate the reason behind why I'm busy."
When it comes to the makeup of food industry businesses in B.C., the data is basically nonexistent. In fact, even when looking at just restaurants, Ian Tostenson, CEO of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, admitted there’s no tracking. "There are no stats on this," he said over email. "The [only stats] we have by market feel is that about 40 per cent plus, of all restaurants have an ethnic proposition."
Without data, it’s not clear how to measure progress. Still, Juke’s Tisdall sees change all around him—and increased visibility is important in and of itself. "I'm a true believer of 'you can't do it until you see it,'" Tisdall said. "I never really had a lot of people of colour in front of me. But there's definitely a lot of people of colour that work around us now, or who have raised up to the level where we're at.
"I think Vancouver is at a really interesting point in time right now, because there are probably the most Black entrepreneurs that we've ever had. So, every day people are operating, you're creating Black history, right? Every day that goes forward, you're just building your businesses more, and hopefully affecting more people in a positive way."