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Black Restaurant Challenge

Initiative aimed at boosting business at local black establishments

Dominique Rouge
Black Restaurant Challenge
Cecelia Lizotte’s Suya Joint hosted the kick off for the Black Restaurant Challenge.

The Boston Black Restaurant Challenge, organized by state Representative Chyna Tyler and the Urban Affairs Group, kicked off on Feb. 1 at Roxbury’s Suya Joint. The Dudley Square restaurant, lounge and bar that specializes in African cuisine was an appropriate jumping-off point for a promotion of black-owned restaurants.

On the Web

For more information about the Boston Black Restaurant Challenge, visit: https://bostonblackrestaurantchallenge.weebly.com

For more information about Suya Joint, visit: https://suyajoint.com/

“We want to highlight black-owned businesses in the city — especially businesses like this, that are able to get liquor licenses, which are few and far between,” said Rufus Faulk, the head of the Urban Affairs Group that helped Tyler organize the event. “We need to make sure that we’re maximizing those dollars, so that these business stay afloat and bring economic vitality to their neighborhoods.”

Tyler noted the effect of local businesses on the economy of a community.

“Local businesses hire local people,” she said. “It’s a first entry point into the workforce, your local businesses. Restaurants hire a lot of different people. As much as we can boost our businesses through the Black Restaurant Challenge, we can help build our workforce.”

Challenge organizers are asking people to visit four black-owned restaurants in Boston during the month of February and share photos and videos on the Challenge’s Facebook page. A list of 38 featured restaurants in several neighborhoods can be found on the website for the kickoff event.

Faulk noted that the choice of where to spend money has transformative power.

“We want to show people that if they are intentional about where they spend their money, and support these businesses, the businesses can begin to thrive, they can hire more people, create more community events, and, through a ripple effect, change the dynamic of neighborhoods,” he said.

By garnering more support for local businesses, organizers say, the Boston Black Restaurant Challenge can also encourage more people to go into business for themselves.

“A lot of people around here have great ideas, great potential, are very skilled, can cook very well, and are jacks and jills of all trades,” Tyler said. “If they could just see a place like Suya Joint in their neighborhood, they would think ‘Hey, I can cook really well, maybe I can open a place like this myself.’”

Visibility

Suya Joint has been popular with local residents and members of the Nigerian community in the two years since its opened, but broader visibility could attract a larger customer base.

Tyler teamed up with several groups for the Boston Black Restaurant Challenge, including the Dorchester-based Outside the Box Agency, a marketing and PR firm.

“Visibility is the key issue here,” said Outside the Box principal founder Justin Springer. “Not a lot of people know about Suya, even though it’s an amazing restaurant. We can’t wait for the Boston Globe to do coverage or Phantom Gourmet to make a documentary. That’s why we’re promoting places like Suya Joint. We’ll visit different restaurants through this whole month, interview the owners, and get their stories out there on different platforms, like Facebook Live.”

Springer snapped footage for Instagram and Facebook as Suya Joint filled in celebration that evening.

Employees at the restaurant increase its visibility through the restaurant’s social media presence. Shamara Rhodes, founder of the organization Bringing Back Boston, also DJs for Suya Joint at its weekly events.

“It’s been an amazing experiencing working for Suya Joint, networking with people in the city, and then bringing into the restaurant to show them African food,” said Rhodes.

Drive and tenacity

To tell the story of Suya Joint, one must understand the determination of its founder, Cecelia Lizotte. She opened the restaurant in 2012, after emigrating from Nigeria in 1999.

“I worked for National Lumber as a receptionist. I would make my own lunch and bring it to work. This co-worker sees it and asked, ‘Where did you buy that from?’ and I told him I made it.”

Lizotte catered jobs for this co-worker for three years, until he offered to be her partner in business, which meant providing the capital to open a restaurant.

“What drove me was my grandmother in Nigeria,” Lizotte said. “I saw her cook for the whole entire community, and even though they were paying, people were so excited to come and eat her food. The excited and happy faces gave me the drive. And the lack of African establishments in the Boston area.”

She reached out to members of the community to find the resources she needed.

“You can see online what you need to do to open a restaurant. You file with ServSafe, for example. And if you don’t know how to do it, there’s always a number that you can call. I called the police department in Hyde Park, for example, telling them what I was trying to do and asking about ServSafe. Through making those kind of connections, I got leads. I learned about CropCircle Kitchen (a food business incubator) in Jamaica Plain, for example, which helped me.”

The way that Lizotte prepares food exemplifies her tenacity.

“A lot of the ingredients I use, I have to get from Africa,” she said. “They’re dense, costly and it’s often my mother going and getting them. I use quality control and make sure she gets the best ingredients. Most of the time, really, I fly over there to get it, and bring back the ingredients myself.”

At the kickoff of the Black Restaurant Challenge last week, the faces of people eating Lizotte’s cooking looked both happy and excited.