BY SARAH C. LANGE | PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
The inviting atmosphere at Irie Zulu attracted record crowds at the first Milwaukee Black Restaurant Week.
During the first Milwaukee Black Restaurant Week (MBRW), my husband and I entered a happily bustling Irie Zulu, a new Wauwatosa restaurant serving African and Jamaican food in the space that previously housed the long-standing Kay’s Bridal Shop. As we made our way to the last available seats at the small bar, I reveled in the location’s transformation: The walls reflecting the lights glowed an inviting orange shade, and the stunning wood décor added even more warmth.
As more patrons arrived and stood to wait for a table, the tiny restaurant oozed feel-good energy, and at its center was owner Yollande Deacon. She welcomed us with an infectious smile, and stopped to chat with us twice more that evening, making us feel more like friends at an intimate gathering rather than just diners at her restaurant.
This feeling of community is exactly what MBRW organizers were aiming for and hope to build on during this year’s event, scheduled April 17 through 23.
BlankSpace MKE, the artist cooperative that organized MBRW, views chefs as artists in their own right. The group, whose goal is to marry art with activism, sometimes meets at restaurants, got to know the owners and wanted to help them.
“As consumers, we were like, ‘We know that it’s there, (so) why don’t we see more people supporting the business?’ We decided to do something,” says BlankSpace’s Bridget Robinson.
She and the other artist-organizers were aware that other cities, including Chicago and Memphis, Tenn., hosted successful black restaurant weeks, and they wanted to do something similar for black-owned businesses in the Milwaukee area.
BlankSpace reached out to black restaurant owners with its idea of MBRW, and Irie Zulu and Coffee Makes You Black were the first two of 20 restaurants to sign on.
Organizers created a Facebook page that reached more than 30,000 people, Robinson says. To help prepare participating businesses and spread the word further, graphic designers updated menus and marketing materials and a fashion designer created T-shirts for the event. BlankSpace also worked with restaurateurs to create a calendar of dining meetups for lunch and dinner throughout the week, and the meetups will return this year.
Dine at these places during Milwaukee Black Restaurant Week. For more info,
go to blankspacemke.weebly.com.
The Big Eazy
Chic Underground Lounge
Coffee Makes You Black
Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille
Mr. Perkins Family Restaurant
Nino’s Southern Sides
Something Smells Good
Stella J’s Soul Food
Terri Lynn’s Express
Tony’s BBQ Unlimited
“A lot of downtown professionals used the lunch period as a time to stop in places they had never been before,” Robinson says. “Daddy’s (Soul Food & Grille) had an opportunity to expand the business. They worked with interns from MATC’s culinary program (during MBRW), and they’re opening up a second location.”
“Last year was fantastic,” Deacon says. “We credit this event with giving Irie Zulu a deeper exposure in the African-American community. Fifty percent of the visitors during MBRW had never been to or heard of Irie Zulu.
“I love the way the organizers made clear to patrons that it was about empowering the community and businesses. Patrons were very engaged in learning our story and eager to support (us),” she says, adding that business soared 50 percent that week.
The popularity and reach of last year’s event surpassed organizers’ expectations. “It turned into an amazing response from folks not just locally but in the outskirts of Milwaukee,” Robinson says, mentioning that the event benefited many neighborhoods.
“This is more than just about going out to dinner; it’s about believing in the concept that local businesses need love,” she says.
“We believe that when we support local businesses (they) help the neighborhood where they’re located.”
That notion was validated: Businesses reported new hires and even commissioned artwork for their restaurants, says BlankSpace’s Symphony Swan.
Organizers anticipate that participating restaurants this year may double last year’s number, and BlankSpace is looking forward to partnering with other businesses that will encourage their employees to dine out on a given night. Above all, BlankSpace wants to capitalize on the sense of camaraderie and community it fostered last year.
“People are naturally interested in supporting each other,” Robinson says. “Sometimes you just need the right forum and venue to make that happen.” M