The re-emergence of racist and sometimes violent encounters between Black customers and restaurant workers motivated a military veteran to create an app for safe eating spaces and experiences.
After his military service, Anthony Edwards returned to the United States and was struck by a couple of things. Against the backdrop of escalating racial strife in America, he noticed that there was no immediate access to an index of the nation’s Black-owned restaurants. “The question I asked myself was not only ‘where do we eat,’ but ‘where do we eat safely’,” says Edwards.
The solution was to build a smartphone application, except the endeavor took on a life of its own with every restaurant brought to his attention. “We started counting the number of Black and Diaspora restaurants in our neighborhood. There were a lot more than we anticipated, with even more opening.” The discovery led Edwards and his fiancé, Janique Bradley, to not only explore the other boroughs in their area, but to delve deeper into historically Black neighborhoods like Harlem in New York.
The partners created a business model for the application, and along with a third associate, Justin Johnson, they are executing their vision: eatOkra.
The first iteration of eatOkra was released in 2016, with a debugged relaunch in 2017. The pair chose to include okra in the title of the app because of the vegetable’s history. As a crop brought over with enslaved Africans, okra gives a nod to its inclusion in many African Diasporic food recipes. To date, eatOkra has 800-plus restaurants, coffee houses, and food-related events – such as pop-ups and food trucks – in its growing database.
Edwards, Bradley and Johnson manually entered the names and addresses of most restaurants on the app, while a handful of their users also contributed.
Right now, the majority of the Black-owned restaurants that users can access are located in major cities throughout 15 states in the U.S., including the District of Columbia. They also rely heavily on user-feedback in an effort to continually advance the app.
eatOkra is solely funded by the partners, but their business model includes paid options as well as a more advanced web-based application in the near future. For now, Edwards is enjoying the organic growth in users. With the recent increase of restaurant-related discrimination as seen with the Starbucks and Waffle House events, Edwards believes that the surge signals something worth noting.
“People want to experience community again, especially as it pertains to food. The app helps in locating those communities as they travel or simply desire to enjoy a meal without profiling and strife. It also means increased support of Black-owned businesses.”