Diaspora

3 Black-owned food businesses in Central Florida to visit for Black History Month – Orlando Sentinel

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Black History Month is a time in which we honor the accomplishments of Black Americans too-often neglected in the past, but we can also do so by ensuring that moving forward, such accomplishments don’t go unacknowledged. Or, in the case of these Black-owned food businesses, uneaten.
Expand both your dining bubble and your impact on the small business community and honor Black History Month at the same time.
“Caribbean cuisine has become very popular on the mainland,” opines Vern Thomas, chef/owner of Island Thyme Caribbean Grille. “Especially in places like Florida where there is not only a mix and melting pot of people — some from the Caribbean — but also native Floridians who really appreciate those flavors.”
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Thomas, a native of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, spent decades as a corporate chef before deciding to take the leap to entrepreneurship in 2017.
“It’s always been a passion for me,” he says. “Growing up in the Caribbean there is just wonderful, made-from-scratch food, fresh every day, and I really wanted to introduce that experience to our community.”
That means items like johnnycakes — a simple, tasty fry bread — and St. Thomas style pates (similar to empanadas).
Thomas tries to educate customers about the U.S.V.I, and shows videos in his bright, casual eatery.
“Sometimes, people see Caribbean and think we’re a Jamaican place…” he says with a chuckle, “…but part of what we’re trying to do is showcase that there are many different cultures in the Caribbean. So, we do dishes that touch not only our island but showcase the Caribbean as a whole.”
Things like braised oxtail tacos and fried plantain lasagna alongside more expected dishes: jerk chicken, peas and rice.
Pre-COVID, Thomas’ challenges were typical — access to capital, resources to make the necessary purchases to open effectively — and amid the pandemic, his team pivoted toward a less profit-centered, more community-centered tack: Meals for five priced at just $25.
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“We could barely keep up with demand,” he admits, but times were tough for everyone. People were under quarantine and couldn’t go anywhere and I think it made a difference for the customers — and for us, too.”
What else has made a difference? Pepsi’s Dig In program (pepsidigin.com/), an effort that since its announcement in early 2021 has worked toward generating $100 million in sales for Black-owned restaurants over five years.
“Their team looked at every aspect of our business, from marketing and social media to search engine optimization for our website — even our point-of-sale system,” says a grateful Thomas. “They focused on all these different areas and really helped us to become a stronger company.”
Amid COVID, Island Thyme, like virtually every other restaurant, had become increasingly dependent on third-party delivery services, like Uber and DoorDash.
“But they require a significant charge to use them — like 30%” he explains. “[Dig In] gave us the capability to offer these third-party services to customers for a very reduced cost, and as margins for restaurants are already very tight, it was a significant improvement for us.”
It’s something he advises other Black restaurant owners to look into.
“They helped more people find us,” he says, noting that Island Thyme has seen its numbers rise. “We had a record Valentine’s Day.”
More info: 457 Avalon Park S. Blvd. in Orlando; 321-804-5357; islandthymegrille.com
Chef Jenny Chicoye hails from Brooklyn, but for about four years, she’s been treating folks around the City Beautiful to a taste of her family’s pre-New York roots on the island nation of Haiti.
However her griot, fried crispy as any other you might tuck into alongside red rice and beans or baked mac, is made of jackfruit, not pork.
“I’ve been vegan for just over eight years,” says Chicoye, who after time spent hitting up vegan events including the Orlando Vegan Market, is finally hanging a small shingle in the quaint confines of Winter Garden’s Main House Market. Alongside artisan soaps and coffee and kombucha flights guests will be able to sidle up for dishes like soup joumou, mixed veggie stew or diri djon djon (black mushroom rice) and a host of desserts (hello, Buku jar cakes!) that have quite a following.
“Seeing the vegan food scene now from where it was back then is really impressive,” she notes. “But even now, there aren’t many vegan Haitian food options.”
Chicoye, whose career journey took her from juice bar to the now-defunct Wildflower Cafe in Casselberry before leading her to make that leap, is excited to be a part of a growing scene for plant-based eaters.
“But I want you to like it because it’s good,” she says. “Not because it’s good for vegan food.”
Check her out in Winter Garden for some beefless pates and see for yourself.
More info: Located inside Main House Market, 108 S. Main St. in Winter Garden; 407-919-5402; bukukitchen.com/; facebook.com/bukuvegan; instagram.com/bukuvegan
Devon Ally, 26, always wanted to own his own business.
“I love coffee,” he says. “So the two naturally came together.”
And they did so beneath the roof of Sanford’s bustling Henry’s Depot food hall, where you’ll find Ally — originally from Guyana — brewing up everything from coffeehouse classics like mochas and macchiatos to otherworldly creations like the Indigo, made from butterfly pea flower.
Ally loves the work — it’s social nature, yes, but moreover, the product itself.
“Once I got into coffee, I studied for hours on end and wanted to know everything,” he explains. “When I ended up making it to the New York City Coffee Fest in 2018, it solidified my passion for the industry.”
Henry’s Depot, he says, is an amazing location in which to operate.
“It’s growing and has changed so much already in the time it’s been open,” he says, adding that he’s happy to be an example for future entrepreneurs.
“Every Black man or woman who has a dream like I had — to open their own business — should have that possibility.”
More info: Located inside Henry’s Depot, 212 W. 1st St. in Sanford; henrysdepot.com/mahogany-coffee
Want to reach out? Find me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @amydroo or on the OSFoodie Instagram account @orlando.foodie. Email: amthompson@orlandosentinel.com. For more fun, join the Let’s Eat, Orlando Facebook group or follow @fun.things.orlando on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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