“It’s not rocket science.” When KJ Kearney says this, it’s not sarcastic, it’s optimistic and downright hopeful. The Charleston, South Carolina, native has devised a plan to garner widespread support for Black-owned food and beverage businesses across the country (and beyond), one that relies on nothing more complicated than our universal love of food. It’s a project called Black Food Fridays, and its mission is simple: to get Americans to make a habit out of ordering from Black-owned restaurants each Friday by sharing great photos of the food, plus posting fun historical facts about Black people’s contributions to the food industry.
The BFF movement is a synthesis of a lot of Kearney’s paths in life: he holds a business degree, he used to cover hip hop and streetwear culture, he managed to make Red Rice Day an official holiday to honor Gullah Geechee culture, and he currently works within the education system. “[Black Food Fridays] has been the perfect opportunity to manifest all those skills I’ve picked up since my freshman year of college,” Kearney says.
Whether on Instagram, TikTok, or BFF’s dedicated website, you’re increasingly likely to see Black Food Fridays cross your path; the project has seen exponential growth in its ten short months of existence. The Takeout spoke with Kearney about his work, and how supporting Black-owned businesses can change the world.
The Takeout: How did Black Food Fridays come about?
KJ Kearney: I’ve got to give all praises due to Beyoncé, for without her, this literally wouldn’t have happened. I was writing a book; I was three chapters in on a book I wanted to write about the parallels between Beyoncé and civic engagement. Beyoncé is the ultimate community organizer. But it was kind of heavy in terms of research, and I needed a break. Because I’m a nerd, a “break” was to do more mental work, just different mental work. I had this idea of documenting Black-owned restaurants that were open during COVID, so I made a logo, got the Gmail account—I did everything in 30 minutes and started the account on April 5 .
I had planned on making it just a side hustle, a hobby. But then by the end of June I realized I had something on my hands. It started as an Instagram account, primarily to talk about restaurants that were open during COVID, but because of everything that happened this summer, it took a bit of a more serious approach, in terms of people giving a shit about Black restaurants all of a sudden. I was interviewed by the Today show, and that’s where I heard the term “June boom.” From April to the end of May, I had 1,000 followers. I thought that was pretty successful! But by the end of June, I was up to 4,200.
My experience is not singular: a lot of Black creatives that I know, that summer they went from not getting emails returned, couldn’t get phone calls, couldn’t get interviews, couldn’t get brand partnerships—to now, all of a sudden, people wanting to work with them. I’m fortunate enough that my momentum didn’t stop, to the point where now I’m at over 21,000 followers in under a year. This is a part-time gig, this is not my full-time job. I’m fortunate and thankful for all of this.
TO: The “June boom” that you’re talking about—that’s specific to the significant events of June 2020, right? The protests?
KK: June 2020. We had Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—while all of those things did not happen in June, it all kind of mushroomed at the same time. I think COVID allowed this to happen, because most of us were at home, not at work. It sounds morbid, but America watched a snuff film. We watched a man who was alive end up not being alive, and it took eight minutes and 46 seconds. Not that we needed validation (“we” as in Black people), but privilege is real. People think of “white privilege” as this evil, nefarious thing, and that’s not really what white privilege is. For most people, it’s the privilege of being oblivious. That privilege was destroyed this summer, specifically in June. And I think that’s why there was this big uptick in Black creatives getting the kind of attention that they were getting.
TO: What are you hoping to accomplish with Black Food Fridays?
KK: “Black Food Fridays.” What I hope to accomplish is in the name. I want to make the international support of Black-owned businesses, specifically food and beverages, as ubiquitous as Taco Tuesday. I have, legit, been sitting around on a Tuesday, wondering what to eat, then I remember: Taco Tuesdays. I don’t know who started Taco Tuesday, and it probably wasn’t all that intentional. But if they had been, they could have changed the world with this. Everybody knows Taco Tuesday now. I want Black Food Fridays to be the exact same way. Five years from now, I want you to be wondering, “What am I going to eat? Oh, it’s Friday? I’ve got to support a Black-owned restaurant!” I want this concept of supporting Black-owned businesses on Fridays to become a part of the American zeitgeist, if you will. The subconscious of America: on Tuesdays we eat tacos, on Wednesdays we wear pink, and on Fridays, we eat at Black-owned restaurants.
The Instagram and the TikTok have separate goals. The TikTok is meant to educate; that’s where I put my Black Food Facts. The best thing I did in 2021 was come up with a new year’s resolution: to create more qualitative goals than quantitative goals. What is the feeling that I want people to leave with when they’re finished watching one of my videos? I want them to say, “Huh. I didn’t know that.” That’s it! I had felt myself going down the rabbit hole of, I’ve got to get to 10,000 followers. But that’s arbitrary. [So I decided to] stop worrying about the number, and worry more about how I want the viewer to feel.
The first video I did with that mindset was the “Black people love Hennessy” video. And it fucking worked! I don’t have to dance or pretend to be a comedian. I can educate people, and it’s worked out very well. I didn’t even want to start a TikTok account. I tried it, did some fun videos where I’m pointing and dancing, and I thought, “this shit is lame.” Well, it’s lame to me. I don’t want to do this. But then I remembered my new year’s resolution.
Soon my homeboy texted me and said, “Yo, you’re on my FYP.” I didn’t know what that meant. I talked to my 12- and 13-year-old nieces and I said, “What does FYP mean?” They said, “You’re on FYP already?” I was like, “Uh....yeah?”
TO: I’ll admit it: I have no idea what FYP is.
KK: It’s the “For You Page.” It’s TikTok’s version of the Instagram Explore page. My nieces said, “You’ve been on TikTok for almost no time, and you barely put up videos, and you’re on FYP?” All of that to say, I believe that if you can be precise with your qualitative goals, your numbers will come. I think you can blow up.
TikTok is 100% me, and Instagram is a community effort, with 90% user-generated content. And I am thankful for that community. I need that community, because that’s how you get buy-in. If I just did all the work, it would just be a passive thing. I told somebody that this is a form of political activism, and they said to me, “You post pictures of chicken and waffles. How is that activism?” But it is: you have to provide a ladder of engagement. You might see my account and realize automatically what this is, which does happen. Sometimes I get a DM that says, “I see what you’re doing here. Keep it up.” But most people, they just say, “Oh my god, that sandwich looks amazing!”
TO: Right. It can function as food porn for people, even if they don’t know about the greater mission of BFF.
KK: Exactly. Eventually, if they are subconsciously desiring Black food on Fridays, that means they’re going to consciously make the decision to spend money. And where you spend your money is equivalent to a vote. They might not even realize they’re being “radicalized,” if you will. Some might realize it, but most people won’t, and that’s perfectly fine.
I had someone hit me up and say, “I’ve lived down the street from one of the restaurants that you profiled for 16 years and had no clue that restaurant was there.” He had driven by that restaurant for 16 years before Black Food Fridays.
TO: I can see that happening. Your neighborhood’s main drag becomes white noise after a while.
KK: And if no one in your social circle says, “You should go check out Bertha’s Chicken and Waffles,” then it’s just a thing you pass on the way home.
TO: Have you heard from restaurants about BFF? Are the restaurants taking notice of these initiatives, and is it impacting their business?
KK: Some restaurants have reached out and said they have a noticeable uptick on Fridays. Swank Desserts, which is a Black-women-owned dessert shop and bakery in Summerville, South Carolina, she was the first person to say, “I had a bunch of people posting about me on Fridays, and I didn’t know where the hell this was coming from!” Then there was a Black-owned vegan restaurant in Charleston—they’re closed for remodeling right now—and they said the same thing: “Sometimes our Fridays are unbearable now because people are always hitting us up.” In a good way!
I don’t expect a lot of restaurants to hit me up. The nerd in me knows that 96% of Black-owned businesses are non-employee businesses, meaning that the owner also works in the business. Black people don’t tend to qualify (whatever “qualify” means here) for serious investment or funding. So a lot of Black-owned businesses are starting with as little as $5,000. Until we get to a point where Black-owned businesses are getting real investment from commercial lenders, community development corporations, angel investors—to all these rich people who want to help Black people out: this is not rocket science. Just give a Black-owned business $20,000 and say, “Do whatever you want.” Just do that! It’s not hard! People need money to survive.
TO: Right, it doesn’t always have to be some sort of convoluted grant program where entrants have to write a 10-page essay and what have you.
KK: It’s dumb! The very first episode of Adam Ruins Everything was about giving. All this “buy a pair of shoes, give a pair of shoes” stuff—it makes no sense. Just give people the money, and they’ll figure out what to do with it. And I think that’s why Black Food Fridays works: these businesses were already making food, so they’re not going out of their way to do anything extra. The customer gets what they want in terms of the food, the business gets what they want in terms of money and new clients, everybody wins. Just repeat the cycle.
TO: If you had to emphasize one thing to your audience, beyond the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses, what would you want them to hear from you?
KK: I want them to hear that they are more powerful than they realize. Some people think, “If I can’t donate $100,000, then my money doesn’t matter and my money doesn’t count.” But Coca-Cola has made a billion dollars off of selling 99-cent cans. You move enough product, you’ll do well for yourself. So I want people to understand that buying a burger is not a light thing. You have many choices, you can go anywhere—so if you choose to go to a Black restaurant, you are choosing to keep that business alive. They don’t have a loan from Chase Manhattan. We are funding those businesses, so realize that the power is in our hands. And if we want these businesses to stick around, we’ve just got to spend money with them. It’s tedious, because you’ve got to do it all over and over, but it’s not hard.
TO: Especially if there’s a delicious sandwich waiting for you at the end of it.
KK: Adrienne Maree Brown, in her book Pleasure Activism, was talking about how (and I’m paraphrasing), in order for change to become permanent, it has to be a pleasurable experience. It’s why people don’t stick with the gym or their diet: because it fucking sucks. But if something is fun or enjoyable, people will do it. Sandwiches are delicious! And if people keep getting rewarded by delicious food, it’ll start a process of doing well for the community and getting satisfied at the same time. Black Food Fridays is not heavy. I could be very heavy-handed in my approach, but that’s not enjoyable. There’s a phrase we use down South: you get more flies with honey. That’s what Black Food Fridays is: the honey at the bottom of the pail.