Cane Patch Kitchen was overrun with customers a few weeks ago. Tony Smalls explains he was stunned, humbled, and conflicted. The business was great. Eager customers literally lined the walkways around his shop at Liberty Station’s Public Market waiting for shrimp Po' Boy sandwiches, plates of catfish, jambalaya, and seafood gumbo.

After weeks of struggling to do five percent of their normal sales, it was a shock to have lines of people waiting. Mandated shutdowns due to coronavirus closed their business on March 17. It took nearly a month for them to reopen with take-out options and delivery service.

“It was very, very slow. People were afraid to come out. Others didn’t know we were open and if they tried, we had limited hours,” says Smalls.

Good seafood gumbo isn’t complete without fish, crab, shrimp, crawfish, and okra. Photo Credit: @canepatch

Now there was a flood of customers after weeks of waiting and worry.

His business partner Ebony Broadway was nervous all over because some people had to wait more than an hour as Smalls, the only chef on duty that day, worked furiously to fill orders that were streaming in by phone apps and in-person.

She tried to give the customers standing around the counter complimentary sweet tea or free beignets to ease the wait. She was afraid that a bad Yelp review would ruin the new surge, but the patrons refused it all. They said they had come to support and they were happy to wait. Eventually, they had to stop taking orders but day after day the line continued.

The next day, Smalls says, he was ready. “There were people of every color and so many customers who were new to us,” she said. “I wanted them to have a good impression. We just weren’t prepared. I mean we couldn’t have been.”

For weeks, they’d been lucky to see two or three customers a day and now they had more customers in a single day than they’d ever had in four years of business.

It should have been a celebration, except for the reason.

“It was, you know, just after he died — George Floyd,” Smalls adds.

After a social media campaign called Blackout Tuesday started on June 2, many people promoting support for Black Lives Matter started posting action items for those who wanted to not just use hashtags, but make changes in their lives and the lives of Black people.

Social media users shared posts about the importance of supporting Black businesses, despite the criticism from some who weren’t sympathetic and complained that who owns a business shouldn’t matter. It was essentially an “all businesses matter” argument that didn’t deter advocates who wanted to do something positive.

Lists of Black-owned businesses have always existed but they are more novelty items than shopping lists. Blackout Tuesday changed that.

Postings with names of Black small businesses went viral and spawned more lists. Scores of business owners noted the unexpected and sharp uptick in business, just like Cane Patch Kitchen. Most were caught unaware.

Versions of these lists exist in every major city and a great many small ones. A few, in particular, highlighted Black-owned San Diego restaurants. Cane Patch Kitchen was on several lists including 40 Black-owned vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants. The effect was immediate.

“So many people said, ‘I saw the list and I’m here to support you’,” Smalls said. He still hadn’t actually seen it until this Edible reporter showed him an image from Instagram.

The reason behind the groundswell of support still gives him pause and pain, but the reality is that it saved his restaurant. Smalls and Broadway had considered closing to maybe focus on her holistic and herbal healing business, but closing Cane Patch would have been devastating. It was a labor of love for both of them and a family business with ten employees.

Three of Broadway’s five children regularly work at the shop and the rest of their employees are like family, she said.

The initial crush of business has passed, but they are now on par with previous years. Broadway says, “I’ll take that. We thought we might have to close so I’ll take it.”

Loaded with steak and red beans, swamp fires are guaranteed to become a popular rival to carna asada fries. Photo credit: @canepatch

Business is well enough that they had to hire another employee and they were lucky to offer a job to a Black chef displaced by a pandemic-related restaurant closure.

“We went from almost closing to being able to affect another person’s livelihood. That feels great,” Broadway adds.

She intentionally posted the job on a website for Black San Diegans first.

Broadway says that she was struck by news stories and reports that not only was coronavirus killing more Black people than any other race, but it was also leaving a higher percentage of Black people unemployed.

The Economic Policy Institute said it best in a June 1 report with the headline: “Black workers face two of the most lethal preexisting conditions for coronavirus—racism and economic inequality.”

Coronavirus was the perfect storm for Black families. Black Americans are more likely to have jobs that couldn’t be performed from the safety of home. Black Americans are more likely to suffer from high-risk health conditions and less likely to have adequate health insurance. Black workers are more likely to live in densely populated housing making them more susceptible to contracting the disease.

And although Black business owners tend to have a higher economic status, Black-owned businesses are more likely to operate in vulnerable sectors, notable for the largest number of job losses. The arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodations, and food services industries are highest on the list of job losses, and these account for nearly one-third of Black-owned businesses (32.3 percent), but just 18.8 percent of White-owned businesses.  

The report along with similar reports over the years and common sense led many to conclude that consciously supporting Black businesses was a good place to start. Black-owned businesses by default support Black families. Black-owned businesses are also more likely to employ a higher average of Black people, who are more likely to live in Black communities. Black businesses are also more likely to support Black community causes.

Broadway said that she is able to offer support to her daughter, who went to culinary school and had recently launched a new catering business. That business is now on shaky ground but Broadway has the reserves to help her daughter launch again once the pandemic subsides. Few Black families have the means to extend a loan to a family member with a fledgling business.

Broadway and Smalls, who are good friends, say their blended families were their top concern when they considered closing Cane Patch Kitchen. That’s the reason they didn’t close and opted instead to weather the COVID-19 storm.

Want to know more about how Cane Patch Kitchen came to be? Come back next week to read about how a mistake at a farmers’ market led to an unlikely partnership between a vegan cook and a Southern gentleman who said, “vegan was not an option growing up in South Carolina.” The story of Cane Patch will be part of an ongoing series of Black-owned San Diego restaurants in support of a “vote with your fork” social justice initiative. We hope you’ll join us on this journey and enjoy discovering new dishes and hidden insights about the people and places you already know and love.

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