For several years Angela Burke, who owns a PR company that specializes in food marketing, had noticed that black people in the food and beverage industry weren’t being represented in media coverage. “I decided to just start telling the stories myself,” she says. She’d followed Alisha Sommer, a freelance writer and photographer, on Instagram and admired her work, so four months ago, she invited the other woman to have coffee and discuss collaborating. “We were completely on the same page,” says Burke.
“Nobody’s picking up on these up-and-coming black men and women, chefs and cooks, the trends that they’re starting, what’s hot that they’re doing,” Sommer says. “Maybe white writers just aren’t aware of it? It’s important that you’re including a variety of voices, because [otherwise] you’re missing out on a lot of talent.” So the two women set out to create their own online publication dedicated to black professionals in the food and beverage industry: Black Food & Beverage. Last November they started contacting potential subjects—some they already knew of, and others whom other people had recommended. “We were reaching out to a lot of people during their busiest season,” Burke says. “They’re like, things are crazy here and you want to interview me? But people still took the time to sit and talk with us.”
Burke did the interviews, while Sommer photographed their subjects. “I spent a lot of long nights,” Burke says. “Alisha was editing photos forever. I did the majority of the profile writing, so I’m cranking it out. And I’m nine months pregnant, [so I was] trying to get it done before the baby comes.” Because Burke’s baby is due in early March, the two women wanted to get the site launched by the end of January. “We had a really tight deadline,” says Sommer. She lives in Oswego, 45 miles west of Chicago, and has three kids, so arranging schedules was tricky and sometimes stressful. “But there was a lot of excitement, a lot of passion. We really believed this is necessary, so that helped carry us through getting it done so fast.”
Both Sommer and Burke worked on building the website—and they met their deadline, launching Black Food & Beverage on January 26. The nine in-depth profiles include Julius White, beverage manager and assistant general manager at Vie; Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery; and Lamar Moore, executive chef at the Currency Exchange Cafe. “We wanted to share the journey,” Burke says. “A lot of times you’ll see the success, the accolades. But you don’t get an understanding of the training, all the years it took, the blood, sweat, and tears that got people to where they are today.”
Sommer notes that when she goes out to eat, she rarely sees a black sommelier or restaurant manager. “How come there’s so few? The talent is there, but what are the barriers? That’s what we were asking in these profiles,” she says. She and Burke also hope that the site will help change that. “One thing we need to think about when it comes to media is that your reality is based upon images. We believe the things we see. When you don’t see yourself in these lists, you think it means that these options are not for you, that this career is not for you,” Sommer says. “It helps give people inspiration to know that there are black men and women who are doing this, and they’re really successful.”
One unexpected result of the project, Burke says, is that the website has become a resource. Local culinary schools have asked the creators about inviting their profile subjects to speak at the schools. “People are starting to use our expertise,” she says. They’re realizing that if they’re having an event and looking for more diversity in their chefs, for example, Burke and Sommer may know people who’d be a good fit.
The two women plan to publish a new batch of profiles at least annually, and possibly more often than that. While they focused on Chicago first, next they’re going to expand nationally. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” Burke says of the nine people currently featured on the website. “There are so many more talented black food and beverage professionals across the country, but especially in our city. We’re just giving a small sampling of it.”