Feed the Soul highlights food and history of Black communities

· The Pulse

Edmonton's newest dining week aims to increase support for Black food entrepreneurs, as well as raise awareness about some of the barriers they face.

The inaugural Feed the Soul Dining Week will run from Feb. 10 to 17, in the middle of Black History Month. The event will see 18 local Black-owned food and hospitality businesses offer deals during that period. For example, Jamaican eatery Flava Cafe will kick off festivities with $5 jerk chicken on Feb. 10.

Feed the Soul is the brainchild of Rochelle Ignacio of Enid Rose Collective, who separately manages the volunteer initiative Black Owned Market YEG. Ignacio is co-leading Dining Week with Sara Awatta, founder of YEG Services.

Awatta points out that the eclectic mix of participating retailers represents the spectrum of Black-owned businesses in Edmonton. "Our locations vary all over the city," said Awatta. "We have businesses like Allegro Italian Kitchen that have been around for more than 10 years and businesses like PhatBar Bakery that are opening just this week. Dine-in, take-out, online-only — this reflects the diversity of the Black food scene in Edmonton."

A volunteer-run event, Feed the Soul came about when Ignacio was housebound with COVID, and binge-watched a Netflix docuseries called High on the Hog. The show exposes the thread that links cuisines in Africa to those found in the United States, based on recipes adapted by enslaved people.

The idea of contextual changes to food resonated with Ignacio. "Both of my parents are from Trinidad, and growing up here, on Sunday we had traditional Trinidadian food," said Ignacio. "One of the dishes they served is red beans and rice. I thought it always came with onion and tomato and bacon. But when I went to Trinidad, I learned that they don't put bacon. My mom adapted the dish to ingredients she could find."

Ignacio found similar modification stories when speaking to Black restaurant owners during her outreach. But what she also found was a striking number of Black businesses that simply didn't make it through the pandemic. Her team consulted lists posted in 2020 by Linda Hoang and Ashley Otieno, and found that 14% of them had closed since then.

"Why aren't Black restaurants thriving the way their counterparts are? Why are these restaurants empty even though the food is good?" said Ignacio. "We want Feed the Soul to expose people to new restaurants and make them household names. Sometimes people are scared to try new food or need the invitation to try."

Sara Awatta and Rochelle Ignacio at the Feed the Soul launch event

Sara Awatta and Rochelle Ignacio are the organizers of Feed the Soul Dining Week, which runs from Feb. 10 to 17. (Sharon Yeo)

Ignacio and Awatta are also using Feed the Soul as an opportunity to build the capacity of the business owners themselves. For instance, all digital images and videos captured over the course of the event will be provided back to each business, so they can use the assets in their own marketing efforts.

In addition, by facilitating meetings between participating entrepreneurs, they have been able to foster the development of supportive connections.

"The business owners are talking about where they're sourcing their chicken, where they're renting kitchen space, what hours are working best, what are their expansion plans," said Ignacio.

"I'm excited to see what future collaborations will happen," added Awatta. "We're starting to see things that are in the works from that networking."

Feed the Soul has also partnered with Glass Bookshop to bring in resources to help Edmontonians learn more about Black food and history. Select titles from Feed the Soul's book list are available at a 10% discount during the event, and a portion of the revenue generated will be redirected back to Feed the Soul.

At the end of the day, Awatta is looking forward to the gatherings that will happen as a result of the dining week.

"Especially post-COVID, we barely ate at the same table," said Awatta. "What we're hoping to accomplish is to bring people together in a capacity that has been lost over the years."