Casey Jenkins talks about the origins of February’s Black Restaurant Challenge

Photo by Marquees Walker

Chef Casey Jenkins, owner of the popular Waverly restaurant Darker Than Blue Cafe, has been busy since the eatery closed back in 2014. He has served on the Maryland Board of Tourism, co-chaired the Baltimore restaurant co-op SKIP (Shop Keepers Independent Procurement Program), and accompanied Maryland’s Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford on a black restaurant tour.

Originally from White Plains, New York, Jenkins learned how to cook in the military and later attended the Culinary Institute of America. He worked at a few restaurants in New York before moving to Baltimore and opening Darker Than Blue Café, which was in business for eight years.

Jenkins has always been passionate about African-American-owned restaurants and continually strives to break boundaries and create opportunities for black food culture to thrive. This month he’s working on his newest venture, The Black Restaurant Challenge. I recently sat down with him at Terra Café (101 E. 25th St., [410] 777-5277, terracafebmore.com) to discuss the month-long event. (Arli Lima)

Baltimore Beat: In your own words, what is the Black Restaurant Challenge?

Casey Jenkins: We are challenging everyone to eat at two African-American-owned eateries per week during the month of February. It’s not only local; we’re challenging everyone around the country, but you get discounts from the Baltimore restaurants that are listed on our website (blackrestaurantchallenge.com). And it’s not only restaurants; we have eateries and food trucks also. Each week, every restaurant will come up with a certain discount for their most popular dishes. It varies per restaurant and you can go on our website and look under the discounts tab and see what discount each restaurant is offering.

BB: Is this your first year organizing the challenge?

CJ: In January of 2016 we were sitting in this room [Terra Café], myself and the owner Terrence Dixon, we were looking at this challenge they were doing with the water bucket and we thought, “OK we should do a challenge.” So we came up with The Black Restaurant Challenge. I immediately went onto Facebook and put a page together. We tried to build some media interest on it back then but it was too late into January because the media already knows what they’re doing, magazines already know what they’re printing, and radio stations already know who they will invite on their shows. Everyone thought it was a great idea but we couldn’t pick it up because it was too late. Larry Young from the radio show [ on WOLB Talk 1010] really pushed us to do it again so Terrance and I decided to do it again this year.

BB: Why did you feel Baltimore needed this challenge?

CJ: Back in 2009, my restaurant Darker Than Blue was voted one of the 50 Best Restaurants in Baltimore by Baltimore Magazine and I remember we were one of the few that didn’t participate in restaurant week. The price points didn’t work for me because my price points were already low and like most restaurants and eateries we can’t indulge in Restaurant Week. Years ago I told the people at Downtown Partnership, “Hey, you guys need to find a way to be more inclusive for people that can’t participate.”

BB: Besides the sponsorship marketing, what else are you doing to promote this challenge?  

CJ: Because it was too late to generate buzz last year, we said we have to do something big. We decided to host a free kick-off event at the Baltimore Visitor Center. Right now we have nine restaurants attending the kick-off and they will be giving away samples of their food. The response has been great! I didn’t realize it would be such a large thing. Did you see the Facebook page? Who would have thought that 37,000 people would be interested in this? The location only holds 250 people but we figured we would rotate people in and out. We originally put 500 free tickets on Eventbrite and 15 minutes later I got a notification from them saying the tickets were running low and I thought “this isn’t possible.” Then I looked and the site and it was true; five minutes after that we were out of tickets. So in 15 minutes, 500 tickets sold out. Then I put 500 more because I’m thinking we can rotate people in and out over two hours . . . half an hour later, 500 more tickets were gone. Right now we have nine restaurants attending the kick-off and they will be giving away samples of their food.

BB: What’s next for you and the Black Restaurant Challenge?

CJ: We want to keep expanding. I’ve got the Black Chef’s Network out of North Carolina flying me down for their monthly meeting because they want to hear about how I’ve organized this. As for me, I’m working on opening my restaurant again; Darker Than Blue will be back in 2019.

Black Restaurant Week runs from Feb. 2-25.

 

 

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