Even in best of times, Atlanta’s Black restaurateurs must work harder to find capital, earn respect

Adonay Deglel, aka Bob Castanza (what everyone in the neighborhood calls him), has owned and operated Edgewood Pizza in the Old Fourth Ward area of downtown Atlanta for the past 17 years. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
Adonay Deglel, aka Bob Castanza (what everyone in the neighborhood calls him), has owned and operated Edgewood Pizza in the Old Fourth Ward area of downtown Atlanta for the past 17 years. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Few U.S. cities can brag about having more than 300 Black-owned food businesses, including but not limited to restaurants and bars, in their metropolitan areas. Atlanta is different, with its legacy of African American entrepreneurship, political power, corporate opportunities, economic impact and global cultural contributions. In many ways, it’s a great place for Black food entrepreneurship.

But there are concerns about sustainability.

The impact of the novel coronavirus, combined with the national conversation spurred by killings of unarmed Black people by police and protests against racial injustice, is causing major disruptions to an industry that has always faced economic challenges. Add these to other difficulties associated with race, and the ramifications for the future of Atlanta’s African American food and beverage scene are significant.

Edgewood Pizza owner Adonay Deglel, aka Bob Castanza (what everyone in the neighborhood calls him), prepares a couple of slices of his Hawaiian Delight Pizza in the kitchen of his Old Fourth Ward pizzeria in Atlanta. Pineapple on pizza is one of his least favorite toppings, but he offers it due to requests. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
Edgewood Pizza owner Adonay Deglel, aka Bob Castanza (what everyone in the neighborhood calls him), prepares a couple of slices of his Hawaiian Delight Pizza in the kitchen of his Old Fourth Ward pizzeria in Atlanta. Pineapple on pizza is one of his least favorite toppings, but he offers it due to requests. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

COVID-19 has been extremely disruptive, says Walter Jordan, the founder of the Dogwood Group, a restaurant consulting firm based in Atlanta. Jordan got his start 30 years ago selling beer and pretzels in the Omni. He then spent eight years as general manager at the Cheesecake Factory, before working for R&B star Usher’s Atlanta wine bar chain the Grape in the late 2000s. When a firm that normally handled liquor license renewals for the Grape was unavailable one year, Jordan took the opportunity to learn how the process works and discovered a new career. He now helps restaurants, bars, nightclubs and lounges prepare for inspections and meet requirements for licensing and permitting, along with other operational needs such as menu creation and staff training.

Jordan’s firm advises clients of all backgrounds, yet being an African American native of southwest Atlanta motivates him to help Black entrepreneurs. But the reality today is different than it has been, with COVID-19 forcing an unprecedented number of drinking and dining establishments to close, temporarily and, in some cases, permanently.

Jordan says he’s seen lots of Black-owned restaurants and food businesses come and go quickly in Atlanta, and although he says there are tough times ahead for many of them, there’s hope that others will step into their places.

“I get calls every day, all day, for two things: ‘Walter, have you found me a building?’ and ‘Walter, I need to open up,’” Jordan says. “There are going to be several African American restaurateurs looking for opportunities. The prices are dropping considerably, so people are adamant about getting some of these turnkey opportunities as quickly as possible.”

‘I happen to be Black’

Atlanta’s Black business community is not monolithic. Despite what may seem like a tendency to specialize in a few popular formats, including lounge dining, soul food and island cuisines, the way they approach their businesses is as varied as any other owners and operators.

“Sometimes it’s great to be under the radar,” says Adonay Deglel, co-owner of Old Fourth Ward’s Edgewood Pizza. Deglel says he loves serving people and being part of the community of restaurants and bars along Edgewood Avenue, so much that he’s going forward with plans to open a new neighborhood bar concept near Edgewood Pizza at the corner of Boulevard. It’s called Handlebar, and it’s geared toward Atlanta’s passionate community of cyclists. He’s also opening a West End location of the pizzeria.

Edgewood Pizza owner Adonay Deglel (left), aka Bob Castanza (what everyone in the neighborhood calls him), and business partner Natnael Tekeste pose outside Edgewood Pizza, 478 Edgewood Ave. in the Old Fourth Ward area of downtown Atlanta. Deglel, an Eritrea-born businessman, has owned and operated the pizza parlor for the past 17 years. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
Edgewood Pizza owner Adonay Deglel (left), aka Bob Castanza (what everyone in the neighborhood calls him), and business partner Natnael Tekeste pose outside Edgewood Pizza, 478 Edgewood Ave. in the Old Fourth Ward area of downtown Atlanta. Deglel, an Eritrea-born businessman, has owned and operated the pizza parlor for the past 17 years. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

While Deglel appreciates the support from being a Black owner, he says doing business correctly and being part of the local community is what matters most.

“I happen to be Black and I own a Black business that attracts over 80% to 90% of customers who are Black people,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing that everyone’s out there saying, ‘Hey, it’s a Black-owned business. Go out and support.’ But this is a business.”

His customers offered proof five years ago, when a fire forced the restaurant to close for a year and five months. “The day I reopened looked like I didn’t miss a beat. There were some doubters that thought I’d be run out of business, but I came back stronger.” The lesson he learned, he says, is simple: Understand the buying power of Black people, and respect the people who patronize the business. You’ll be appreciated, he says.

Deglel calls the pizza business "recession-proof," and Chris Wiley, co-owner of the Oz Pizza chain, would agree. Having started in downtown Decatur in 1997, he and partner David Howard now operate three locations: Fairburn, Fayetteville and East Point. Being on Main Street in East Point, and owning the property, has been pivotal to his confidence in the business, he says.

Wiley says he doesn’t allow being Black to limit his view of what is possible at Oz Pizza, and he says other Black restaurateurs should also guard against such defeatism. “I believe it comes from the top, the leadership and the owner. Regardless of your race, if you’re true to your business and running business properly, regardless of the community you’re in, I don’t feel that it’s different.”

Money woes

The restaurant business is universally unforgiving. A 2014 study conducted with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 17% of restaurants close in their first year. The median lifespan of a restaurant startup with five employees or fewer is 3.75 years, which is lower than other service-oriented businesses with the same staff size, which average four years.

Survival for today’s restaurants is even more questionable. According to a recent report from the National Restaurant Association, the industry lost $120 billion in sales in the first three months of 2020, which it primarily attributes to the coronavirus. A survey fielded by the association during 10 days in May found that 8 million restaurant employees lost their jobs at the pandemic’s previous peak.

Henry Adeleye, co-owner of Kupcakerie on Main Street in East Point, stands in front of a mural in the bakery. Adeleye and his wife, Kascha, opened the brick-and-mortar space in 2016, after two years of building their cupcake business through shipping and delivery. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
Henry Adeleye, co-owner of Kupcakerie on Main Street in East Point, stands in front of a mural in the bakery. Adeleye and his wife, Kascha, opened the brick-and-mortar space in 2016, after two years of building their cupcake business through shipping and delivery. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

There’s also the issue of funding: While 84% of the survey’s 3,800 respondents said they’d received Paycheck Protection Program loans, 75% said they did not expect to be profitable in the next six months without additional relief, and 78% said the PPP loans wouldn’t be enough to help them keep paying staff without a significant enough increase in short-term sales to cover labor cost.

Ownership of not just the business but the entire property is one way Wiley suggests. “If at all possible, purchase and own your property, because then you can own your destiny, because you don’t have that annual 3%-5% cost increase. You’re sitting on an asset. You control your destiny.”

Jordan, who helped the owners of Nashville-based Slim & Husky's with their recently opened second Atlanta location, is in full agreement. "They own the land on Metropolitan," he says. "If this ever fails, they can always get someone back in the building and make residual money. That's what Blacks have gotta stop doing. We rent. You put a million dollars in it, and you'll never own it."

Seventeen years ago, Deglel and his brother Henok bought the Edgewood Pizza building at 478 Edgewood Ave., known then as Charlee’s Pizzeria, for $5,000. Since then, Deglel, who is known to friends and customers by the nickname “Bob Costanza,” says it has generated millions of dollars in revenue.

Seanba Anderson (left), kitchen manager at Kupcakerie, fulfills delivery orders of fresh-made cupcakes while co-owner Henry Adeleye takes care of morning duties at the front counter of the bakery in downtown East Point. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
Seanba Anderson (left), kitchen manager at Kupcakerie, fulfills delivery orders of fresh-made cupcakes while co-owner Henry Adeleye takes care of morning duties at the front counter of the bakery in downtown East Point. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Just a few doors down from Oz on Main Street, Henry and Kascha Adeleye are the owners of Kupcakerie, a bakery and dessert shop that sits directly across from East Point’s library and MARTA station. They opened the brick-and-mortar space in 2016, after two years of shipping and delivery. Having a physical location was always the plan, but the two years of early revenue helped them get around the challenge of not being able to find investment.

They bootstrapped, mixing earnings from their online business with minor investments from friends to get the space at 2781 Main St., which they rent. They chose the location because it already had natural charm and didn’t need a complete renovation. Henry grew up in East Point, and was able to market the business with relationships established from his childhood.

“We didn’t have access to any institutional capital or investors, parents. We had to save up the little crumbs and open with as little as we could,” Kascha says. “We knew we had to get the capital ourselves. It was a means to an end, starting where we are.”

‘Scrutinized a little more’

It’s a common story for Black owners, who say they have to work harder and smarter with less. And the Adeleyes say there are other ways in which race seems to play a role.

“The expectations are higher, even among Black people. Not that that’s a problem; it’s just a little tougher. I feel like we are scrutinized a little more and have a bigger target on our backs than if we were a Fortune 500 or franchise company,” Kascha says. “It feels like we have to earn business 100 times more than other businesses do. We should be grateful for being patronized because we’re Black-owned. We have to go above and beyond.”

Doug Hines, owner of the Consulate restaurant in Midtown Atlanta, is a Bronx native who moved to Atlanta in 1997. He believes making connections is a key to success, and he encourages Black restaurateurs not to look at banks for financing. “Fund it yourself, whether it be crowdfunding or finding an investor. Pool together savings with friends and family. Going to the banks, in my opinion, is a complete waste of time,” Hines says. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
Doug Hines, owner of the Consulate restaurant in Midtown Atlanta, is a Bronx native who moved to Atlanta in 1997. He believes making connections is a key to success, and he encourages Black restaurateurs not to look at banks for financing. “Fund it yourself, whether it be crowdfunding or finding an investor. Pool together savings with friends and family. Going to the banks, in my opinion, is a complete waste of time,” Hines says. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Virgil Harper, chef and owner of Roc South Cuisine in Brookhaven, is a classically trained chef from Atlantic City, New Jersey. He just started cooking Southern food seven years ago but loves it, and is pushing to reinvent much of its staples. He sources food from local farms, and says he concentrates heavily on being food-driven, displaying quality, and offering premium customers service. He says some customers even tell him his prices are too low.

But he agrees that expectations are high for a chef-driven restaurant like his, and laments a lack of recognition and respect for Black chefs, not only from lenders but also traditional media and industry standard-bearers, who push for culinary exceptionalism.

"They discriminate," Harper says of the food industry vanguard and media establishment. "There are a lot of talented (Black) chefs out there, but they're not giving us a shot.

Doug Hines, owner of the Consulate restaurant in Midtown, and Honey Bubble tea shop on Ponce de Leon, knows all about finding his own success after delivering it for others when opportunities are held back. And he doesn't hide his belief that racism exists in Atlanta's restaurant and bar community.

One item that is consistent in the decoration of the Consulate restaurant in Midtown is the globe, as they occasionally allow a lucky patron to close their eyes and stop the globe, putting their finger on the next country’s cuisine for the next menu. The Consulate changes its menu quarterly to focus on international cuisines. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
One item that is consistent in the decoration of the Consulate restaurant in Midtown is the globe, as they occasionally allow a lucky patron to close their eyes and stop the globe, putting their finger on the next country’s cuisine for the next menu. The Consulate changes its menu quarterly to focus on international cuisines. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

“I know for a fact, as far as new restaurateurs looking at new spaces and meeting landlords, you’re already behind the eight ball. They’re not as willing to gamble on African American entrepreneurs or business owners. Landlords are not as willing to take chances as they are with other people. They won’t do that with us. Everybody denies it, but it absolutely exists.”

Funding has always been a big concern for Black food business owners. And some say there are race-related issues keeping more people from starting restaurants, bars and lounges.

Wiley says this is why understanding the business side is critical, not simply for success but survival. “I recognize there have been challenges,” he says. “People I know have had issues. I really think too it’s connections, and who you know, in certain situations.”

Wiley says he uses his own resources to help others, and advises Black owners to establish strong bonds with those who control capital. “If you’re looking for funding and you know an individual that’s in the banking industry, follow that person. If they go from A Bank to B Bank, to C, I follow them, because that’s what gives you that step up.”

Hines found his own way, and says Black entrepreneurs shouldn’t expect help from banks. “Going to the banks, in my opinion, is a complete waste of time,” he said. “Go around the brick wall. Find alternative sources of financing.”

The Bronx native moved to Atlanta in 1997 at 30 years old. A graphic designer by trade, Hines worked for Coca-Cola and other large corporations when he moved to Atlanta. A friend who worked for former Mayor Kasim Reed helped him become a vendor with the city of Atlanta doing design work, and Hines eventually did promotional graphics for some restaurants. Hines went into interior design, and his reputation for restaurant design led to him being cast in the sixth season of the HGTV reality show “Design Star” in 2011.

A private dining area for meetings, or initmate birthday parties and celebrations, is available in the midcentury-themed the Consulate restaurant in Midtown Atlanta. It’s one of the more than 300 Black-owned food businesses in metro Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
A private dining area for meetings, or initmate birthday parties and celebrations, is available in the midcentury-themed the Consulate restaurant in Midtown Atlanta. It’s one of the more than 300 Black-owned food businesses in metro Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

He and his wife, Mei Lin, decided to go into the restaurant business. They started with Honey Bubble and then the Consulate, insisting on going against the grain with international cuisine in a swanky, pseudo-hidden space on 10th Street. The quarterly changing menu has featured Russian, Ethiopian, Brazilian and Chinese cuisines, and currently includes recipes from Madagascar.

Jordan says he’s sometimes concerned that Black restaurants are casting too wide of a net in an attempt to be all things to the entire Black dining community. “The first question I ask them is what are you gonna be? A club? A lounge? If you don’t know right now, how in the world do you think I can translate that to the neighborhood planning unit?”

Hines also says chasing money over focus is a mistake too many Black restaurants make. “I wish a lot of the other owners would step it up a bit. It annoys me that so many restaurants double as nightclubs,” he said. “I understand the finances can be lucrative, but it shortens the lifespan of the restaurant and the serious consideration of the restaurant from others. You’ll never hear Taco Tuesday at a Ford Fry restaurant that’s not a Mexican restaurant. They’ll never have a Sexy Sunday day party.”

Harper says he turns away from anything that distracts too much from the food itself. “A lot of times, we put hookah in our restaurants, as opposed to concentrating on food and service.”

Seeing more support

While he says the food should speak for itself, Harper’s passion for service and hospitality comes through on social media. He uses his channels to gain and retain customers, and targets Atlanta’s entertainment industry as a means to market his talent. By attracting reality TV stars and music industry professionals with large Instagram followings, he has seen increasing business at Roc South. He says the strategy came to him after working for V-103 radio personality Frank Ski at Suite Food Lounge downtown, on events that attracted local and national celebrities. “They would eat my food and ask, ‘Who the hell is the chef?’ Everything else went from there.”

It’s worth the trouble to prove your worth with exceptional cuisine and service, he says, because people want to support Black restaurants more than ever right now. And he’s not the only one seeing the support.

Henry and Kascha Adeleye say this was their biggest June since opening four years ago. East Point is rallying around them, they say, including customers calling ahead to find out if they’re an African American business. “A lot of people, at least nowadays, look for Black-owned businesses, especially the past two months,” Henry says.

Kupcakerie, a Black-owned cupcake shop in downtown East Point, is close to City Hall and the East Point MARTA station. “We didn’t have access to any institutional capital or investors, parents. We had to save up the little crumbs and open with as little as we could,” co-owner Kascha Adeleye says. “We knew we had to get the capital ourselves.” CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
Kupcakerie, a Black-owned cupcake shop in downtown East Point, is close to City Hall and the East Point MARTA station. “We didn’t have access to any institutional capital or investors, parents. We had to save up the little crumbs and open with as little as we could,” co-owner Kascha Adeleye says. “We knew we had to get the capital ourselves.” CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

Harper says he’s resorted to turning off Uber Eats and DoorDash deliveries for hours at a time, just to provide service to a large number of patio guests who keep returning daily. And Hines says the same is happening at the Consulate. “I’m sure we’ve gotten a few more patrons because they’re more socially aware of the issue that exists and they want to support,” he says.

Everyone agrees that Black restaurants will have to learn new ways to serve the community. Deglel says not relying on a model that requires customers to sit between his restaurant’s exposed brick walls, surrounded by paintings of famous Black musicians from Nina Simone to rapper J. Cole and enjoying giant “king” slices while listening to an eclectic mix of music, has been beneficial.

Henry Adeleye, co-owner of Kupcakerie on Main Street in downtown East Point, interacts with customer Katheryn Fitzgerald on a recent morning. Adeleye grew up in East Point. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY
Henry Adeleye, co-owner of Kupcakerie on Main Street in downtown East Point, interacts with customer Katheryn Fitzgerald on a recent morning. Adeleye grew up in East Point. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS HUNT PHOTOGRAPHY

“There are gonna be some challenges for everyone,” he says. “Right now, the model that’s working is pizza, and takeout is gonna be around. But a lot of businesses probably will not come back again.”

Hines encourages Black owners to embrace the challenges and be optimistic about the future, even as they fight for equal opportunity. “Black people, we are very resilient. We’ve had to be. We had to grow up with resilience in our DNA, and because of that, we weather storms better than a lot of people. Whether it’s police brutality or hard times financially, we will find a way and overcome any obstacles.”

WHERE TO EAT

Looking to support Black-owned food businesses in metro Atlanta? Here are a handful of Black-owned restaurants, grouped by county. For a comprehensive list of more than 300 Black-owned restaurants, bars, cafes, coffee shops, bakeries, catering companies and other food-related businesses in Atlanta and surrounding cities, please visit AJC.com/blackrestaurants.

FULTON COUNTY

The Consulate. 10 10th St. Atlanta. 404-254-5760, theconsulateatlanta.com.

Edgewood Pizza. 478 Edgewood Ave. SE, Atlanta. 404-522-5512, Facebook: Edgewood Pizza.

Oz Pizza. 2805 Main St., East Point, 404-761-7006; and 5 W. Broad St., Fairburn, 770-306-0603, ozpizza.net.

Kupcakerie. 2781 Main St., East Point. 404-975-3751, kupcakerie.com.

Pit Boss BBQ. 856 Virginia Ave., Hapeville. 404-768-0036, pitboss-bbq.com.

DEKALB COUNTY

DiasPora Kitchen. 3523 Memorial Drive, Decatur. 470-240-5858, diaspora-kitchenatl.com.

Dilworth's BBQ. 1544 Wellborn Road, Lithonia. 678-395-3043, Facebook: Dilworth'sbbq.

Gilly Brew Bar. 5329 Mimosa Drive, Stone Mountain. 770-557-1614, gillybrewbar.com.

Pesos Mexican Cantina. 4920 Flat Shoals Parkway, Decatur. 770-981-4123, pesosatlanta.com.

Roc South Cuisine and Cocktail. 3009 Buford Highway, Brookhaven. 404-481-5915, rocsouth.com.

COBB COUNTY

Cafe Social House. 1400 Veterans Memorial Highway, Mableton. 404-549-9096, cafesocialhouse.com.

Chef La's Fish Fry. 4924 S. Cobb Drive, Smyrna. 678-293-5170, cheflafishfry.com.

The Eating Spot. 301 Lemon St., Marietta. 770-693-8546, theeatingspot.com.

Harold's Chicken and Ice Bar. 1477 Roswell Road, Marietta. 770-726-7779, haroldschickenmarietta.com.

Tassa Caribbean Restaurant. 224 Powers Ferry Road SE, Marietta. 770-977-3163, tassarotishop.com.

GWINNETT COUNTY

Baby Al's Chicago Dog. 529 Indian Trail Road, Lilburn. 678-400-7571, babyals.com.

Cafe Songhai. 3380 Holcomb Bridge Road, Peachtree Corners. 470-359-2969, cafesonghai.com.

Escovitchez. 1350 Scenic Highway S., Snellville. 770-557-1299, escovitchez.com.

Famous Toastery. 1120 Peachtree Industrial Blvd., Suwanee. 678-541-5345, famoustoastery.com.

Moe's Soul Food Kitchen. 198 Scenic Highway N., Lawrenceville. 678-580-1333, moes-soulfood-kitchen.business.site.

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