In 2016, Janique and Anthony Edwards had just moved to Brooklyn and found themselves with a new neighborhood and an empty kitchen. Their appliances were on backorder, so they turned to dining out as a way to get to know the neighborhood. “We wanted to go to Black-owned restaurants specifically. I figured it would be a great way to get to know Brooklyn by getting to know the local businesses,” said Janique.
But finding Black-owned restaurants was tricky. “Every list we found was outdated, and people would say ‘check out this place’ and we’d look it up and it closed a year or two ago,” said Anthony. “We wanted to build a directory that made it easy as opposed to going through all of these different data sets and articles and word-of-mouth.”
And with that, EatOkra was born. The couple originally developed the app for themselves as a way to explore the new neighborhood, with Janique researching businesses and Anthony building the app itself. But they quickly realized that if they had a need for the app, then other people might need it, too.
EatOkra has quickly grown from a Brooklyn-based part-time project to an app with hundreds of thousands of downloads featuring restaurants from around the country. Users can see Black-owned restaurants near them, bookmark places to visit later, leave and read reviews, and more. The app has even been recognized by Apple as part of its Trend of the Year: Connection for 2021.
Was it tricky to find restaurants when you were getting started?
Anthony: It’s a difficult thing since there’s such a high turnover in the restaurant industry, especially Black-owned restaurants. It’s really a manual process, too. There’s a lot of calling and verification. The first 3,500 restaurants Janique and I did ourselves. There were a lot of hours put into the data. But now we have a team that helps get those numbers up, so now we’re at 12,000.
Janique: The first couple of years we were using it ourselves, and we weren’t really letting people know about it. One day we were having brunch at a restaurant in Harlem and we mustered up the courage to mention it to another woman that was dining at the time. She was so excited about it and started sharing it immediately. That first interaction with a stranger and seeing the level of excitement that she had made it click for us. That conversation really led to us making the decision to make the app a national resource.
Anthony: We kind of had to because she shared it to her sorority network in Atlanta and we didn’t have any restaurants in Atlanta! So overnight we had to add like 30 restaurants in Atlanta.
What have you learned during the process of launching and expanding the app?
Janique: Definitely the importance of leaning into a network. We have a lot of mentors that we’re in contact with constantly to run ideas by, ask for advice and direction on certain things. That network has been extremely helpful for us. I don’t think we would have ever reached outward and extended ourselves in that way if we hadn’t built EatOkra. It just proves that you can only go so far alone. It takes a community to make things happen and we’re grateful for the community that we’ve had along the way.
Have there been any surprises along the way?
Janique: Because we built the app really for ourselves, just to see how much people have rallied behind it and supported it. I think we’re closing in on 400,000 downloads right now. Just to see that people are using it and they really appreciate it—that has been a major shock and surprise to us. We felt like it could be this valuable resource, but I don’t think either of us thought we would get to the place where we are right now.
Anthony: People have been amazingly supportive about it. People with tons of followers have made free content supporting the platform which is unheard of. It’s crazy how much support and love we’ve gotten.
What are some of your favorite restaurants right now?
Janique: We really love Nostrand Social here in Brooklyn. If someone reaches out to us and asks for a recommendation, especially if they’re in Brooklyn, we always tell them to go to Nostrand Social because their food is really good. It’s a Creole-Southern kind of fusion. It’s all the things you love about comfort food: gumbo, fried chicken, they have a really good lobster mac and cheese that’s to die for. Great appetizers as well.
Anthony: One I liked when I was traveling in Oakland was Horn Barbecue. Fantastic. Best pulled pork sandwich I probably ever had. They literally smoke their meat for four days in a row. They shut down the kitchen and don’t serve, they’re just cooking food from Sunday through Wednesday and then they’re open Thursday through Sunday. It’s pretty crazy how much food they go through and how much prep goes into it.
What are your future plans for EatOkra?
Anthony: This year we’re looking toward providing a space where business owners can grow, can be mentored, can get an education. We’re building an e-learning platform with our partner Jason Wallace who is a culinary expert, educator, and consultant. We’re building a platform for people to get that on-demand and cohort-style training. We’re also going to let people order food in the platform.
Janique: Those are our two biggest goals for the year, to get those two launched. In-app ordering is something our users have let us know that they want. And as Anthony said, just trying to provide a suite of resources for business owners, especially right now because of the effects that COVID has had on the food service industry, Black-owned restaurants specifically. Just trying to provide an additional resource for them to help them get by and continue to grow and scale during this difficult time.
Anthony: We’re in the business of keeping restaurants in business, so we need to make sure it’s a full 360 holistic way of doing it.