Downtown Market’s Culinary Conversations series goes virtual

The food business owners on the panel will share their personal stories regarding COVID-19 and the effect the pandemic restrictions have had on their operations. Courtesy Downtown Market

The Grand Rapids Downtown Market is moving its annual food industry panel series to an online format starting with its event this week.

Downtown Market officials said this year’s first panel of Culinary Conversations will focus on the effects of COVID-19 on Black-owned food businesses.

It will be held 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday and will feature leaders from several Black-owned and -led organizations, including Jamiel Robinson, founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB); Jonathan Jelks, co-owner of Motu Viget Spirits and Ambiance GR; Eric Freeman, owner of Mindset Meals; and Jermale Eddie, owner of Malamiah Juice Bar.

Attah Obande, director of dream fulfillment at SpringGR, will moderate.

The food business owners on the panel will share their personal stories regarding COVID-19 and the effect the pandemic restrictions have had on their operations. The main topic will be discussing what the future will look like for Black-owned food businesses in the current Grand Rapids food community.

“The hospitality industry has suffered tremendously from COVID-19, and it’s one of the few industries still unable to return to full capacity in the interest of public health and safety,” said Ryan Bolhuis, Downtown Market incubator kitchen manager and organizer of Culinary Conversations.

“With the hardships our industry is facing, we knew it was important to bring this group back together, even if it can only be virtual for now, as a show of support for one another and to bring awareness to often overlooked communities and businesses in Grand Rapids.”

The National Restaurant Association estimates the industry is set to lose $225 billion in 2020, with 5 million to 7 million employees losing their jobs due to the pandemic and resulting restrictions. Even as the world returns to normal, it is estimated 25% of independently owned restaurants will not reopen, a reality that is disproportionately affecting Black-owned businesses. Many Black-owned businesses struggled to receive financial support at the height of the pandemic, such as Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) forgivable loans. However, the lack of opportunity for and investment in businesses owned by people of color is not new or a side effect of COVID-19; it is reflective of a larger systemic problem.

Those interested in attending the event can register online. The private link to the event will be shared during the day Wednesday to all who are registered.

Questions for the panelists can be asked directly in the comments section during the livestream and will be answered as time allows.

Led by the Downtown Market, Culinary Conversations is a partnership between Start Garden, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) and Michigan State University Extension. Sponsors include Experience Grand Rapids, SpartanNash and Pioneer Construction.

The series is a peer-to-peer collaboration and networking group for West Michigan’s food industry professionals, including growers, producers, chefs, bartenders, restaurant owners, entrepreneurs and others, and it is intended to strengthen Grand Rapids’ regional food system.

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