NPR’s Sacha Pfeiffer talks with Oakland, Calif., chef Rashad Armstead about Epic Ventures Test Kitchen, his new food hub aimed to support Black-owned food businesses.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Chef Rashad Armstead has done just about every job in the food business. He’s owned two restaurants. He even won the reality show “Chopped,” and much, much more.
RASHAD ARMSTEAD: I’ve been the dishwasher. I’ve been the mop guy. I’ve been the prep guy. I’ve been the cook. I’ve been the server. And I’ve also been the accountant, returning emails…
PFEIFFER: Armstead is a Black man. And when we talked last week, he told me the color of his skin has worked against him in his line of work.
ARMSTEAD: In the food industry, in the restaurant industry, you see racial inequality happening so much. Like, there’s a better chance for a white male or an Asian male to go and get a loan for his business way before me. Being a Black male that has the same experience, has the same accolades and things like that, there’s still that racial inequality. And I think that when I won “Chopped,” that gave me the opportunity to talk about that because I’ve been working in this industry since I was 15 years old, and I’ve seen every piece of racism that exists when I would go in and apply for a job or go do an interview or even sit there within the kitchen. I knew and I felt it, and I lived through that. And for me, when I became the controller of my world of being, you know, a restaurant owner and my own catering company, I knew that I had to speak on that.
PFEIFFER: So Rashad Armstead started a company called The Black Food Collective, which invests in Black-owned food businesses. And he recently launched another innovation. It’s called Epic Ventures Test Kitchen. It’s in Oakland, Calif., and the pandemic contributed to its genesis.
ARMSTEAD: When all the COVID stuff hit, I’m at home. And I’m, like – my whole entire life stopped basically because I couldn’t do any more catering. I couldn’t do anything. But it gave me an opportunity to stop for a moment, realign my vision and kind of come up with a new approach on how our new world is going to be because it’s going to completely change after all this is past.
PFEIFFER: And Epic Ventures Test Kitchen – it’s not a food court. This is, like, a giant warehouse-like commercial kitchen where a lot of small food operations, catering operations, food trucks can come and make their food. Is that the idea?
ARMSTEAD: That’s the idea. So basically, right now we’re in about a 2,500-square-foot kitchen. And we have one cook line. We have a really big prep area. The way we’re doing it now is, we’ll have two food businesses for, like, a lunch service and a dinner service operating at the same time. And so our future goal is to get a massive kitchen where we can have 20 to 30 of these businesses operating in their own space and actually producing food and giving it to customers.
PFEIFFER: You know, there’s an interesting aspect to Black Food Collective, which is the investment aspect. You’re trying to give money to organizations, to aspiring restaurant owners and food truck owners. And then in turn, you get a financial stake in the business. Can you tell us a little bit about that piece?
ARMSTEAD: Yeah, yeah. So that came from all the things that I’ve been through with seeking investment. I’ve gotten loans before, and I’ve gotten investments before. And it was never enough. It was just, here’s the money, kind of go with it and kind of do you have to do. And there was no moment where it was like, let me partner with you to help you grow this business. And so when I was sitting back and creating this model, I said, I want to do something to where I can invest in these businesses and, in turn, help them become a legitimate business to where they can actually not have to work as hard as they’ve been working for years. Hold on one second. OK. I just had a food delivery pickup.
PFEIFFER: Are you there right now?
ARMSTEAD: Yes, I am.
ARMSTEAD: I’m here every day. I’m here every day.
PFEIFFER: You’re double – you’re multitasking.
ARMSTEAD: And so our goal, which is – you know, some people call it crazy, but I call it, it is what it is – is our first year, we want to raise at least $10 million. And with that $10 million, we’ll be able to purchase the space for our kitchen, and we’ll also be able to invest in these businesses and create a team that’s going to help these businesses grow because in a lot of neighborhoods, you don’t see any Black-owned grocery stores. You don’t see too many Black-owned franchises that exist around our country. And you don’t see too many Black-owned food products on the grocery store shelves. And it’s time for that to change. This has the ability to literally change the way that the Black economy and the Black dollar is spent if we can do this the right way.
PFEIFFER: Because it would flood money into Black businesses that might be struggling now but just need some financial support to be stronger.
ARMSTEAD: Exactly. And I mean, what it would really do is it would take them from being just a small business to being where they can actually be something sustainable because a lot of Black food businesses that exist in most neighborhoods, if they don’t have adequate financing, they’re struggling in a major way and not just financially but in their personal life; but also mentally and spiritually because it becomes a lot of work to have to do all of this. Like, I cooked 500-and-something stuffed bell peppers. And it was just me my nephew and my niece stuffing those because I can’t afford that much staff to come in here and do that. I’m not alone in that. There’s so many other Black businesses that are working so hard just to keep their business afloat. And I think that if someone is intentional about the investment, then you will see something so impactful happen within the Black community that would just change so much.
PFEIFFER: That’s Rashad Armstead of Black Food Collective and Epic Ventures Test Kitchen in Oakland, Calif.
Rashad, thank you and good luck. And I hope I can visit one of those places eventually.
ARMSTEAD: For sure, for sure; I hope to see you soon.
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