KJ Kearney started Black Food Fridays in April with a straightforward request — order food from your favorite black-owned restaurant on Friday and submit where you ate to his new Instagram account, @blackfoodfridays. Kearney wants his account to help steer dollars to black-owned restaurants, a mission that's quickly catching on locally and nationally.
Black Food Fridays has increased its following to nearly 8,000 people since the end of May, receiving an overwhelming amount of responses in June. One of those messages came from Red Clay Hot Sauce CEO Molly Fienning.
"The amount of woke-ness I experienced in June was unprecedented," Kearney said. "She was just one of many emails I received. I asked her to reach out to me later, and she's one of the few people that reached back out in July."
Kearney said he believes in giving people opportunities, so he was thrilled that Fienning wanted to support Black Food Fridays.
"We're the company we are today because of the Charleston food and beverage community, and we always want to give back and support the industry however we can," Fienning said.
"When I saw KJ's initiative on social media in June, I found that what he was doing was really thoughtful and smart. What I like about Black Food Fridays is it's a channel where you can find that great new delicious meal while supporting a black-owned business. A lot of people want to do that — they just need an avenue."
Soon after connecting in July, Fienning and Kearney came up with a way to help these beloved local institutions. Starting July 24, Red Clay began an interview series featuring a different black-owned restaurant, chef or meal each week with the help of food blogger Jai Jones and brand strategist Quincie Bardsley. Each week, Red Clay purchases a $100 gift card from the featured restaurant to be raffled on Instagram and has pledged to donate 15 percent of online sales from July 15 to August 15 to Black Food Fridays.
After working with Jones during the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, Fienning knew he was the right person to lead the interview series.
"It just seemed like such a good fit to loop him in as this already established food blogger in town along with Quincie who has a dream to work on brand strategies with businesses," Fienning said.
"For me and a lot of other black bloggers, there were a lot of people reaching out [in June]," Jones said. "Red Clay was also willing to contribute financially outside of just promoting black-owned restaurants. We talked about that because I think that was important for it to feel genuine. Contributing dollars right then and hopefully encouraging other people to visit."
Jones and Kearney also saw the importance in simply spreading the word about black-owned establishments on social media.
"A lot of black-owned restaurants are owner operated, so they don't necessarily have the PR teams or access to people that are dedicated to social media that some of the bigger restaurants have," Jones said. "For some of these smaller restaurants, that promotion is so important for them to really highlight what they're doing. It's so important for people who go to these restaurants to share their experience and spread the word."
"The social media aspect is just that, you bring awareness and that awareness allows people to be intentional about their spending," Kearney added.
The first Friday featured Shaquille Fontenot of FairyFresh Foods, a plant-based meal service that's morphed into a company that also sells products like infused oils, dry herb blends and sauces. The second Friday highlighted Sean Mendes of Gillie's Seafood on James Island.
One instance at the end of July demonstrated exactly what Kearney envisioned when he started the account. Mendes saw a Black Food Fridays post where Kearney gave a shout out to crab fries he had at a black-owned restaurant in Charlotte. Weeks later, Mendes invited him into Gillie's to test out his take on the dish, which he later added to his menu.
Kearney is still making plans for the business side of Black Food Fridays, and he said it's "admirable" that Fienning and Red Clay are willing to put themselves out there while he finds the best place to distribute the funds. Kearney has some ideas.
"I do know that TV shows work, so I'm working with some friends to develop a pitch to do a Black Food Fridays TV show. Also, I'd like to curate products. I find these black-owned restaurants and purveyors that could utilize a Supreme-like push," said Kearney, referring to the uber-trendy clothing brand.
"I want to be able to do that for tangible businesses. I'm throwing different things against the wall because I want to be a good steward of the money people are sending."
For more information on Black Food Fridays and the Red Clay interview series, follow Kearney and Red Clay on Instagram @blackfoodfridays and @redclayhotsauce.