North Charleston native KJ Kearney, an educator and activist, has long been an advocate for supporting the Black foodways of his home city—he made it official in 2018 when he wrote a proclamation for Red Rice Day, a tribute to the iconic Gullah-Geechee dish that was certified by the City of Charleston. (It now takes place annually on the last Saturday of September.)
“I realized there were ways to use food to invoke action in a non divisive way,” he says. Fast-forward to 2020 when Kearney created a Soul Stroll event for the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, as well as a Google map of Black-owned restaurants around the city.
And then, the world shut down. Kearney’s response was to create a social media account called Black Food Fridays, which was meant to bring awareness to and celebrate Black-owned businesses that represent the African diaspora within the US, which he felt were in danger of closing due to the pandemic.
He started by posting casually, sharing stories of other businesses like Atlanta’s Slutty Vegan. Then, like many Black-run businesses and social media accounts, he saw a massive increase in followers in June 2020 due to the nation’s response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. “They called it the ‘June boom’ and everybody’s numbers went up,” Kearney says. Although some have seen those numbers level out, Black Food Fridays’ followers have only increased. “I just continued to listen to the people supporting me and seeing what they respond to,” he explains.
The social media accounts have evolved (his TikTok posts are especially entertaining) but so has Kearney’s own day-to-day. In response to his social media presence, and his own work as an activist, he connected with Charleston Promise Neighborhood, a nonprofit that works with families and children to provide academic programs, health care, and more. Kearney now works as their community engagement program manager, organizing others in his community around issues that matter to them.
This past spring, Black Food Fridays was nominated for a James Beard Award for Social Media Account—and while the attention has given Kearney a number of new opportunities, he says he’s keeping his head on straight in order to continue providing his audience the right blend of information and entertainment, while encouraging others to purchase food and beverages from Black-owned businesses.
“I think it’s very telling that the posts that do the best aren’t just ‘Hey, go eat at this restaurant.’ It’s the post where there’s more information, where people get to learn something.
KJ Kearney’s Guide to Black Owned Restaurants
Dellz | West Ashley
“I mean, Dellz is an institution. They’ve moved to so many different locations and no matter where they go, people follow them. And there’s some big-name restaurants that can’t do that. That’s loyalty for them to go from downtown to Reynolds Avenue in North Charleston to James Island and now they’re in West Ashley and people still find them. They do have some seafood on their menu, but it’s mostly vegan and plant-based.”
Vined | North Charleston
“Number one: They make a peach cobbler, which, the first time I tried it, I had no clue was vegan. But it was so good. I think another thing that’s dope about them is that they chose a very, very Black part of town to showcase their food. And you know, a lot of people don’t think of Black people as vegans. But research shows that we are the fastest-converting group in terms of veganism in this country. They definitely belong on this list.”
Swank Desserts | Summerville
“America loves a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ story and I think [owner Danetra Richardson] is a great example of that. She started baking in her father’s kitchen and then she elevated to a commercial kitchen. And now she has a storefront in Summerville and she’s really crushing it right now. So, a Black-woman-owned bakery—salute.”
Gillie’s Seafood | James Island
“Where else can you go in the world and bring a framed photograph of your grandma and they’ll hang it on the wall? Like, not celebrities, just ‘oh, here’s a picture of my grandma. Would y’all please hang it up?’ And they do that! I think that talks about the character of the owners and what this restaurant is really about. It’s family friendly and, you know, the food is delicious.”
Nana’s Seafood & Soul Uptown | North Charleston
“A similar story, Nana’s does Charleston food, right? And they moved—to leave downtown to go to North Charleston, a lot of people thought that was professional suicide, but it has proven to be quite the opposite. I would even venture to say they’re doing better in North Charleston than they were downtown.” 843.937.9311
Good Food | Ladson
“Nigel’s has two current locations and they’re opening one more as we speak. Any other restaurant in this area that has that many locations would be all over the news, right? Yet nobody knows them except the people who support them. So, I think they are a testament to making good food and not being caught up in whether they get the recognition they deserve. And it’s a family operation, a husband-and-wife team, just doing good work.”
My Three Sons | North Charleston
“They’ve moved locations so they’re now on Dorchester Road. And, again, they are a testament to doing the work—they don’t get a lot of media coverage but they were able to move from an all-Black neighborhood to where they are now, and some would say, ‘Oh man they’re gonna lose a lot of support.’ But nope, it didn’t change. They’re still out here grinding with their meat and three.”
Hannibal’s Kitchen | Downtown
“I just want to give some love to Hannibal’s—it’s an institution. They’ve been around since the ’70s and it’s owned by the same family, by the daughters now. When I go, I get the same thing: I get a whole fried flounder and seafood rice, like 90 percent of the time. It’s so good.”
Buckshot’s | McClellanville
Another institution, another place that has been here forever. They don’t get a lot of media attention but they’ve managed to survive. And it’s absolutely worth the drive. Number one, I go for the history. And number two, it’s a meat and three and the food is really good. And Mount Pleasant is completely different than it was when I was a kid. It was pretty much all Black back then, and now it’s only [a small percentage] Black and it’s one of the most expensive zip codes in the state. And they’re still surviving, you know, cranking out some good food.” 843.887.3358
- by Erin Byers Murray