Photography by Janique Edwards
The best ideas offer solutions to everyday needs. For Anthony Edwards, a software developer based in Brooklyn, and then-fiancé, Janique, deciding where to eat dinner was the focus one evening back in 2016. But there was a prerequisite — the restaurant had to be black-owned. Like most, they headed to Google and began searching but were left frustrated. “There was nothing that said, ‘I can press this button and [it will] take me to that business or let me see reviews,’” Anthony says. “So we thought that would be a great app to build.”
eatOkra connects users with black-owned restaurants. The app features more than 1,300 restaurants from across the US. The eatOkra team is a lean one made up of three people which includes Anthony who is the developer; his wife Janique Edwards, who manages operations and marketing; and friend Justin Johnson, who leads UI design.
eatOkra is the first of its kind to serve as a directory for black-owned restaurants. Before building the app, the team quickly realized they were on to something. “We started asking people if they thought it was a great idea and they agreed, so we started with the beta version,” he says. Indeed they must be on to something because in 2018 the app had 4,500 downloads. And another positive indicator would come much later. Last October, a GQ interview with Diddy revealed that he and Jay-Z are working on an app that will connect users with black-owned businesses.
Bucking the misconception that all black-owned restaurants are soul food restaurants, eatOkra allows users to select their preferred cuisine. “There’s definitely a stigma that we can only cook Southern or Caribbean foods,” Anthony notes. “But there are restaurants doing things differently, or doing different fusion, or just straight up American food, period.” Anthony wants diners to use eatOkra as a tool to explore their neighborhoods and beyond to discover overlooked gems.“[My wife and I] found a restaurant a quarter mile from [our home] that we wouldn’t have found if it wasn’t for the app,” he says. “It’s an Asian-fusion/Caribbean spot, and the food is amazing.”
The cost of building a basic app can be prohibitive, starting at around $20k. And similar to restaurant ownership, capital is often a barrier to entry, but thanks to Anthony’s expertise, eatOkra is 100 percent bootstrapped. “I’m fortunate to be able to build [the app] myself, but for someone who doesn’t, it’s a bigger problem because it’s just plain expensive to get a mobile app let alone a website.”
Growth is eatOkra’s focus as the team works to expand the number of restaurants listed while also increasing the number of downloads. Long term, Anthony hopes to grow the business into a larger company with employees and he’d like to incorporate a social component to their model. “We want to collaborate with restaurants that provide food programs for families in need,” Anthony says.
Anthony has a unique perspective on independent restaurants that operators in the trenches often can’t see. He lists simple improvements they can implement. “Keep your social media pages together. If you’re going to have it keep it updated. Keep your pictures updated, respond to reviews, if you have a website, update it,” he advices. Also noting that a simple check of business hours listed on your website and sites like Yelp are an important part of running a business in today’s digital landscape. Anthony also encourages restaurants to take control of their brand. “Don’t depend on consumers to post your food and to be a representative of your food. Take your own pictures, get a quality person or someone who is capable to do it and let that represent you.”