How an app for discovering Black-owned restaurants is dealing with skyrocketing demand
EatOkra already had a long waiting list of restaurants wanting to join its platform. Then the Black Lives Matter protests ushered in a dramatic outpouring of support.
At the start of May, Anthony Edwards already had a problem. He had a backlog of around 500 restaurants asking to be listed on his food directory app EatOkra, which connects users with Black-owned cuisine in their area.
Then the killing of George Floyd on May 25 sparked some of the largest and widest-spread civil rights demonstrations the U.S. has seen since the 1960s. As the movement swelled, supporters began scouring the internet for Black-owned businesses to support, mobilizing behind a familiar slogan: "Buy Black."
Edwards wasn't expecting such a dramatic outpouring of support. But since May 27, EatOkra, boosted by a wave of new social media followers and high scores on app stores, has received over 5,000 applications from restaurants hoping to be listed on its service. And the app saw a more than 4,000% increase in daily downloads by new users between May 28 and June 4, according to Apptopia.
"We went from about 500 restaurants that we had to process to about 5,100 in less than 30 days," Edwards said, describing the process as "high-anxiety." Before now, the app had been doubling its user base every year and was downloaded 12,000 times in 2019. So far this year, it has already received over 100,000 downloads.
EatOkra's mission is to connect users with Black-owned restaurants in their area. It's not a delivery service; it explicitly points users toward apps like DoorDash or Seamless when restaurants have that option. But its simple, green-and-white interface boasts categories not typically found on mainstream delivery apps — like "Soul Food," "African Cuisine" and "Caribbean Cuisine" — and gives prime real estate to restaurants that are often overlooked on other food services. It currently has more than 2,600 restaurants listed across more than a dozen cities.
Edwards, who has a computer science degree and works as the chief technology officer at a construction management software company, co-founded EatOkra with his wife, Janique Edwards, in 2016. The two came up with the idea shortly after they moved to Brooklyn as they scoured their neighborhood for food that felt "familiar."
"We were looking for Black-owned businesses — barbecue or soul food or something like that," Anthony Edwards said. "We started Googling and a lot of things came up, but there was no central source … We saw that as a big void."
Today, Janique Edwards handles operations, design and marketing, while Anthony Edwards is the main developer. They work with one other staffer, who handles design.
But this latest flurry of attention has catapulted EatOkra from a hobby app to a "professional" service, at least according to Heroku, the cloud platform that hosts the app. Edwards said he had to boost his level with Heroku to the "professional tier," which costs about $250 per month, doubling the amount that he was paying last month.
And suddenly, the app also has competition. Earlier this month, UberEats added a feature that compiles local Black-owned restaurants and waives delivery fees for orders from them through 2020, an effort that has been met with mixed results, as the promotion drives significant sales to Black-owned restaurants in some cities and falters in others.
Edwards said he would have loved to coordinate with Uber on the project, but the company hasn't reached out. "They need to work with companies like mine that have been doing the work," he said.
Last week, EatOkra launched a crowdfunding campaign on FundBlackFounders.com, aiming to raise $100,000 to hire new staff and navigate the burgeoning interest. As of Thursday, the campaign had raised more than $13,000. It's no longer tenable for Edwards and his wife to handle most of the work along with one other designer, he said.
Longer term, the couple has grand plans. They want to create a subscription model, which will allow restaurants to pay a small fee for promotion. They're also planning to design a news feed that highlights the stories and experiences of Black owners and chefs, and to launch an ecommerce section that allows people to buy sauces and spices from various stores.
He said the app is all about "circulating the dollar" — keeping money in the Black community.
"We want to be there for those people that are trying to make decisions to support Black-owned," Edwards said. "And for our owners, we just want to be another source for them to be seen, be heard, and not be put down in the bottom of a list or buried in another mobile application where you won't get seen."