Chef Darold Gordon set up shop in East Austin after moving from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Over the last 15 years, he has seen the businesses and population in the neighborhood change.
"It’s about the rich or poor in Austin right now," says Gordon, whose restaurant Big Easy Bar and Grill is one of several being featured during ATX Black Food Week 2019. The event runs through Aug. 3.
Gordon says higher real estate costs and taxes have driven many long-time residents and business owners out.
On the one hand, "I'm a business owner and I'm here for the money," he says, acknowledging the business advantage of a customer base with more money to spend.
But, he says, he understands what that is doing to the area.
"All these big-time people coming into town putting up these $600,000 homes around here make the taxes go up, so people that actually grew up here can’t afford to be here," he says, "and that's even for the small-business owners."
Gordon, who also owns two food trucks, says the lease on his restaurant at 12th and Chicon runs through 2028. He expects his black customer base to continue moving on to other places.
"Austin don’t have that black community," he says. "The East Side used to be the black community, so black businesses could support black businesses. But now we're spread over the world; you got to pick and choose which one you’re closest to."
Listen to KUT's interview with Gordon to hear more about the challenges of running a black-owned business in Austin in 2019.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Darold Gordon: Here we sell gumbo, crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, our famous po-boys, seafood platters, all of your seafood, like snow crabs, crawfish, shrimp, potatoes, corn. We have the same food you can get in New Orleans if you were to go there.
KUT: Where do the recipes come from? Are they family recipes; are they ones you created?
Gordon: Well, some from my grandmother’s recipes. When I was a kid, I grew up watching her cooking – hanging around the kitchen with her. A lot of my recipes actually come from her; some I've made up along the way.
KUT: What is it like to run a restaurant in the Austin food scene right now?
Gordon: Well, right now Austin’s growing so fast it's so hard to keep up with everything that’s going on, especially with employees. So right now, it’s complicated to run a business because it's hard to keep employees. But as far as the food scene in Austin – it’s unique because we got food from all over the world, so you don't have to go all over the world to actually get that taste. You can actually just walk around Austin and try different restaurants or different food trucks and you get different things and all of it's pretty good so far.
KUT: I have a theory – it's not original to me – that there are still some experiences now that are very segregated. And the one that I think of first is church. I wonder if restaurants are that way at all too? If you notice anything about who comes to your restaurants? If you feel like dining out and eating out and food are still a segregated activity or not?
Gordon: My experience by being in this business and I guess on 12th Street right now – a lot of the Caucasian community catered to my place simply because I'm in this spot. I've been here 15 years, and this was one of the places I came and it was black-owned, but it was actually a bar, and it was more of a low-income community when I came up.
And this building here, I said, "Man, I probably won’t ever have a place on the East Side," when I first came to town, because it's just that bad and no businesses were booming. But as I watched the community change, I was like – "I'd better get in that building and lock it down and get ready to go with the change that’s coming."
KUT: What is it like to be here now compared to when you first opened?
Gordon: You have mixed emotions because the people who actually grew up here can’t stay here now. And all these big-time people coming into town, putting up these $600,000 homes around here, make the taxes go up, so people that actually grew up here can’t afford to be here and that's even for the small-business owners. Once they put the buildings up, you can't pay the taxes.
I always tell people, it ain’t about the black or white or Mexican; it’s about the rich or poor in Austin right now. And that's simply what we’re experiencing. So, if you don't have the money to live on the East Side, you're not going to be on the East Side. And right now, a lot of Caucasian people coming from all over the world – they’re coming in with money, and they’re just wiping the people in Austin who don't have the money out.
KUT: You said, kind of mixed emotions: So on the one hand, the city's changing and growing and there's more money coming in; in theory, that would mean more people coming to eat in the restaurant and better business – except that it's also having this impact on the neighborhood.
Gordon: Of course, I'm a business owner and I'm here for the money, but I also feel sorry, you know, because I'm from New Orleans and New Orleans got wiped out in my community during the same thing. I go back home – the home that we grew up in – other people from all over the world took over that community and we can't afford to go back there, unfortunately.
So the same thing just happened. A lot of people all over the world said beautification is just happening everywhere you go. So now you just got to position yourself and position your family where they can be able to move and don't be stuck in one spot.
KUT: Do you ever anticipate having to move or leave or change anything about the business as Austin continues to change?
Gordon: Well, actually I'm more than sure I would have to move. But I was smart enough to get a long enough lease so when the time does come, they'll have to pay me to leave. Because right now, the guys are buying everything up around here ... the only spot they don't have is my building right now. My time has coming – I just don't know when – but I'm ready.
KUT: When something comes up like ATX Black Food Week, what do you hope to get out of that for your business?
Gordon: I would hope that everybody understands the seriousness of it, because black is the minority in Austin. A lot of people are like, "No, Mexicans are." No, dude, black is the minority when it comes to businesses. I saw that firsthand. There’s not many black businesses right here close in town.
We do need that support, because none of us comes from that financial background where somebody's catching our back. You know, it's like week to week, hustle to hustle, pay bills. So we need all the support that we can get. And I was happy when they came along with that program because that way the minority black folks don't feel like they were left behind.
KUT: I was noticing and looking at the restaurants that are featured for ATX Black Food Week. There's some around your restaurant; there are also some up north. Is it challenging to have a black business and black restaurant community when the community and the businesses are now dispersed?
Gordon: It's interesting that you asked me that question. I just saw David [Lott] – “Mr. Catfish” – at Restaurant Depot like 10 minutes ago, and he was talking about that. He was saying the same thing: "Man, I'm kind of struggling because all the people who had been my customers for years – way before you came to town – now they’re moving out to Manor and getting spread all around, so it's kind of hard for me to recapture other people."
Austin don’t have that black community. The East Side used to be the black community, so black businesses could support black businesses. But now we spread over the world; you got to pick and choose which one you’re closest to.