A Black-owned restaurant in the Antelope Valley has seen business pick up recently — but with a changed customer base. Chef Michael Brignac said he’s seeing more people from the Black community ordering at his Lee Esther’s Creole and Cajun Cooking. “You know, it’s really strange. Through this whole pandemic and the protests for Black Lives Matter, we are starting to get a bigger Black customer base,” said Brignac. “We were kind of well diverse in our restaurant. We had Hispanics, Blacks, whites, Asians. Since this whole thing we’re starting to see more Black people come in,” added Brignac, referring to the aftermath of the George Floyd killing on Memorial Day. “A part of that is we’re trying to support each other, trying to spend more dollars with Black owned businesses, and we’re starting to see a lot of that.” He may not be alone. Momentum from the movement, coupled with August being Black Business Month, may be helping to draw more business generally to Black-owned businesses. Lois Shelton, Ph.D. and professor of management and entrepreneurship at California State University – Northridge, said she is not at all surprised to hear that more folks from the Black community are frequenting Brignac’s restaurant. She believes that support of Black businesses is a natural next step to convert energy from protests into lasting change. “It’s inspiring. We can continue to move the needle,” added Shelton, whose research focus is on minority and women entrepreneurship. “Voting is important but so is support of our businesses,” she said. Brignac also said he has seen another trend: younger people of all ethnicities have been ordering from Lee Esther’s recently. “Following the horror of seeing George Floyd killed and the outrage in not only the Black community but all communities, created a sense of allyship,” explained Shelton, adding that the trend is “an acknowledgement of the threat and struggle our community faces.” Lee Esther’s, named for Brignac’s mother, has paid it back as well, opening its doors to feed hungry protesters. But Brignac said it’s sometimes overwhelming to absorb the historic level of civil unrest on top of a global virus outbreak. “Sometimes I come to work and I sit outside the restaurant and meditate. It’s a lot,” said Brignac. “I can’t even articulate how I feel some days with the pandemic and this whole Black Lives Matter movement with so much abuse … The only thing I can do is get up every morning, pray and take things one day at a time.” Family-size orders Brignac’s restaurant, in its way, may be a microcosm of many businesses that are coping with changes big and small in this unusual era of protests and pandemic. Besides seeing a changing customer base, for example, he has noticed bigger orders; customers are getting enough food for the whole family. “The people who would come in would be couples,” he said. “Now we’re having to-go orders and people are ordering food for their families.” The small African-American owned Palmdale restaurant can hold 35 to 40 customers at most and is still on the fence about opening an outdoor dining option. Brignac had to let go of most of his front-of-house staff months ago, dropping his overall employee count from 13 to seven. “We’re saving money because of labor, we can only have so many people work in a small space,” he said. “It’s all takeout now so we don’t need any waiters or waitresses. It’s good and bad because people are out of work but on the flip side of that we’re saving money because of the labor cost.” Another unusual challenge because of the pandemic: Lee Esther’s faces supply issues stemming from the Creole and Cajun food he serves. Mom and pop suppliers, many in Louisiana, have gone out of business because of the pandemic, forcing Brignac and his culinary team to search out raw materials and make what they need in-house, if possible. “We don’t get a certain kind of cayenne pepper anymore, so what’s comparable to that kind of cayenne? We have to do research and figure out what would suit that,” added Brignac. “We would order them, have them shipped in. And now that’s the challenge, maintaining the same quality and getting some of the same meats and things that we use.” Loan drought In a way, Brignac may be fortunate. About 41 percent of small Black businesses closed because of the pandemic, compared to 17 percent of white-owned businesses, said Cedric White, president of the Antelope Valley Black Chamber of Commerce. Businesses in survival mode are having a hard time getting funding through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program too, with 95 percent of Black businesses ineligible, White said. According to LA Represents, a legal assistance initiative founded in April to help Angelenos during the pandemic, Black entrepreneurs have been rejected for loan assistance at “twice the rate” of their white counterparts. When applications do go through, Black-owned businesses receive lower loan amounts — the initiative said minority businesses receive less than half the loan amount of non-minority counterparts — and often get slapped with higher interest rates. “Very few of our businesses, if any, have seen any of that money. A lot of them are reaching out and taking advantage of what the local cities have to offer, which are grants and loans,” added White, referring to PPP funding. “We applied for those things so now we’re just kind of waiting,” added Brignac. In the meantime, chambers have taken it upon themselves to work with local banks to create financial assistance for its businesses. The AV Black Chamber is currently in discussion with Mission Valley Bank to offer loans ranging from $200,000 to $5 million. “We’re putting together a proposal to the city for SBA loans. The SBA loans guarantee 75 percent of the loan and will come in to guarantee an additional 20 percent to make it easier for our local small Black businesses — 95 percent of the loan would be guaranteed,” explained White. “A lot of people like the idea so we’re just waiting to see what happens.” Lancaster discussed the proposal in a recent council meeting, White said, and Palmdale is reviewing the program too. Ryan Roques, vice president of SBA business development, has been point person for the Sun Valley-based bank.