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Meet Liz Beal and Shi Johnson-Bey

Today we’d like to introduce you to Liz Beal and Shi Johnson-Bey. 

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
We are two Marylanders (Liz Beal & Shi Johnson-Bey) who co-founded a social media following devoted to spotlighting the beautiful spectrum of Black-owned food businesses and services in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. 

We started our journey in July of 2020. At the time, there were massive calls for racial justice and an end to police brutality. To support the movement of uplifting Black communities, people began sharing lists of Black-owned restaurants on their social media pages. 

This outpouring of support was fantastic, but looking up the locations and menus of each restaurant was a time-consuming process. Especially for us because we are both vegetarians. That sparked our idea to create a website specifically focused on curating information on Black-owned restaurants in the DMV (DC, MD, and VA). With it, people could search by location or food type and discover restaurants that fit their tastes. 

As we were building the database last summer, we started talking about some of the restaurants we found and how much we wanted to go. Those conversations turned into us visiting some of the restaurants and documenting our adventures on social media. Within just a week of creating a TikTok, we gained over 5,000 followers and had a video that received over 50,000 views. That’s when we realized the power of what we were doing, and that we could really make something great out of this. 

In roughly one year since, we have amassed a phenomenal network of almost 80,000 followers across TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Also, our online directory of Black-owned food businesses, Jyackl.com (pronounced like Jackal), has over 530 restaurants. 

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Most of our journey has been fairly smooth. Or at least as smooth as things could be during the Covid-19 pandemic. Logistically, our biggest struggle is not being able to spotlight all the establishments that we would like to. We are limited by time, money, and dietary offerings. Both of us work full time. Liz is an elementary school teacher, and Shi is a doctoral student. Having full-time jobs takes up a lot of our time. We try to visit places on the weekend, but we are pretty limited. 

Currently, we do not charge for our services, and so all of our work comes from goodwill. Since we do not profit from this business, we use personal funds to travel to each establishment. Discounts and complimentary items help us stretch these funds and reach more businesses. 

One of our most limiting factors is dietary restrictions. We are both vegetarian, so that limits the restaurants we can visit. They need to have at least some vegetarian options, and surprisingly, you can’t find that everywhere. Luckily, we’ve noticed our options expanding over time. 

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
We are most known for our TikTok account (@theblacklistdmv). It is our biggest platform with nearly 70 thousand followers. Our videos mainly feature Black-owned food establishments, but we occasionally feature other Black-owned businesses such as selfie museums, bed & breakfast resorts, and wellness studios. 

The businesses that we feature are a combination of places we visit in our free time and those that have reached out to us through Instagram and email. When a business reaches out to us, we consult with them about what they want to be featured in a video. We also work out a date and time to shoot the video. 

We are really proud of our ability to edit the videos in a way that showcases the best parts of every business. We are also able to bring attention to some amazing business owners and their stories. A lot of comments we get are like, “Wow, this is so close to me! How did I not know?” It’s a great feeling to bring attention and support to those who really deserve it. The business owners we feature work really hard, and connecting them with customers is just incredible. 

What sets us apart from others is the level of care we put into our TikTok videos and posts. We really try to connect with the business owners and hear their stories. We always try to speak with the owners or people working there and ask them what they want to share about their business. This way, we can share a full story and showcase all the parts that business owners are proud of. 

The crisis has affected us all in different ways. How has it affected you and any important lessons or epiphanies you can share with us?
Food businesses need our support now more than ever. When Covid-19 began, restaurants everywhere had to change the entire structure of their business. Some folks didn’t make it, and others are working hard to keep their doors open. We are grateful to be in the position to do what we do. Supporting Black-owned businesses is a lot of fun, and you hear inspiring stories about folks doing what they love and uplifting their communities. 

On the comedic side, we have also learned the art of making food in to-go containers look just as good on camera as it would in a restaurant. 

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