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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ The Southside Chattanooga eatery Blue Orleans

Back in April, when Blue Orleans co-owner Cherita Bloodwirth heard through a friend about grant money available to restaurants, she did what many people would have done. She filled out the application.

And then she told other local restaurateurs about it.

"This pandemic is a bigger story than our restaurant, but for us to continue, we had to look for ways to survive and at least try. That's one thing I tell people when they ask what we've done. You have to try."

While she applied for and was denied a few other grant applications, her efforts have paid off. From that April application, the restaurant received $14,000, out of a possible $20,000, awarded to 71 Black-owned food businesses across the country through a partnership of the Kraft Heinz Co., Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice and the LEE Initiative.

LEE, which stands for Let's Empower Employment, is a nonprofit organization created by restaurateurs Lindsey Ofcacek and Edward Lee in 2017 as part of the #MeToo movement. Its focus is on improving diversity and equality in the restaurant industry through programs meant to increase opportunities for employment and make the industry more sustainable.

Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice is a coalition of bakers, chefs, makers and restaurant owners who have joined together to benefit Black communities in the South, specifically Black-owned restaurants during the pandemic.

The Kraft Heinz Co. grant money was provided through its Purpose, Let's Make Life Delicious program.

"We're thrilled to partner with the LEE Initiative and SRRJ to help foster a more diverse and equitable restaurant industry, as well as preserve the role that Black food has played in shaping history, food and culture," said Ashleigh Gibson, brand director for Kraft Heinz.

"We're inspired by each of our grantees' unique stories and are proud to have played a small part in preserving their restaurants' legacies."

The program awarded more than $1.1 million in grants to Black-owned food businesses across the country and focused on preserving institutions with a "cultural legacy." It originally was designed to issue 60 grants, but a private donation provided for 11 more.

"I think they liked our story," Bloodwirth said. "They wanted to know how the restaurant came to be and, of course, it was birthed out of Hurricane Katrina. We are transplants from New Orleans."

She said she and her former husband and co-owner Michael Adams were interviewed as part of the application to be included in a broader media campaign, but were not selected for that. She said they also were not chosen for other grants.

Blue Orleans did receive anoher grant in February from the Barstool Fund. Both grants went toward operational costs such as staffing, supplies and equipment repairs, Bloodwirth said.

While the grant monies help, things have been tough for Blue Orleans as they have for just about every other restaurant. Like others all around the country, Bloodwirth said, the restaurant also did a lot of adapting and soul-searching while looking for ways to survive. They added takeout and catering as options for diners nervous about dine-in eating. The restaurant has the capacity for 56 diners inside and 24 on the patio, but now limits that to a little more than half.

"We are still doing limited seating with every other table only and a maximum of eight people at one table," she said. "Masks are optional, but people have told me they just aren't comfortable with people sitting right on top of them."

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine brought a crew to Blue Orleans in 2019 to film an episode of "Restaurant: Impossible." The episode aired in February 2020. Bloodwirth said the pandemic halted whatever benefit the restaurant might have gotten from the publicity.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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