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Mayoral Candidate Michelle Wu Has a Plan for Restaurant Equity in Boston

Restaurants in three of Boston’s richest and whitest neighborhoods received half of the federal relief funds allocated to the city. Restaurants in the city’s majority non-white neighborhoods received much less.

Closeup on a woman’s smiling face in front of a dark background.
Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu.
Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

New research from Boston city councilor and mayoral hopeful Michelle Wu’s office suggests that half of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund dollars allocated to restaurants in the city went to businesses in just three of Boston’s 23 neighborhoods: Back Bay, Downtown, and the Seaport. Of the $29 billion in federal money distributed to restaurants across the country, Boston restaurants received about $340 million.

According to the data from Wu’s office, which was obtained by Eater Boston, restaurants in Dorchester, Hyde Park, Mattapan, Mission Hill, Roslindale, and Roxbury received a combined 5 percent of that total. Back Bay, Downtown, and the Seaport are overwhelmingly white and disproportionately wealthy compared with the rest of the city, while historically underserved neighborhoods like Dorchester — which alone accounts for 20 percent of the city’s entire population — Hyde Park, Mattapan, Mission Hill, and Roxbury are each majority non-white, and each has a median household income that is much lower than the city’s average.

The data points to a broader trend of inequity in the Boston restaurant industry — one that includes discrimination in the commercial rental market (with ties to historic discrimination in housing along racial lines), vaccine access barriers for workers of color, NIMBY brewers suing to block affordable housing for homeless elders, and liquor license parity.

Indeed, the inequities in the dispersal of federal aid track pretty neatly on top of the the manner by which liquor licenses are distributed throughout the city. As previously reported, according to data Eater Boston acquired from the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, nearly a third of liquor licenses issued in Boston from the beginning of 2010 to November 2019 went to only four of the city’s neighborhoods — Back Bay, the North End, the Seaport District, and South Boston — which make up under 10 percent of Boston’s total population. The combined populations of those neighborhoods are overwhelmingly white and wealthy compared to the city’s overall demographics and median household income. Historically Black neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Mattapan, meanwhile, have received significantly fewer liquor licenses.

Wu tells Eater that she plans to look at the city’s food economy through a lens of racial justice if she’s elected mayor. (She’s already doing this work as a member of the city council.) Wu speaks about the bureaucratic red tape every business owner has to cut through to open and sustain a restaurant in Boston, issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, especially for minority-owned restaurants. It’s something Wu knows about firsthand, having opened a tea shop in the city before she ran for city council as a means to help support her family and her mother through a health crisis.

“That process of knowing just how much goes into planning, opening, and maintaining a small business really was quite frustrating when it came to interactions with city government, in particular, and government in general,” says Wu. “For all the time and energy spent on choosing the perfect venue, and setting up the space, and picking a playlist or the color of the paintings on the wall, to create the perfect environment — at the end of the day, that process of working through that bureaucracy to be able to get permits and licenses and get open was incredibly difficult, especially as someone who was just doing this with my family and without the resources to hire lawyers or consultants or people to facilitate that.”

Wu says she had a flashback to those days during the summer of 2020 while walking through Little Saigon in Dorchester to check in with its businesses. She quickly discovered that many restaurant owners weren’t aware of the sort of local, state, or federal aid programs they qualified for, a reality that was proved out by her team’s research. “It’s very much reflected that many businesses were not as tapped into that help, and even though the funding was allocated, there are additional barriers when it comes to reaching all of our communities and making sure that we are meeting entrepreneurs and businesses where they are.”

As Wu continues along the mayoral campaign trail, she holds tight to the belief that city government — which is closest to its business owners and constituents — can and should be most the most effective form of government in terms of helping people through difficult times, such as the ongoing pandemic, and solving the city’s remaining equity issues. “I‘ve seen firsthand how literally meeting people where they’re at, going door to door through our business district, and just checking in with our business owners and workers can have a huge impact in how we can connect our businesses to resources that are available,” she says. “We should have that system not just in crisis when businesses are trying to recover from a major shutdown, but every single day.”