Forks & Flavors and the fight against systemic racism

Chef David Wilmott & Darnell Morgan (photo provided by Forks & Flavors)

By Abisola D. Dahunsi

Amidst the growing outcry over what seemed like an increase in police killings of Black Americans in 2020, one Black couple chose a gentler path to solidarity, crafting unity through their own love story. They launched a restaurant in the heart of Kennesaw, Ga., and reaffirmed their commitment by exchanging vows— for the second time.

Forks & Flavors owners David Wilmott and Darnell Morgan met on Twitter in 2010 and eventually married in 2015. As problems arose within the relationship, Morgan pushed for a divorce and the couple’s divorce was finalized in 2017. The two remained in touch, eventually reconciled, and remarried in Jan. 2020 right before launching their popular cuisine amidst the chaos surrounding police brutality.

“Inevitably, it was love that brought us back together,” Morgan said. “We’ve always been in love with one another. I think I hesitated and just might not have been ready at the time. I knew I had a lot of growing up to do before I could offer myself to him again, and I can honestly say I haven’t looked back since.”

Initially, Wilmott launched Forks & Flavors as a catering business back in 2014. However, during the pandemic, they realized that they could not handle the ample demands of orders and requests they were receiving, and so ensued the birth of their full-service restaurant.

What started as a normal evening at the dinner table, eventually became the framework for the beloved local cuisine.

“The very first thing that started Forks & Flavors the restaurant was David’s macaroni and cheese,” Morgan said. “I tasted his macaroni and cheese and knew this would be our way in.”

Wilmott describes the plan to launch their cuisine during the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement as “intentional” and “purposeful.”

“The timing felt right with everything as far as having the proper funds to open a restaurant and having the time needed to do it,” said Morgan.

“Every time you come up in here, you’re going to have a good time,” said Michelle T, a frequent customer at Forks & Flavors. “You can tell the owners love their customers and their employees.”

Despite Forks & Flavors already enjoying success, the restaurant experienced a significant uptick in customers following the viral video of George Floyd’s murder. This sudden influx shone a stark light on racial inequality in all its unjust manifestations, including within the business realm.

Racism offers no respite, whether it’s endured silently or confronted head-on. Like a festering cavity, this insidious form of discrimination embeds itself in both its victims and its perpetrators, refusing to be ignored.

Corporate America largely remained silent during the 2014 protests sparked by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Brown, an 18-year-old fatally shot by former Ferguson, Missouri policeman Darren Wilson, and Garner, who died after being placed in a prohibited chokehold by New York City Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, both symbolized systemic issues that demanded attention.

Floyd’s death sparked a national reckoning, shining a spotlight on Black businesses. The racial tension exacerbated by Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color intensified pressure on corporate America. Major brands like Nike, Fitbit, Amazon, and Facebook sought to address their roles in perpetuating discrimination in the workplace.

While Morgan, Wilmott, and the staff and patrons of Forks & Flavors fervently supported America’s ongoing battle against white supremacy, doubts lingered like a bitter aftertaste. The unprecedented wave of support faced sharp criticism from various quarters.

After the initial frenzy over coronavirus subsided, media coverage of reported police brutality against Black individuals noticeably dwindled. While the BLM movement urged support for Black-owned businesses, owners feared this backing might be short-lived.

Though seemingly well-intentioned, was this support genuine, or merely a response to the fear of being labeled racist?

Despite strides made, America still grapples with a deep-rooted issue where the aspirations of Black and Brown individuals are often obscured by an enduring wrongness that may never fully dissipate.

“When all of this took place, it seemed like everyone was unambiguously aware of the problem and sort of pledged to implement ways to change the system,” said Maleekah Smith, who was at the restaurant with her girlfriend for brunch. “I just hate that Black people have to die for folks to really start caring,you know?”

“I feel the same,” added Shani Black, girlfriend of Smith. “Every once in a while, something like this happens. People will pretend to care while things are amped up. Now everyone has taken down their black squares on their Instagram feed, and BLM out of their bio, but [Black people] are still dying.”

The black square Smith referred to was a movement launched in June 2020 by music executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, Senior Director of Marketing at Atlantic Records, who noted that the current American music industry “has profited predominantly from Black art”.

On Tuesday, June 2, 2020, Over 28 million Instagram users including major celebrities, brands, and influencers posted a plain black square to their account, bearing the hashtag #blackouttuesday before pausing their usual social media feeds for the day.

The movement was in solidarity with today’s music industry blackout supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.However, some Black people were quick to point out its largely performative nature, arguing that this did not represent true solidarity.

“The support is nice and all, but this has always been ourfight. Things like BLM and Black History Month exist for them,” Morgan said.

“Overall, 20% of small businesses generally fail within the first year,” said James Michael, a restaurant consultant in Atlanta, Ga.

According to him, about 50% make it to the 5-year mark, and 62% survive to be a decade old. For African Americans, the statistics can be even grimmer. Eight out of 10 Black-owned businesses fail within the first 18 months.

When asked about how it feels to be credited as a successful Black-owned business in Kennesaw, Wilmott revealed that the pair never attributed much meaning to the title until recently.

“Knowing that we are recognized as Black-owned business really empowers us, as we are still in a society that doesn’t accept Black ownership and Black excellence,” said Morgan.

Wilmott encourages consumers to “regularly celebrate Black people by investing in [Black] businesses.”

Morgan described an incident involving an elderly Caucasian couple who entered Forks & Flavors and seemed surprised by the lively ambiance. Upon requesting the bartender to lower the music, they were met with a polite refusal, to which they promptly retreated to their car, evidently unhappy.

That right there is what I’m talking about,” said Morgan about the couple’s behavior. “We get a lot of White people in here with the utmost audacity. If you don’t like the environment, take your [stuff] and go somewhere less exciting.”

If it hasn’t been clear, Wilmott and Morgan are a married couple, both Black and gay. They’re no strangers to the discrimination faced by Black gay men, and they’re committed to ensuring their workplace remains free from it. At Forks & Flavors, there’s a strict policy against racism and homophobia, especially from customers who might object to their relationship.

“Customers are drawn to us because of the vibrant atmosphere we create. We’re lively and authentic,” explained Wilmott. “Forks & Flavors stands out because we’re genuine. We won’t apologize for being ourselves just to appease others.”

“It’s my first time here, and I didn’t think it was possible to feel so welcomed at a restaurant. The food is great, the music is great, [and] the atmosphere is great. 10/10 would recommend for sure,” newcomer Yara Upton said.

According to the Kauffman Foundation’s annual study, the pandemic saw a significant boom in the rise of new Black-owned businesses-the largest surge in the last quarter-century. Black entrepreneurship was reported to rank higher than White-owned and Asian-owned companies in 2021.

Forks & Flavors continues to thrive thanks to the support of loyal customers and influx of new ones, however, it is important to clarify that the restaurant does not ascribe its success to the progressiveness of the current political climate.

“We are obviously so thankful for the advocacy, but we only want to receive it from the people that sincerely want to be here — not from those who see this as a means to appear non-racist,” said Morgan.

As for the future of their business, Morgan and Wilmott have hopes to open Forks & Flavors in every major city in America.

When alluding to what the restaurant might look like in the years to come, Morgan said, “we just want to continue owning the restaurant and run it as self-sufficient.”

Currently, the couple is actively building a Forks & Flavors in Houston, Texas, and have plans to open in Washington and Los Angeles later this year.

About the author, Abisola D. Dahunsi

I am a journalist from Nigeria, currently pursuing my journalism degree at Kennesaw State University. With a passion for storytelling, I aim to amplify the voices of marginalized communities while ensuring I never overshadow the stories that truly need to be heard.