Jay Spencer has been injecting a slice of France into Needham for close to a decade.
The restaurateur, who moved to the Boston area with his husband almost 15 years ago, originally wanted to open a classic French patisserie. When he couldn’t find the right fit, he pivoted, purchasing Petit Robert Bistro in downtown Needham, which he ran for seven years (the restaurant closed in late 2017).
During that time, Spencer found his ideal patisserie location across the street and opened French Press Bakery & Cafe in 2015. For the past five years, the bakery has supplied stunning pastries, tarts, and sandwiches, along with excellent cups of coffee — a service it still manages to achieve during the pandemic through curbside pickup.
While handing out pickup orders at the bakery, Spencer has also been having discussions with customers about the recent protests and Black Lives Matter movement. As a Black business owner, Spencer said he has been on the receiving end of racist remarks throughout his restaurant career, from people who don’t want to accept that he’s the owner to disgruntled customers leaving derogatory reviews. We spoke with the restaurateur about how Black restaurants are often left out of the conversation, what restaurants can do to promote diversity within their kitchens, and how this moment might be a turning point for the Black community.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Can you talk a little bit about what this particular moment in time — the protests, the renewed vigor in the Black Lives Matter movement, the changes that we’re seeing happen as a result of these protests — has been like for you as a business owner? What are the responses you’ve been getting from people?
I think from our customers we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response. Some of them have taken that difficult step to engage in dialogue, because we are in a predominantly white suburban community. Most of the time I’m out there for curbside pickup, and they’re giving their voice of support, [and are giving] financially as well.
I think the biggest challenge that [French Press Bakery has] faced is when it comes to the publicity of our business. We’re not the gatekeeper of the press. When you talk about press, about accolades, things like that, [Black businesses] always tend to be left out. They don’t do a “best new Black chef” or highlight Black restaurants or things like that. I think that’s come to the forefront now, and it’s nice to be acknowledged, but we’ve been around for five years. I think the institutions have to change the ways they think about things, and what they want to highlight instead of running from one new business to the next new business. It’s nice to see [exposure] now, but there has to be some sort of mobilization to highlight that and recognize these folks that are doing things not only for the community, but also for food.
There have been a lot of recent articles highlighting Black-owned restaurants to support — Boston.com published one, too. I’ve read various takes on this: on one hand, these lists bring attention to restaurants that have so often been ignored; on the other hand, these lists are deemed ‘too little too late’ and don’t address the real issues. What are your thoughts on that?
Everybody can sit down and say it’s late, but at least people are coming to the party. I think the more important question is: Where do we go? When you talk about sustainability, you really have to look at how you [interact with] these Black businesses and how they’re invited to participate: the private events that affect the industry, how you’re collaborating with them, how you engage them with decision makers. There are Black businesses that are key contributors, and they don’t get recognized and they don’t get the publicity. So I think when someone puts together that next list of the places to go in Boston, you’ve really got to look a little bit deeper than the pedigree of the person that came from the last restaurant that was highly rated, and really do a little more research to ask: How can I look at Black people and what they’ve done and what they’re able to contribute and where they’re going, and include them within those lists? When you talk about dollars, how do you create economic opportunity? Economic opportunity is created by giving [these Black businesses] the recognition and the due that’s necessary for the work that they do and the longevity that they’ve been able to achieve for their communities.
I’ve seen a lot of local restaurants that have posted black squares and shows of solidarity on their social media. What can these owners and chefs do within their own business to go beyond just that social media post?
First and foremost, I would say that the point of the black squares was to give recognition to Blacks and, more specifically, Black businesses. So restaurants that didn’t step up and do that, or businesses that didn’t step up and do that, really make me question where they are and whether they should be receiving my money. Again, you have to start somewhere. If you don’t start recognizing there’s a problem, you’re either part of the continuing problem or part of the solution. For me, I feel like it’s the first step of many for people to be able to seek out Black folks to run their restaurant, to create their menus, to hire more folks to be the face of what they’re doing. There’s a lot of opportunity there. And I think there becomes more awareness that when that candidate is there, they look to hire that candidate. I think all too often, some restaurants have shied away from that — in particularly some of the higher end [restaurants] — simply because the attitudes in Boston have not been very favorable to people of color working in those types of situations. So I think they have to be more aggressive and say, for a fine dining perspective, I’m going to have more people of color working in those positions.
You seem very hopeful. Do you see this as a turning point?
I’m very hopeful for many reasons. First and foremost being the fact that you now have protests going on three weeks. So typically when you have an issue, people kind of come to one and they’re done. When you have this many peaceful and diverse voices coming out and speaking on a cause, it really starts to sow the seeds for change. A lot of people keep saying that it’s a younger group of people that are demanding change. They’re the ones that are going to be around for a while. They’re the ones who have no fear telling someone, ‘Hey, why aren’t you doing this?’ Or, ‘You should say something about that.’ I think people are finding their courage to say things to people when they feel it’s not right. So I really feel like there are legs to this movement and, more specifically, you have a major election coming up, so people should be holding folks accountable, whoever is running for office, on where they stand on Black-related issues. And not only where they stand, but what they’re going to do in order to be part of the solution.
What else needs to change?
There has to be a lot more thoughtful, in-depth research of what’s out there. There have been a lot [of Black businesses] out there for a very long period of time, but no one’s really cared to look at what’s been running. We’re in a time where very few restaurants are going to be opening, so I think it’s a great opportunity to be able to look at some of the mainstays — particularly Black mainstays — and how they’ve been able to survive these years and what makes them successful.