A Digital Celebration of Black Food and Community
Anthony Edwards built EatOkra to make it easier to find Black-owned restaurants—it has grown into a thriving hub of connection for more than 400,000 users
When Anthony Edwards Jr. and his girlfriend, Janique, moved from upstate New York to Brooklyn six years ago, they needed a place to eat. They had no stove in their apartment, no fridge either, so cooking at home was impossible. But the task of finding neighborhood restaurants felt equally daunting. Brooklyn is loaded with all kinds of dining options, offering food from all over the world. And here Anthony and Janique were, newcomers to the borough, just trying to find their footing. Where do they start? How do they start?
Janique suggested Anthony use his skills as a coder to build an app to help them discover their new neighborhood. “We really wanted to build something that could help us learn and support the community,” Edwards said during College Board’s Coding Outside the Lines hackathon in March.
The result was EatOkra, which launched in 2016 to help discover Black-owned businesses and restaurants in one’s community. It’s now available in 36 major cities, includes roughly 12,000 businesses, boasts partnerships with Uber and Pepsi, and reaches more than 400,000 users. Last summer, Anthony and Janique (who are now married) were profiled by Doritos, and in December EatOkra won a 2021 App Store Award from Apple.
It’s the kind of success developers and founders dream about. As Edwards tells The Elective, though, his goals for EatOkra were, at first, small: build a directory app for people to find Black-owned businesses, and have a good, working product to show future employers.
That plan held for four years after the app’s launch. Edwards—who served in the Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom doing avionics technical repair, then the Air Force Reserve before going to college and landing a job as a junior full-stack engineer—was still “on the start-up grind,” and EatOkra had pulled in about 50,000 users. But in summer 2020, as protestors rallied against racial injustice across the country, EatOkra blew up. More than 150,000 people were suddenly on the app, forcing Edwards to rewrite some old code to handle the new user load, and since then a couple thousand more join the EatOkra community every month. It paved the way for what EatOkra has become—and allowed Edwards to turn the app into a business of its own, with Janique serving as COO and Anthony as CEO and CTO.
“I really built EatOkra as a hedge to the next job,” Edwards says. “But this ended up being my next job.”
Edwards recently spoke with The Elective about his computer science journey, transforming EatOkra from a simple directory into a thriving community, the challenges he faced getting investors to pay attention, and why it’s important for students to see examples of successful Black founders.
During the hackathon, you mentioned you were into technology as a kid—robots, LEGO MINDSTORMS. Was there a moment where you realized, I want to do this for a living?
I really remember being motivated by Spider-Man back in the day. He’s a super-smart nerd; his gadgets, like the web shooters, are mechanical. When we were kids, I was supposed to be the mechanical engineer and I’d make the shooters, and my one friend was supposed to be a chemical engineer and create the web fluid. That was probably the point where I knew I wanted to be mechanically involved for my career. I didn't know what that looked like. I didn't grow up with folks around me who were even thinking about that. But those kinds of things shaped the way I think about tech, getting involved with it, and being passionate about it.
What did your parents do for work?
My mom has a catering business, but when I was growing up she was an RN at nursing facilities. And then my dad, who I didn't live with, was in California. He had a barbecue restaurant, Mr. Ed's Barbecue. My stepdad was a teacher.
So when you're a kid and thinking, “I want to be Spider Man,” your day-to-day experience is one where people are working really hard to provide a life for themselves and their family. They’re not building superhero gadgets. Was it hard to bridge those two experiences?
I would say yes. There was nobody to go to for advice or to talk to. I just kind of had to figure this stuff out myself. When I was younger I would go spend time in California with my dad in the summer and really get the experience of being in the shop. But my mom owning her catering spot was more relevant. That was more recent, in the last 10 years or so. I was 23 or so at the time.
But, yeah, just having that interest, not having anybody to really lean on... My stepdad graduated from college, my mom didn't graduate from college, and then the rest of my support system, my grandmother, I don't think, graduated from college, and I don't think my real dad did, either. My stepdad graduated from Howard. But his experience was in physical education, so even he couldn't help me out with anything technical or math.
After high school you enlisted in the military. What led to that decision? And when you joined up, was it with the idea that you would do the kind of technical, computer-oriented jobs that get featured in armed forces commercials?
I joined because my grandfather was in the military, my dad was in the military—both retired. At the time, I didn't really know.... My parents weren't really on top of it, when it came to me going to college, so I hadn't done all the prep stuff that all the other kids did. I wasn't a bad student—I was, like, a B student—but I felt like you had to be an A student to go to college. So my other alternative was to join the service. And I chose a technical role because, I forget who it was that told me, but someone said, "Make sure you choose a job you can do when you get out."
When it came to my grades at school, I always performed best in math and science, and that, on top of my interest in tech, I think the recruiter was, like, "Aviation maintenance and repair would be a good job for you." And I think those fields are what I scored highest in, on that test you take to join the military. So aviation was probably one of the best ones for me, my MOS [military occupational specialty].
You spent some time in the Army and then went into the Air Force Reserve.
Yeah, I did about six, six and a half years in the active-duty Army, and then I transitioned to the Air Force Reserves for another three years, at Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts. Both of them were the same job, but those skills—technically, the skills don't translate to the Air Force, so they send you back to school to retrain you on the same thing. That's when they sent me to Texas.
After you're out of the Air Force Reserve, you go to Fordham. Did that experience in the military help you when you began a more formal, college-level computer science program?
Yeah, I was definitely ready for it at that point. I was ready for focus. I was ready to have a career, have money. I was mission focused—wanting to succeed, do better than my parents, provide opportunity for my family when I had one. So, yeah, it definitely prepared me to be a better student.
How about in terms of the kind of things you were studying? Did anything in your hands-on experiences working in aviation translate into what you were doing in the classroom?
No, not really. Going back to college was like going back to theory instead of practical application, the on-the-job training. Some things did apply, but it was very early math stuff that we were doing. But I wouldn't say much translated over to college that really helped me, besides just being a better student and all that that means.
Your first tech job was as a junior full-stack developer. Where was that?
It was a company called BuildingBlok. Yeah, full-stack engineer. It was a team of, like, five or six of us to start. That experience is probably why I'm here today. Just learning what it is to be in a start-up, to be in that grind, to be under deadlines. And, really, I was just thrown into the wild. After coming from this three-month intensive, Dev Bootcamp, after college, to that and then going into an environment where they kind of let me just rock out and figure things out and gave me tasks, reviewed the work a little bit where they could, showed me how to build and scale code. All those experiences are what I used in building EatOkra. I left this past January, but seven years of that—tech people don't really stay with a company for more than a year or two.
So you were doing that job while you were building EatOkra. How did your engineering job influence how you approached and built your app?
Just being young, being fully motivated, wanting to do my own thing. I built EatOkra as a tool that I needed to get the next job. I was, like, "I hate interviews. I don't want to do that process again. Let me build something so they see it" and prove my value, rather than just being a junior developer at another company. If you have something that people are using, they have to look at that as, "OK, this guy knows what he's doing." So I really built EatOkra as a hedge to the next job. But this ended up being my next job.
That’s interesting because I feel like the stories that sprung up around developers and tech people are all about creating the next big, scalable thing or disrupting some industry. Did you not expect EatOkra to not only take off the way it has but also to occupy such a central place in your professional life?
No, I honestly didn't. I feel like I was super-small minded thinking about EatOkra from the beginning. It's just a directory app for people to find Black-owned restaurants. Maybe we make some money off of it over the life of it. If I made a million dollars at the end of it, I'd be happy with that. But it turns out, once we built it and everything happened with George Floyd, the need became even greater and then the corporate-level need became apparent too, how they needed support and what they should be supporting. That's the part I never really thought about.
Going into it it wasn't to be a disruptor—I knew it could be, at some point, but years down the line when we're making a little bit of money. I always knew people had to get their hands on it. It was just getting the money to do that, and at the time—and even still, there aren’t a lot of people investing in Black founders, and even less in this space. When they do, it's always some sort of finance app or health app, health tech, or something like that. But it's rare in my field. And it's to a demographic that they weren't sure they could put money behind, that people would buy. That was a really early conversation, back in 2016, when we started it—that conversation is very different now. I think a lot of people see the value in the Black dollar.
None of that stuff was on my radar over the years it was built. EatOkra was really built just out of passion: me just wanting to build a project, do something to get the next job. And then I started to see more value in it over time, seeing the need, people asking, writing in for more restaurants, complaining there weren't enough restaurants in their area. We did a lot of manual labor during that time.
You mentioned George Floyd. Were the protests the moment where you started to see a different kind of engagement with the app?
Yeah, so, June of 2020 we had 150,000 people download the app. It probably would have been more, but we experienced some load issues for a few days. All that code I had written was from, like, 2017, 2018, and when the app explodes all of a sudden you're like, “Oh, wait, there's errors. There's some scaling issues.” So I had to take a few days and stay up all night fixing stuff, upgrading the servers and everything.
That growth you experienced came, of course, in the middle of a pandemic, as well. How did that influence the app and how people engage with it? In New York, at least, there were some community groups organizing programs to drive people to buy meals from Black-owned businesses.
Up until that point, we had about 40–50,000 people on it, over four years. And then 150,000 were on pretty much overnight—and then it kept growing, a couple thousand a month or so. It became those folks that were really looking to support had something that they could get behind, that worked, and was pretty easy to do. They were able to share it. They were able to suggest new restaurants to the app. And they just felt like it was something they could get behind. They were creating story posts behind it, Instagram stories, and tweets and passing it on in conversation. That's what really got us in front of Pepsi, who, at the time, like all these big corporations who had sort of diversity programs, felt like they had to get behind Black-owned businesses. So that's where our partnership with Pepsi comes in, with the Dig In campaign that they're doing for the next couple of years, and EatOkra being one of the major partners in it.
What does that corporate interest and relationship look like two years later?
For Pepsi it’s definitely strong. They're still committed and contributing those dollars towards Black-owned businesses. In the next few months, you'll see some more of what they're doing, carrying over from last year, along with new stuff they're going to do this year.
Janique and Anthony Edwards (on ends) with Michael and Nicole Nicholas, owners of Brooklyn plant-based café Aunts et Uncles, which is part of the EatOkra network of Black-owned businesses.
So you have this app, it's doing really great, it's connecting people and communities—how important is it for you to not only bring EatOkra to more people, but also to get in front of the kinds of students who participated in the College Board hackathon, to tell your story and share your experience as a Black tech professional, a Black founder, and a Black business owner?
Gosh, I wish I would have had it growing up. I just want to start painting that picture that just because your circumstances are not ideal or what you think is the best situation to be a part of, that there's still a path for you to do whatever it is you want to do. Mine is technical; it doesn't have to be yours. Success is very subjective, and that can really hinder people from even trying. So I just want to paint that picture. That's why I was really happy about this program, and where they're at in the program, too—some of the apps they did were incredible. Not what I was thinking about at 15 years old, 16 years old. I was really impressed. And I just hope that I could have been a little bit of an inspiration to at least one person.
You've mentioned that college is more computer science experience based in theory, whereas you like getting into hands-on work. How important is it for high school students like the ones who participated in the hackathon to have a more formal computer science education rather than, say, just experiencing on their own or through clubs with their friends?
It's very important to get that theory. It really does lay a foundation. Anytime I think about EatOkra I have to go back to the very basics: How does the computer work? How do I iterate through a rail? Looking at what's really happening to solve a problem. I don't think I would have solved it—maybe eventually, after reading a ton—but there are definitely times when we need to fall back on that training from school: understanding data structures and algorithms and optimization; there's this thing called N+1—being aware of those things, I got a lot of that from college.
What advice would you give to a student or a young person who uses your app, loves technology, but they don't see themselves in computer science?
I would say find programs where there are folks that might look like you. Or get in different apps where those folks are coordinating or talking. Get involved. You definitely have to get out of your shell a little bit to meet folks. And it all falls back to networking. Just putting yourself in the right positions to meet somebody. You put yourself in enough situations, one of them is going to stick and there's somebody you're going to meet that's going to be on your same wavelength.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.