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Spicy Green Book emulates historic ‘Green Book’ as virtual guide to Black-owned eateries

Danilo Batson is 29, too young to have ever needed the “Green Book.”

Formally known as “The Negro Motorist Green Book” or “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book,” Victor Hugo Green’s annual guide, which published from 1936 to 1966, was an essential tool for Black travelers driving cross country during the Jim Crow era. It offered up-to-date listings of establishments that served African Americans at a time when social rules and city laws often limited such services.

But the Green Book stopped publication decades before Batson was born. Even his mother, whose extended family lives in Louisiana, wasn’t all that familiar with it.

All of which adds to the intrigue of why Batson is trying to create a modern, socially conscious version of that iconic pamphlet.

Batson, who grew up in Bellflower and now lives in Fullerton, calls the online guide he launched last month the Spicy Green Book, highlighting and supporting Black-owned businesses in the food and beverage industry.

The controversial 2018 Oscar-winning film “Green Book” wasn’t on his radar. Instead, he said, the impetus is the social justice movement that exploded nationally after the May 25 death of unarmed black motorist George Floyd at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis.



Batson’s attention focused on the original Green Book and its legacy after seeing rapper Killer Mike, aka Michael Santiago Render, speak of the publication in his Netflix documentary series “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike.”

One night, while mulling over his own idea for a culinary-focused directory, Batson saw the episode where Killer Mike tries to go three days relying strictly on what the Black economy produces.

“I saw that as a call to action,” Batson said of the Grammy-award winning rapper’s challenge.

Batson did his research and settled on the name, Spicy Green Book, and a mission.

All-volunteer army

So far, the platform he is building features more than 30 Black-owned, food industry establishments — restaurants, food trucks, caterers, bakers, coffee and tea houses, distilleries, pop-ups, mobile bartenders and grocery stores. Most are in Los Angeles County, with a few in Orange and San Diego counties. A map on the site pinpoints their locations.

The key ingredient in Batson’s nonprofit venture is the small army of volunteers he enlists to help do the vetting and provide the photos, written content, and other information. He’s hearing about places in the Inland Empire and other California communities, not too mention across the country and internationally. He’d like to add those to his listings, but needs more photographers and project managers to visit the owners.

“I’m listening to the people on the ground,” Batson said. “I want someone who knows an area and can go speak to the business owner and see how we can help.”

Each new listing gets careful consideration. It’s typical for a Spicy Green Book representative to spend several hours visiting with the business owner in person and on the phone or by email when creating their spot on Spicy Green Book.

That was the case last week when Batson and Spicy Green Book director of photography Jesyka White staged a photo shoot at the Lakewood childhood home of Brandi Diggs, owner of Mile High Cheesecakes.

Diggs, who is on temporary leave from her day job as an Alaska Airlines flight attendant, presented the crew with an assortment of mini cheesecakes, paired with wine, fruit and other visual props.

But even as they worked to arrange the desserts on the dining room table, and long after the listing had been arranged, Batson wanted to know more. He said to Diggs, “Tell me about this cheesecake.”

Diggs, who lives in Long Beach with her husband and three young children, had asked Batson to re-shoot photos for her Spicy Green Book listing. Batson is glad to comply with such requests because, he says; the site exists to promote the business owners.

Diggs likes that approach.

“He makes sure that you are represented correctly,” she said. “I love how it looks. I love the feel of it.”

Early on, Mile High Cheesecakes benefited from the attention being paid to Black Lives Matter and the social movement that included newly created online lists of Black-owned businesses to support. With the deeper dive that Spicy Green Book advocates, Diggs sees a lot of potential for wider exposure.

“I definitely see this being as big as Yelp, if not bigger.”

Present meets past

As he monitored social media in the weeks following Floyd’s death, Batson saw an untapped market of millions of people from around the country — of all races and many ethnic backgrounds — who were on the streets to support Black Lives Matter.

People are demanding police reforms and a broader restructuring of a social order that’s been defined and propped up by systemic racism. Spicy Green Book, Batson said, is a way to financially support Black-owned businesses in the food and beverage industry and serve as an outlet for social activism.

With coronavirus sidelining him from his day job as a personal trainer,  Batson, who is also studying to become a nurse, devotes much of his time to growing the Spicy Green Book. He’s hoping it will become as indispensable as the original Green Book was to Black travelers during its heyday — for people of all colors and ethnicity.

“It’s like, ‘Come see the culture. Be a part of it.’”

The Negro Motorist Green Book, whose cover was literally green, came from its own humble beginnings.

Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker who lived in Harlem, saw the need to create safe passage for Black travelers in the face of the hostile environment of the Jim Crow era that stretched roughly from the end of the 19th century to the enactment of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. White-owned businesses — hotels, restaurants, gas stations — not only refused to serve “Negroes,” as Black people were referred to until the ’60s, but proprietors and clientele often posed a physical threat. That was especially true in the South.

The Green Book, little known outside of Black travelers who used it and the establishments they visited, helped create a sense of community with its network of Black-owned businesses. Batson hopes to do the same with his modern take.

A section on Spicy Green Book labeled “Peek Back to Look Forward” explains the significance of the historical ties to the Green Book:

“This valuable note of history not only shows us the racial discrimination that existed but also the importance and ingenuity of black entrepreneurship. Today we continue to push forward with black innovation and invite you to be a part of it.”

Batson wants Spicy Green Book to be accessible to the casual user and offer good information beyond a spreadsheet or screen shot.

“I tried to put myself in the perspective of someone who really didn’t care too much, but wouldn’t mind going to a Black-owned spot if it was convenient,” he said.

But looking at the long game, he sees Spicy Green Book as a way to build cross-cultural bridges, sustain Black businesses, and increase generational wealth and political impact.

“We can disagree about police brutality or the education system,” he said. “But we can agree on where the money goes. You can patronize a Black business … Ultimately, what I want, is to get people to influence policy.

“Policy goes where the money goes.”

Smile and say ‘cheesecake’

Word of mouth from people in the community and referrals from other business owners on Spicy Green Book is helping Batson expand his listings. Right now, there’s a team of about 30 people working behind the scenes and in the field. Those who interact with business owners and produce content are expected to have some professional expertise, preferably writing or photography.

Diggs, whose Mile High Cheesecakes has been on Spicy Green Book since mid June, said the website is helping her build a brand. She had been baking cheesecakes for family and friends for 15 years before deciding to launch her business in November. For now, she’s a one-woman shop, baking at home and making deliveries once a week.

She brings her love of travel, nurtured on childhood family trips, to her cheesecake business. Each month, she creates a different cake, with a travel theme and flavor unique to that locale. This month, for example, she’s featuring a cherry, Pinot Noir-flavored cheesecake dubbed the Franschoek after a wine valley of that name in South Africa.

Her business also is tied to social outreach: Diggs is setting aside part of the proceeds to sponsor travel trips for underprivileged youth.

“It’s amazing to be a part of history,” she said about the launch of Spicy Green Book.

The more volunteers he has to do the legwork, the more that Spicy Green Book can grow, said Batson, who is filing for 501 3 (c) nonprofit status. He also hopes to catch the eyes of donors or patrons who would want to help improve and promote the site.

On Thursday, at the Black-owned Hambone’s Smokehouse in Huntington Beach, Batson met and impressed Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Laguna Beach, who stopped by while on a tour of local small businesses to meet Hambone’s founder and chef Keenan Handy.

“It is painfully clear that Black small business owners face systemic and racially-motivated challenges, including lower rates of financial support and institutional-backing,” Rouda told The Register after being asked his thoughts on Spicy Green Book.

“… Mr. Batson’s website is a tangible tool to support Orange County Black-owned small businesses and work towards equity one delicious meal at a time.”

Source: Orange County Register

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