Restaurants, Covid, and community

Breadfruit and Rum Bar

By Juliette Dixon, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders. 

It isn’t quite the same to meet with Danielle Leoni and Dwayne Allen, owners of The Breadfruit and Rum Bar, over a Zoom screen. The Breadfruit and Rum Bar, opened in downtown Phoenix in 2008, is on such a small side street – you’ll miss it if you do not know what you are looking for – offers a vibrant, tropical, welcoming, warm feel. Upon entering through the wooden front door, Leoni and Allen have successfully put an unexpected look on both locally sourced food and sustainably sourced food, especially seafood in the desert. 

Closed due to Covid-19 since March 2020, Breadfruit offers once a month pop up restaurant for take-out, but the future of the restaurant is unknown. On December 7, Danielle (Chef) and Dwayne (Front of House) took time to meet with our Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership cohort. The history of how Breadfruit came to be in 2008 started the conversation. Dwayne saw the opportunity to open a Jamaican/Caribbean restaurant in Phoenix, given the lack of any Jamaican cuisine in the area, and leaning into food and farming upbringing of his family and heritage. Both Leoni and Allen’s passion for food, sourcing with integrity, knowing your food systems and farmers/purveyors, getting personally connected, and a strong commitment to bringing forth change come through in their words. 

Danielle speaks of connecting with people as eaters rather than consumers, while Dwayne cites a connection to being conscious about what we eat and what we put in our bodies. When starting out with the restaurant, Danielle was fortunate to have found the Phoenix Farmers Market across the street. This was the start of a great relationship in connecting with food and where it came from and building community. In being able to know where your food is coming from, it gives a better connection to your business as a restauranteur – if your farmer is having a difficult time, you are better able to work together. The industrial “system” is arranged for economic efficiency, but in small business farming nature does not always cooperate with business schedules. Danielle and Dwayne are not afraid to take something off of the menu for the night if it is out of season, or has run out, or is not available.

More than anything the lessons learned through owning The Breadfruit and the journey of becoming small business restaurateurs and sustainable food advocates, are in action and shared with others. Dwayne and Danielle share their knowledge and actively advocate. They currently lead the Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition/Independent Restaurant Coalition.  They host symposiums and teach others, and they are involved in grant programs to incentivize Phoenix to promote green businesses. Most of all, they send people away with a positive association with food. They give people an experience, and start the conversation. At the time of our meeting,  empty plates were being laid on the lawn in front of Congress by bar and restaurant owners, imploring Congress to infuse aid via the RESTAURANTS Act (not part of the $908 billion stimulus act). Danielle and Dwayne share that 40% of the remaining restaurants are slated to close in response to the loss of revenue. The entire food system is interconnected, over $220 billion of revenue will go missing, impacting farmers, ranchers, fishers, all the way down to the workers losing their jobs as restaurants close. 

I share a follow up call with Danielle after our class, and I am taken in. It is easy to connect with someone of a shared mindset. Ultimately though, her food, really all food,  breaks down walls. It opens conversations about sustainability. Food has brought sustainability to regular people and not as an elitist notion. Danielle uses food to show that sustainability is attainable for all. She says if she has to dress it up as Jamaican food, boss cocktails, and reggae music, to open up those conversations, it works for her.  As we go to wrap up our call, Danielle shares that self-love is at the root of it all. If you take care of yourself, you take care of others, kindness and connection that starts with a smile.  Danielle and Dwayne and The Breadfruit and Rum Bar are a living testament to that philosophy.