The Los Angeles chef Josef Centeno woke up early Saturday morning, to find piles of smashed glass and scrawls of graffiti at his downtown restaurants. Like so many businesses, his Bar Amá and Bäco Mercat had been vandalized during protests overnight.
Though home improvement stores were running low on plywood, Mr. Centeno tracked some down from a friend and, like business owners around the country, cleaned up his sidewalk and boarded up his storefronts for the night ahead. “We are already in a tough position, and our insurance won’t cover this,” he said.
But the anger and frustration he felt wasn’t directed at the tens of thousands of people who marched throughout the weekend against racism and police brutality, to protest police killings of black Americans after the death of George Floyd.
“I’m in full support, in total solidarity, with the protesters,” Mr. Centeno said. “We need change, period.”
In 140 cities around the United States, restaurants have been vandalized, looted and sometimes burned. Owners are angry, scared and frustrated. But many have played an increasingly important role in supporting protesters — providing them with food, supplies and donations.
And though some business owners aren’t making a distinction among the angry protesters who march by day and violent looters who follow at night, others see a clear difference.
Maria Acosta, 43, the owner and operator of nine McDonald’s restaurants in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas, was shocked by the damage that looters had inflicted in San Antonio, and wanted to feed the volunteers cleaning up.
“You feel for the protester,” she said. “They have a voice that needs to be heard, and it is unfortunate that the message they are trying to get out is being drowned out by a few individuals trying to do bad.”
She said hundreds of volunteers, including protesters, showed up on Sunday morning to clean up — repotting tipped plants, sweeping up glass and scrubbing away graffiti. With help from her brother and sister, who also own McDonald’s locations in the area, Ms. Acosta packed about 800 meals of chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers and apples to feed them.
As violence escalated over the weekend, videos on social media showed officers in riot gear using batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists.
A few blocks from where Mr. Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, the owners of Pimento Jamaican Kitchen packed go-bags for marchers that included critical supplies to protect themselves from both coronavirus and any violence by the police: gloves, face masks and face shields, eyewash kits, gauze and other first-aid.
“If people are going to be out, people have the right to demonstrate,” said Scott McDonald, a manager at Pimento. “If that’s what you are going to do and you’re going to exercise that right, do it as safely as possible.”
Though some restaurants have remained quiet, not issuing a statement one way or another, many have shown support for the protests on their social media feeds, going beyond hashtags and famous quotations to help fund activists in their communities.
Fabian von Hauske, an owner of Contra and Wildair in New York City, said his businesses, with matching funds from several wine importers, had raised about $20,000 so far for Minnesota Freedom Fund, Reclaim the Block, Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Black Visions Collective and Disability Justice Culture Club.
Other owners, even those supporting the protests, were deeply worried for the safety of their employees and diners.
Matthew Nelson, the owner of Mangos Caribbean Restaurant, in Atlanta, looked out for those stranded when early curfews went into effect, and mass transit was shut down, calling Uber cars for his employees. “I support the protest, but I don’t support any rioting and violence,” said Mr. Nelson, who saw protesters being arrested outside his restaurant.
After the demonstrations in Atlanta on Friday, Michael Davis, the general manager of BQE Restaurant and Lounge, said people were scared to go out.
“A vast majority of our customers are African-American and people of color,” he said. “We don’t want to come out because of the virus, and now we don’t want to come out because of the police brutality.”
After months of lockdown, and the sudden reopening of dining rooms in many cities, restaurants have been met with fast-changing curfew schedules, on top of public transportation shutdowns, many in neighborhoods now patrolled by the National Guard.
Back in downtown Los Angeles, after he finished boarding up his windows, Mr. Centeno checked the schedule of protest routes against city curfews. He knew that some of his staff might be among the demonstrators, holding up homemade signs, kneeling in front of police barricades with their hands up, running from tear gas, desperate to make themselves heard.
“For now the safest thing is to stay closed,” he said. “But we’ll see how tomorrow looks.”
Brett Anderson, Priya Krishna, Amelia Nierenberg and Pete Wells contributed reporting.