Watching bartenders at work, Alana Peck always saw something that called to her. It was how they hosted guests, created an atmosphere, shared their personality and even expressed their creativity and stories through their craft.
The problem was getting others to see her in that role.
“I’d show up to apply for a bartender job, and they’d just want me to work as a dishwasher,” said Peck, who is Black and who said the response was depressingly common.
“I had trouble getting my foot in the door,” she said.
Peck found a different path forward with Turning Tables, a New Orleans nonprofit tackling racial inequity in hospitality. It’s focused on the bar, and working to open doors in the bartending and drinks business for people of color like Peck.
The program gives graduates the skills and confidence to excel in the business and the bona fides to show potential employers they have the right stuff.
Also, crucially, it's building networks of peers, partners and support to foster change within the industry.
Created in 2019, Turning Tables graduated its second class of seven students in January. This latest cohort came through a crucible of upheaval and uncertainty.
The pandemic has shaken the industry they want to join, casting existential questions over the future of many restaurants and bars. At the same time, the national discourse on race awakened since the killing of George Floyd has fixed on many of the issues that propel Turning Tables.
For Turning Tables founder and program director Touré Folkes, those dual dynamics make this a pivotal time for the program, its people and their aims.
“We had a very successful first year. Then COVID hit. I had to ask myself if we should continue,” said Folkes. “Then George Floyd happened, and my conviction only grew so much more. The industry was crumbling, but we had to keep doing this because we can re-create the industry, crash it and transform it.”
Through shutdowns and restrictions at bars and restaurants, Turning Tables still found ways to convene its students, in some cases virtually. Folkes also found that people in the industry were assembling new networks, sometimes across the country, and many were eager to connect with its mission.
“The blessing of this year was the world stopped in some places and some people gave up on this industry,” said Folkes. “But our students didn’t. They’ve kept pushing.”
Who is represented?
Turning Tables has found common ground with other groups around the city, including MiNO, a foundation that works on equity in the hospitality sector.
MiNO executive director Lauren Darnell said Turning Tables’ blend of skills training and community building is both boundary-pushing and urgently needed.
“The bias in the industry is just so rampant,” Darnell said. “There are preferences in who’s deemed worthy to be put up front and who stays in the back. We need to get beyond that. Demystifying the bartending world is part of it, so people can own their work, know their worth.”
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2018 shows bartenders are far more likely to be White than any other group tracked, accounting for 84% of the field. Black people made up a little over 7% of bartenders nationally. The number of Black people working as dishwashers or “bartender helpers,” i.e. bar backs, was almost twice that level.
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With its focus on drinks, Turning Tables is staking out a space that’s especially important in New Orleans. Cocktail history and cocktail culture are deeply woven into the city, and as a tourist destination the spirits and drinks business is its own economic engine.
People like Jeri Guilford think their own influence should be a bigger part of its future.
“I’m from here. This is my town. I want people to know who I am,” said Guilford, who graduated from Turning Tables this year and works at the French Quarter tavern Sylvain.
Learning about beer, wine and spirits showed him that every drink has a story, and how he has different ways to engage with people when he can share those stories. He’s also learned to see his own story differently.
“When the world is telling you what you can’t do or that this isn’t the town for you, it’s hard to see what you really can do,” said Guilford. “But I have my own ideas now; this has empowered me to go after them. I don’t need anyone else to validate me. I don’t see their walls anymore.”
Guilford is now working on a business plan for a catering concept for small, outdoor gatherings.
Turning Tables is structured as a 12-week program that includes hands-on instruction behind the bar paired with mentoring and training in career building and industry issues. It doesn’t have a home base or use a classroom setting; instead, students work from bars at partner establishments.
That’s why, on a quiet winter night recently, Folkes and a clutch of students set up shop in the otherwise quiet back bar at Fourth Wall Café in the CBD. They logged into an online class with local wine educator Joanne Close, sipping, assessing and learning to differentiate the traits of varietals like riesling and sauvignon blanc.
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It was part of a long series of such sessions that Turning Tables runs with experts in different niches of the field, from brand ambassadors for global liquor labels to local brewers and distillers. For all the logistical difficulties of the pandemic, Folkes said it has also fostered new relationships across the industry among those perusing change.
“This year’s class is special because they saw all that, they saw people connecting through the pandemic,” said Folkes. “We’re all going to keep working with each other, Turning Tables has been a catalyst for that.”
Alone in the room
Folkes is a New York native who has worked in hospitality around the East Coast and the South. Early in his career he saw how often some people advanced up the hospitality ladder to management tracks, and how rarely that seemed to be Black people like him. When he moved to New Orleans, with its majority Black population, he said the imbalance was all the more glaring.
“In so many cases I was the only Black bartender in the room, and I got sick of it,” Folkes said. “That has to change.”
As he developed Turning Tables, he found others ready to join the movement.
One is Geoffrey Wilson, a bartender with 30 years in the game who last year returned to New Orleans from Portland, Oregon, to be part of Turning Tables as an instructor.
When he’s addressing a room of young, rising talent, Wilson often calls himself “the grizzled old veteran.” He thinks others shouldn't have to get quite so grizzled along their own career path, so he’s helping them build the connections he wished were available to him.
Without support, without peers in the business, the sense of belonging always feels precarious, he said.
“But we’re in different times now,” Wilson said. “COVID crippled the industry, but the industry was failing to begin with, it was failing many of us. Things have to change, and I feel in my heart that the people who are coming through this program are arbiters of change.”
Jay Deocampo knows the difference Turning Tables has made through his own experience in the business. Deocampo, a 2021 graduate, has been working the bar at The Chloe, the new hotel and restaurant on St. Charles Avenue.
“I feel very free, because I know I’m there for myself,” Deocampo said. “I think of myself differently, not just that I work for someone, but that I have something to offer. So when I see other people, Black and Brown people, looking a little lost, I can step in now and can be the helping hand. That makes a difference for Black and Brown people in these spaces.”
Changing the conversation
In January, a dozen Turning Tables students gathered in person and via video conference at the Uptown restaurant Coquette. Earlier, they’d used the bar here as a classroom. This night, though, was a celebration.
Wilson poured glasses of Champagne from a giant magnum bottle, Folkes handed out framed graduation certificates, and throughout the evening Turning Tables trainers and mentors talked about each student’s journey.
The room was filled with pride and excitement, two factors that are in short supply across a bar world battered by the pandemic.
“You are a force, everyone in this room,” Folkes told the students. “The things we’re going to do in this industry, they’re not ready for it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s happening.”
Turning Tables will start its third class in the fall. It continues to work in other areas, including consulting with hospitality businesses on areas from bar staffing to cocktail lists.
The group draws on help from volunteers and financial support from grants and partner businesses. But Folkes said with more funding and resources for programs, Turning Tables could grow faster to meet the moment.
To Folkes, the reports of racial profiling for automatic gratuities just last week at the local restaurant Desi Vega Seafood and Prime Steaks only underscored why Turning Tables has to keep pushing.
“People need to see this goes beyond a bar program. We’re a movement that’s empowering people to find pathways into this business and grow the economy,” Folkes said. “People need to see the Black community for what it is, a powerful force in the city and the culture.”
Peck is continuing her own path in the business. During the program, she won top honors at a cocktail competition hosted by MiNO for a drink mixing bourbon, peach and cinnamon flavors, a tribute to her favorite dessert, peach cobbler. She’s developing her own bartending catering service now.
“I just love being able to create and be part of this community, and I have such a strong base now,” Peck said. “Nobody can turn me away by saying I can’t bartend. All this has changed the game and conversation.”
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