In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic knocked out the entire world, The Data Center released its tourism and hospitality report. In a breakdown of the report, Nola.com noted the finding that of the 207,800 jobs counted in New Orleans, 15,458 of them made up the hospitality and tourism “cluster” in Orleans Parish. Additionally, the report stated that a rough estimate of 564 full-service restaurants called the city of New Orleans home. Those restaurants and the people that work in them were all severely impacted when the pandemic hit. Not only did many of them lose their jobs, but the pandemic also gave them an opportunity to speak up about injustices they saw in the community. Touré Folkes started the hospitality non-profit Turning Tables because he wanted to see more people of color, people that looked like him, in the industry he grew to love over the past decade. Turning Tables is doing its part to educate people in the New Orleans community, while giving them exposure to those in the industry, as well as additional personal resources like mental health. Folkes shares his start and how Turning Tables hopes to effect true change into the future of the service industry.
Q: Tell us about yourself. I was born and raised in New York City and came to New Orleans six years ago with [more than] 10 years of hospitality experience, working every position in the front of the house including management. Your ancestors have a way of calling you back home, and my roots to Louisiana go way back. Prior to moving here, I came to visit at various points of my life, as a tourist during Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras and then as a photographer covering the oil spill. A solo road trip convinced me that this was the place I needed to be.
Q: What is Turning Tables and how did it come about? I have been in the service industry a long time and often times [been] passed and not given the same opportunities as my white counterparts. It took a long time to get off the treadmill and seek out better opportunities for myself and see value in what I brought to the spaces that I became a part of since becoming a part of this industry. Ultimately, I grew tired of not seeing people that looked like me and started doing the work to be a part of changing that! I have always volunteered and looked for ways to give back to the community. Soon after I moved to New Orleans, I started volunteering with Liberty’s Kitchen, teaching classes to students interested in the service industry and assisting them in their fundraising efforts for their annual gala, “Come Grow With Us” and their monthly “Guest Chef Night.” A lot of those experiences with the students informed what would be the training method and curriculum for Turning Tables. Together we collaborated on a grant that we submitted to Tales of the Cocktail, which we were successful in getting. After an extremely successful first year, I made moves for us to become a non-profit and obtain our own 501c3 status.
Q: What training do you provide? Turning Tables is the only organization in New Orleans—a city with a rich history surrounding hospitality and spirits—that offers what we do: a craft bar training program that provides technical training, education, industry exposure, job placements, and extensive community resources (including mental healthcare). Our students have access to local and national industry leaders, who collaborate with us to develop a unique curriculum. Students gain the tools to pursue a wide range of pathways in food and beverage, including brewing, distilling, management, entrepreneurship, marketing, and brand ambassadorship. Through our partnership network we have also started to consult for bars and restaurants, collaborate with the community to put together dynamic events and fundraisers and partner with like-minded organizations and individuals to spearhead a deep level of engagement in equity work in hospitality. We have become so much more than how we started.
Q: What about the mission is important to you? My life and experiences and those of my peers is what drives our mission. The most important thing in all our work is our community of support and family we have created. Despite this industry’s flaws, I love this industry and the community that I have built while in it. Without a doubt, the lockdown would have been completely different had I not had that community. This whole initiative is driven by a community of people that want real change and 100 percent this is a collaborative effort that starts from that ethos.
Q: What has been the impact of COVID-19? This industry has needed to change for a long time on so many levels and the protests galvanized the community towards social activism. For so long we have accepted conditions where we are undervalued, underpaid, work long hours and work in environments that can be both hostile in the form of microaggressions, racism and sexism. We were one of the first markers of normalcy that the general public looked forward to because we have always been there for people because of the value we bring in memorable experiences, special occasions and general comfort of being a home away from home. The pandemic made a lot of people in the industry realize that they were not being taken care of themselves and that there was no actual value seen from the general public in the people that are integral to those experiences. I think this is a great opportunity for the restaurant industry to reset, improve work conditions, invest in their workers, and provide more opportunities for advancement. Hospitality workers are no longer going to accept the way things were before.
Q: How has Turning Tables grown? The first year my biggest accomplishment was injecting more Black and brown faces into bar and restaurant spaces. Last year, we trumped that when 35% of them moved into management or management related positions, despite having to navigate the post-apocalyptic landscape of COVID-19. The current class is so strong that I would not even dare put limits on the place they will go and things they will do. I think the biggest indicator of our growth is how both the local and national community has responded to us and how national recognition has brought benefit to the local community. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ida, we were able to raise funds for out of work hospitality workers and provide mutual aid for the local community, working with like-minded organizations and individuals both locally and nationally. It makes me proud to have reached a level where we can galvanize the service industry behind us nationally and that we were able to emerge as a resource that filled in necessary gaps that were much needed.
Q: What’s next? We have a few big things planned in the coming year! We have some amazing talent in the first two years of this program, and I can’t wait for them to start controlling the narrative and making waves. There is a need for what we do nationally, and we want to continue to do our part in creating a more equitable industry. There is a thirst for something new and I feel like we are at the forefront of that change.
I love to travel, photography is one of my many loves, and I should never be trusted with a microphone when doing karaoke.
Turning Tables, turningtablesnola.org