By Clara Lacey
For Touré Folkes, being a bartender is about more than just knowing a lot about great drinks, though he could go on about the history of Sazerac in New Orleans or the introduction of ice and bitters in cocktails. Folkes sees the bartender as a sort of mystic host into this world he inhabits, a curator of experience, a guide to the “best-of” in the area from all different perspectives. Yet over the past four years as Folkes has worked as a bartender at hip local establishments like Coquette, he has discovered the widespread issue of a lack of diversity in the city’s bar and restaurant scene.
“It’s just a lot of the same faces when you go into those spaces,” Folkes noticed. “There’s still a lack of diversity in a lot of those areas. A lot of the talent that’s imported here for bartending at these places in the city are from out of town. There’s not a lot of energy put into training people already from here to bartend, and local people actually have the most value because they’ve been here their whole lives.”
The hospitality and tourism industry in New Orleans is the financial lifeblood of the city, pumping in more than 18 million visitors in 2018 who spent $9.1 billion, according to a study by D.K. Shifflet and Associates. However, what Folkes observed is this issue of accessibility which makes it difficult for young New Orleanians of color to overcome obstacles to get these higher-paying front-of-house jobs. Some, he says, face barriers with the expenses of bartending classes or the failure of restaurant owners to hire and connect with people who come from different backgrounds.
“It is more or less about getting people jobs, but it is also important to work on that front-of-house visibility,” Folkes said.
Eager to remedy the crisis of opportunity, Folkes turned to Liberty’s Kitchen, an established organization that helps youth from underserved communities overcome barriers in getting jobs by training them at their café and catering company, connecting them with community partners and preparing them with professional skills. Folkes had volunteered with Liberty’s Kitchen before and saw a way to expand its reach into the beverage and bar industry, where there were more avenues for sustainable growth opportunities and access to higher-pay, higher-visibility jobs. With the help of Liberty’s Kitchen and the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation grant, he created the Turning Tables program, an immersive bartending education for young New Orleanians of color aimed to reshape the makeup of New Orleans’ bar industry.
“If you have this new wave of people that feel empowered enough, I think it’s like a way to fight systems and people’s perceptions,” Folkes said of the program’s goals. “It will challenge people to learn about other parts of New Orleans that are not Bourbon Street or Frenchman Street.”
Liberty’s Kitchen CEO Dennis Bagneris quickly got on board for this year’s pilot cohort of Turning Tables. Liberty’s Kitchen had tackled these issues in the food industry, but he saw the need for a program opening up diversity and visibility within the beverage industry.
“The bartending world is very much whitewashed, and usually you don’t see any people of color managing or owning in large numbers in those spaces,” Bagneris explains. “We want to provide a space where young people of color can make a sustainable living in food and beverage. Since restaurants and bars are such a huge part of New Orleans, it’s money being left on the table or an opportunity that hasn’t really been spoken about.”
The 12-week training program, with seven students in this its first year, brings in bartending teachers like Folkes himself to teach about all things spirits, cocktails, beer and wine as students learn to make the drinks themselves in their bar classrooms of Coquette and The Domino. They also learn from industry experts like brand ambassadors from Campari and an expert from the Sazerac house, touring breweries and distilleries. Turning Tables emphasizes the holistic history that affects the present along with teaching the technical skills. When students learned about rum, they faced the history of its development with sugar cane as they visited Whitney Plantation.
Perhaps the most crucial part of the program is the hands-on experience students get with their internships at different bars, projects bartending at events, and mentorships with people of color from the industry. This industry-immersive style sets Turning Tables apart from other development programs and has powered its success.
“We have 100 percent employment rate at this point,” Folkes beams, “and even those who are employed have other people actively pursuing them who want to work with them.”
While he is proud of the success of the first round of the program, Folkes focuses on its future and still sees room for improvement in the upcoming cohorts. Even with Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity trainings with community partners through the organization Beloved Community, Turning Tables must look to solve problems that come with obstacles students face.
“We’ve recognized there are certain things we need to add to the program and address like issues in the service industry, barriers to these young people like issues with transportation, childcare, PTSD and trauma,” he points out. “We want to make sure that going into the industry, they have all the resources that can assist them in achieving their goals.