“Increasing the Visibility”: An Interview with Jalence Isles about Where Black NOLA Eats


Photo Courtesy of Jalence Isles

At five and a half thousand members, the Facebook group Where Black NOLA Eats is described as a “safe space for the black New Orleans community, our allies, and visitors to promote black business and other businesses that value our dollars.” The group has inspired many a conversation and resource, including a google map of businesses to support. Food is one of the first things that come to mind when New Orleans is spoken, and indeed is a claim to fame for us. But, unless we put our money where our mouths and stomachs are, many more classic joints will go the way of Gene’s Po Boys. 

In a time when gentrification threatens our culture and short-term rentals put our homes in danger, we risk becoming merely a tourist hub, working in the city but no longer living in it. To invest in and shop at local and POC owned stores and restaurants is practically now an act of civic duty, and quite frankly is most urgently needed and necessary. 

I asked Jalence Isles, the moderator and creator of Where Black NOLA Eats, a series of questions on the founding of the group, her intentions, her goals, and how regular people can create change. Thankfully, her responses were incredibly detailed and thorough:

Bill Arceneaux: How did your Facebook group get started?

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Jalence Isles: During the 4th of July weekend, posts regarding New Orleans Black Restaurant Week and of black-owned restaurant lists in a popular Facebook food group were met with hostility, rage, and calls for a whites-only restaurant week and white-only restaurant lists, among other things. Comments ranged from “Would it be ok if someone were to post a list of all white-owned restaurants” to “Rampant racism about food” to “…Seems racist as f*** to me unless you support white ppl posting white-only restaurants?? Why’s is this even becoming a thing?” to “… Saying hey we should all go to these businesses bc of the owner’s race IS RACIST… IDGAF WHAT YOU SAY” to “u should maybe post this somewhere else. This is where Nola eats. Ur grinding on a subject that is irrelevant to this page” to “you people are something else” to “why is this group suddenly becoming political?” 

Black group members and our allies grew frustrated as we attempted to educate and offer anecdotes of discrimination at to group members offended by our labeling of black-owned establishments. The offended became more offended – on both sides – and the discussion spiraled. Group administration censored and silenced black group members and our allies by removing our posting and commenting privileges and deleting posts, which they later acknowledged were not in violation of group rules. 

Blaming the recent Times-Picayune | Nola.com | New Orleans Advocate merger and resulting personnel transition, Ann Maloney, food writer and head administrator of the group, provided a lackluster response noting that “there was a misunderstanding about one of our own moderation rules on a post about black-owned restaurants” and that there had been “a miscommunication” on their end. Members who felt they were blocked unfairly could “contact the administrators in a respectful way” and they would “look into the matter”. The matter had been laid out before her eyes and rather than address the bigotry rampant on the page directly, Maloney sat silently in the wings. The simple solution would have been to ban members who responded with vitriol and make clear that it wouldn’t be tolerated. But, that didn’t happen and the tone had been set, perhaps, re-established. It was clear to me that this group was not a safe space, rather a dangerous one.

I wanted to create a space where I – and others who share my sentiment – could talk about where we like to eat, whether black-owned, woman-owned, LGBTQ+ friendly or any other label that those of us in these and other marginalized groups often seek out –  without fearing an attack. I have eaten at many establishments that are not black-owned and I will continue to patronize those that I like and who value my dollars. As I’ve grown, become more aware of my history, and experienced the societal ills that are racism and discrimination, it has become increasingly important for me to intentionally support people who look like me because, intent aside, others are less likely to do so. 

Where Black NOLA Eats is a space dedicated to increasing the visibility of and cash flow to black-owned restaurants in New Orleans, whose population is 60% black, but who are substantially under-represented as owners, particularly in our dominant culinary industry that draws people here from all over the world.

BA: What political steps have been taken to raise awareness of black-owned restaurants by our officials? 

JI: Different initiatives have been put in place over the years: 

  • Passport25, a pass that could be purchased in exchange for 25% discounts and other deals from black-owned restaurants during the week of Essence Festival, was introduced by Mayor Cantrell as part of the city’s partnership with ESSENCE to direct more tourism dollars to black-owned establishments. 
  • During Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s tenure, a research firm was engaged to conduct a disparity study which confirmed, through quantitative and qualitative analysis, that minority-owned businesses are at a disadvantage and will continue to be without the city’s intervention. Changes were suggested to the already-existing Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, which was found to favor white women, in an effort to be more equitable to minority-owned businesses. 
  • Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu denounced restaurants closed during Essence Festival, whose owners allegedly scheduled maintenance and renovations during the extremely busy Essence Festival weekend, essentially closing their doors to the 400K+ predominantly black visitors who flock to New Orleans for the annual event. Owners and restaurant employees have referred to this time and practice as the “black-out”.
  • In recent years, under Mark Romig’s leadership, The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (NOTMC), whose board includes several city council members, has responded to discontented black restaurant owners, among others, by providing diversity training to its staff and increasing its marketing of black-owned businesses, in part by more than doubling its diversity marketing spend. A variety of black-owned business lists, including of restaurants, have been published by NOTMC and featured on its website, neworleans.com. The NOTMC has also sponsored print materials like The Green Book by Beverly McKenna which features black-owned businesses across the city that rarely benefit from our tourist industry. 

There’s always more than can be done. Among other things, I look forward to seeing more black-owned restaurants featured in mainstream media publications and on the many billboards around the city that promote establishments to our visitors, starting with those visitors see as they make their ways into the city from the New Orleans airport. 

BA: Do you feel that there is a clear bias against black businesses in the city of New Orleans? Is it institutional, cultural, or both? What stories if any have you experienced about this?

JI: Absolutely. Both. Black-owned restaurants comprise fewer than 2% of huge promotional events like the month-long Coolinary, held each August, and Restaurant Week, which runs in September. The city should not allow these institutionally discriminatory events to persist in the manner that they have, rather, provide resources that break down the barriers to entry. 

Cultural bias is rampant too. It is evidenced by the racial identities of business owners who win city bids to members allowed in certain Mardi Gras krewes and social clubs to the manner in which police barricade streets and watch us at certain black-owned establishments or during certain events to the treatment of black patrons in certain establishments in the city. 

Not food-related, but – I vividly remember the time a white guy at my high school, Benjamin Franklin, stopped me in the hallway to confirm the rumor that I’d made straight A’s during the prior semester. When I confirmed that I had, he responded saying, “Wow. I thought I would have made straight A’s before you.” We knew each other by name but had limited interactions. I wondered what made him ask me that. To this day, I remember his culturally biased and baseless statement. He didn’t know a thing about me.

BA: People like Westley Bayas III are taking action, starting with helpful google maps. What else might locals do to help spread the word?

JI: 

  • Be intentional by seeking out black-owned establishments. Join WhereBlackNOLAEats to share your experiences and ask for recommendations. Don’t be afraid to invite friends and family! Save the map Westley started and use it as the great resource it is to identify black-owned restaurant options near your point of reference. 
  • Talk about it. Barbershops and beauty salons are uncensored local news outlets and food establishments are the perfect topic to raise. The breakroom at work, church steps, nail shop, and DMV are fair game too. Almost anyone in New Orleans will have a conversation with you and food brings people together better than anything. 
  • Write formal reviews to praise businesses for their food/drinks and service. High review ratings and volumes on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, Facebook, and more directly impact business visibility and cash-flow. Of course, the sites also allow negative reviews and emotions may lead you to post one, but I urge reviewers to consider the fact one negative review could require dozens of excellent reviews to negate the damage. You may be surprised at how accommodating a business will be if you communicate your issue and give the business an opportunity to resolve it.
  • Insist. Write a letter to your councilmember and attend city council meetings, particularly those regarding city development plans, and use your voice to demand representation. Become active in your neighborhood association. 

BA: What happens to NOLA’s identity if more black-owned shops and stores close or are pushed out? 

JI: Our rhythm and our rhyme will slowly disappear and our flavor will become watered down. We will be forced to find our places elsewhere and the culture that we created and bear will be lost. 

BA: Does change happen when we vote for leaders at the election booth or with our wallets at the businesses we want to thrive? 

JI: Voting to elect leaders who uphold the values of long-time New Orleanians is essential to breaking down the institutional bias rampant in the city. However, as consumers, we have a great deal of control over how and where we spend our money. Black-owned eating establishments are historically undercapitalized, undermarketed, and less frequented that its white counterparts. We spend a lot of money on eating and can make a major financial impact by intentionally keeping those dollars within our community.

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