Look For The Helpers: Touré Folkes and Turning Tables
“As a young person carving out a place for myself in this industry, I came across very few leaders and mentors who looked like me and shared my experiences.
I often have been the only Black person in the front-of-house or one of a few people of color. When you realize you are the exception and not the rule, it builds a desire to change the script and the mindset of how people hire and recruit talent.”
Touré Folkes came to the hospitality industry in the aftermath of September 11th after he was laid off from his job as a journalist. His only restaurant experience at that time was a brief stint as a dishwasher in junior high. The manager took a chance and hired him anyway as a server for Blue Ribbon Bakery.
“As the Bromberg Brother restaurant group grew, I watched my white counterparts get asked to work different positions and brought onto their other restaurant projects,” Touré remembers. He decided to leave and move to Happy Cooking Hospitality. He was on the opening staff at Jeffrey’s Grocery, their second restaurant. “While there, I felt ownership and empowerment to work in every position, getting my start as a bartender.”
“Volunteering and giving back to the community has always been in my DNA,” he says. “I was raised in a building of solid Black women that wanted more for their children, and they supported each other throughout that process. All of us came out on the positive side despite living in one of the worst school districts and surrounded by the worst drug-infested neighborhoods in NYC.”
“When you realize you are the exception and not the rule, it builds a desire to change the script and the mindset of how people hire and recruit talent.” ~ Touré Folkes
This ingrained need to give back led Touré to spend a year working in the Dominican Republic. He assisted with a government program, building systems to aid in creating sustainable eco-tourism on the southern part of the island. Touré worked with the community to form both language and computer schools. He trained and empowered his students to eventually take over the program and gave them the tools necessary to start their own businesses. Through his time in the DR, Touré “learned a lot about starting something from scratch and utilizing the resources around to do more with less.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, Touré moved to New Orleans in 2016 and accepted a management position at the ACE Hotel. “I became a mentor figure for other people of color in that space and was instrumental in hiring a lot of them,” he says. “I realized that people looked up to me and that it meant something for them to see me in that role. Despite my experience and my ability to provide this support, I wasn’t set up for success. The opening of the hotel was unstable, and they threw me into a lot of different directions without any guidance.” After leaving a year, Touré was falsely accused of committing a robbery [by the NOLA police department]. He remembers, “Despite leaving on good terms and being a positive force in my time there, the upper-level management did nothing to protect me or protect me from the police and being charged. If not for my community of support and the reputation I had built, the outcome could have been much worse. It is one of my personal driving forces that no one else is ever in that position and that they always have a system of support.”
Turning the Tables
Touré realized he could marry his two loves of hospitality and community organization and quickly put plans into action. Touré volunteered for a non-profit organization called Liberty’s Kitchen in New Orleans. This program grew out of the desire to create a support system for criminalized or neglected young adults. Liberty’s Kitchen focuses on building relationships, creating mentors and leaders while providing training and educational access within the hospitality industry. They also operate two dine-in locations, a catering business, and community food access projects, all of which are vital components in their hands-on training programs. As a volunteer, Touré assisted with the front-of-house training and helped to conceptualize and run a series of successful fundraisers involving local chefs and Liberty’s Kitchen students.
With Touré’s help, the chief of development from Liberty’s Kitchen applied for a grant from Tales of the Cocktail. Touré was able to stay on as a consultant to form Turning Tables. In the first year, he helped build the structure under the umbrella of Liberty’s Kitchen, drawing on his relationships in the industry and community to create a curriculum. Touré ran a majority of the program by himself with a handful of mentors and local brand ambassadors and businesses.
“We need to value ourselves and our businesses and the general public needs to value us. Why is Turning Tables revolutionary? Think differently in who you bring up and support.” ~ Touré Folkes
According to Touré, “Turning Tables advocates for diversity, visibility, and inclusivity in the hospitality industry by providing mentorship, educational tools, and platforms to support and sustain the Black and Brown communities of New Orleans.” The program itself is a 12-week intensive that connects externs with cocktail and wine knowledge, restaurant and bar management training, brand marketing, and hospitality leadership. The process is both experiential and classroom-oriented.
In 2019, Turning Tables had their first graduating cohort; all of the students either had positions or were interviewing for jobs at the start of 2020. But suddenly, with the pandemic, there was little to no job security, and Turning Tables itself was about to lose its funding.
“When Covid hit,” Touré reminisces, “Our fiscal sponsor was in a position where they were fighting to keep the lights on, and our program was one of the first casualties. A few months later, a generous donation renewed our hope. I convinced Tim Stevens to come back and help with the program. Around the end of October, I brought on Geoffrey Wilson as an advisor. Eve Sputnik was instrumental in a number of things, including our wine education. The goal is to rotate in people from the program every year so that they have more and more ownership of it.”
While rebuilding the program and applying for 501(c)(3) status, Touré also made sure everyone in the first class had access to resources that allowed them to be both financially sound and food secure.
One of the key components for Turning Tables is their externship program: “The goal is to get students familiar with a restaurant or bar system, pairing them with a point person or onsite mentor for a period four to six weeks that will prepare them for job placement. By the halfway point, fellows in the program are comfortably working a shift and applying the skills they learned in real-time.”
A great example of their program in action is Turning Tables partnership with a local restaurant Sylvain. Chris Zuleta from Sylvain and his mentee, Jeri Guilford, formed a bond during their time together, culminating in a fundraiser for Turning Tables sponsored by Beam Suntory. It featured Jeri’s cocktail menu and dishes by an up-and-coming chef named Fowlmouth. The fundraiser sold out. “Jeri Guilford and Fowlmouth are names we will be seeing more of,” Touré points out. “That is why we do this at the core. You know who I am, but I want you to forget about me and put support behind other people coming up in the industry.”
“We want everyone across the board to think of equity in all of the ways. Support Black businesses. Support white businesses in changing their practices. Give people opportunities that have been passed up. The work extends beyond what we do in the classroom. We want to lead by example in changing the industry. If you think that we’re just focusing on putting Black and Brown people behind the bar, then you are already behind.” Touré continues, “I wake up breathing, eating, and plotting for how this industry all across the board can be different!”
“See your power. [In the restaurant industry,] the public needs us more than we need them. We were among the first things the general public missed and returned to help them feel normal again. We need to value ourselves and our businesses and the general public needs to value us. Why is Turning Tables revolutionary? Think differently in who you bring up and support. Create value in this industry so that the next generation comes into a better one.”