Meet Turning Tables, a Bar Training Program for Black and Brown Restaurant Workers

This visionary program creates career pathways for hospitality workers in New Orleans.

<p>Clay Williams</p> Turning Tables Executive Director Touré Folkes

Clay Williams

Turning Tables Executive Director Touré Folkes

Bar work is a common career path in the cocktail-loving city of New Orleans, but finding stability and upward mobility in the hospitality industry is a challenge, particularly for young workers who face racist assumptions about their abilities and dedication.

To combat this issue, industry veteran Touré Folkes developed Turning Tables, a 12-week program that gives Black and Brown aspiring hospitality professionals a 360-degree view of the spirits, beverage, and hospitality industries. “Turning Tables is the only organization in New Orleans that offers what we do,” says Folkes. “It provides technical training, education, industry exposure, job placements, and extensive community resources, including mental health care.”

During “Rum Week,” for instance, the cohort tours a local distillery and learns about tasting and the process of making sugarcane-based spirits from Ari Ballard, a recent graduate of the Turning Tables program. Just as importantly, they are taught the historical context of the sugar and rum trades and their intrinsic links to slavery,

Related: 16 Programs That Support a More Diverse Wine, Beer, and Spirits Industry

“It gives the student, no matter what their background is, an understanding of how history impacts the spirit world,” says local mixologist Deniseea Head, who leads the conversation. It’s an emotional discussion but one that offers precious context to the students — many of whose ancestors could have toiled in the region’s cane fields to create the very industry they work in now — and a reminder that the story of rum is theirs as well.

“Bartending only scratches the surface,” adds Folkes. “There is also a lack of representation in production, distribution, and sales. The reason we go so deep into the other aspects is to show them how to transition from behind the bar.”

Turning Tables alumna Erika Flowers learned to mix drinks from bartenders she worked with as a server at restaurants around New Orleans. During the pandemic, she launched Taste of the Tropics, and sold bottled cocktails inspired by her Belizean heritage, which led her to Turning Tables. “Before I even reached the ‘finish line’ of the program, my cocktails improved and I was hosting cocktail pop-ups with confidence.” Before she was through with the program, she had a job offer from Cane & Table, where she had been doing her externship. Last year, she was selected as one of the Best New Bartenders of 2023 by Punch.

Now as a guest teacher, Flowers continues the rum week lessons with more history, as well as tastings of different styles of rum from around the tropics, giving the class the opportunity to sample and compare flavors they may not have had the opportunity to before.

Related: This Culinary Incubator Is Changing the Lives Of Black and Brown Culinary Professionals in Chicago

Flowers also led the class in a cocktail competition, inspired by Speed Rack, the long-running series of events raising funds for breast cancer research and raising the profiles and experience of female bartenders across the country and beyond. Classmates went head to head making daiquiris to be judged on taste, temperature, time, and presentation.

The match-up, a fun outlet at the end of a long few days of lessons, also offers a chance for students to receive direct critiques on their abilities and an opportunity to experiment with their own takes and variations on the cocktail. It’s an opportunity to take the legacy of rum and spirits built by their ancestors and make it their own.

Folkes connects every Turning Tables participant with mentors and externships, both local and nationwide, to help them discover and secure careers in the beverage industry. Since the program launched in 2019, more than 35% of graduates have been hired directly into management and leadership positions, like lead bartender, bar manager, and wine director. “Our externships develop leaders, entrepreneurs, and visionaries,” says Folkes. “Turning Tables alumni can make both immediate and long-term social impacts within the industry that are long overdue.”

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