Closed for Essence: Did Shuttered Restaurants Deserve the Backlash?

Brett Anderson, Times-Picayune, July 7, 2016

Last Wednesday, a construction crew began repairing the wood floors at Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar New Orleans, the Poydras Street location of the Louisiana chain. The repairs required the restaurant to remain shuttered through the weekend of the Essence Festival 2016. The timing may have inflicted more damage than the backed-up sewage line that prompted the closing.

“I find it quite odd that your restaurant would shut down during a peak weekend in the city,” Malik Bartholemew wrote in a comment on Walk-On’s Facebook page. “The only difference with this weekend and other big weekends is that the majority of the city visitors will be African-American.”

Similar responses spread online late last week and into the weekend, as the annual culture, music and fashion festival unfolded at the Mercedes Benz Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Many accused the restaurant, both explicitly and implicitly, of racism. The accusations continued even after Walk-On’s posted photos of “severe flooding” at the restaurant to Facebook, along with the message, “Our sister locations, Happy’s Irish Pub and The Rampart Room, are still open while we fix the floors at Walk-On’s.”

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Businesses other than Walk-On’s that were closed for the weekend came under fire, thanks in part to the #ClosedForEssence social media hashtag. They included Domenica, the award-winning Italian restaurant operated by John Besh and Alon Shaya; the French Quarter music club One Eyed Jacks; and Little Gem Saloon, a restaurant and music club located across the street from Walk-On’s.

All these businesses are either in the Quarter or within walking-distance of the Dome. All also had excuses for closing that appear either valid or suspect, depending on the observer. Domenica, for instance, announced on Facebook that it was closing for renovations. To which Stephanie M. Grant replied, “I thought a modern place like this would be above such classlessness.”

Whether or not you consider it valid, such criticism gives voice to long-simmering frustrations surrounding hospitality and the Essence Festival–or, more specifically, the lack of hospitality many believe is extended to the largely African-American crowds that for over 20 years have flocked to New Orleans for the 4th of July weekend festival.

According to Essence officials, this year’s event drew more than 450,000 attendees–surpassing the 425,000 people reported to have visited the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Presented by Shell. It’s not the first year Essence officials have reported larger attendance than Jazz Fest, which takes place over seven days compared to Essence’s three.

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“For those establishments that planned to close for this weekend to perform renovations or provide their staff the holiday off is understandable, but a major missed opportunity,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told WDSU Saturday. “But for those that do not want to serve our visitors during Essence is absolutely outrageous and totally unacceptable.”

On Thursday, “The Grapevine,” a New Orleans radio call-in show on WBOK hosted by Gralen B. Banks and Janae Pierre, addressed the growing anger over Walk-On’s closure during Essence. So many listeners called in that the show took up the issue of businesses closing for Essence again on Friday.

“It’s no longer a coincidence,” Pierre said.

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The fact of businesses closing during Essence, along with theories about those businesses’ motivations, has been brought out of the shadows recently, thanks largely to social media. But the phenomenon, particularly in the French Quarter, is as old as Essence itself, as are accusations that local hotels, restaurants, bars and other businesses treat black Essence attendees differently than they do white patrons who flood the Quarter during Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras and other large tourist events.

Similar patterns emerge during Bayou Classic, the annual football game between the historically black colleges Grambling State and Southern University, which only adds fuel to the fire.

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Melissa Weber, the popular local DJ who goes by the name DJ Soul Sister, said the number of restaurants closing or imposing an automatic 20-percent tip during Essence became particularly disturbing to her in 2013. She started posting the names of offending businesses to her Twitter and Facebook feeds. Others began doing the same, including during Bayou Classic.

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