A pop-up restaurant in New Orleans called Saartj drew attention after staffers requested that white customers pay an additional $18 per meal while black patrons paid the regular asking price of $12 and were encouraged to take home the extra fees. At first glance this may seem like pure discrimination, but the pop-up’s team claimed it served a higher purpose: to further the conversation on wealth disparity.
The eatery operated through February and until March 4 in the Roux Carre food court. Saartj’s chef, Tunde Wey, came to the U.S. from Nigeria as a teenager and has made waves as a social activist. He is famous for leading the “Blackness in America” traveling dinner series in 2016 and 2017, in which he, guest collaborators, black community residents, and dinner guests intimately discussed the black experience and perspective through personal stories and scholarly readings.
In an Instagram post promoting Saartj, Wey wrote “Give me 15 minutes and I’ll change your life” under a graphic depicting the median incomes in New Orleans for blacks ($25,806) and whites ($64,377). These numbers differ notably from the U.S. Census Bureau’s national statistics for 2016 — $39,490 and $65,041, respectively — though the bigger picture of a wage gap is apparent in either set of numbers.
Civil Eats reports that at Saartj, after customers ordered Nigerian-inspired dishes such as chicken feet pepper soup and fried plantains, Wey would give them a speech about the wealth gap between whites and blacks. White customers were given the option of paying $12 per meal or $18 extra, which black customers were given the chance to pocket after ordering their own meals.
“We want to engage the public in a certain experiment to sort of figure out how we think about this individually and collectively, and what sort of solutions we’re willing to participate in,” Wey told Food & Wine in January.
If a black customer tried paying extra, the chef would shut them down.
“Black people have even tried to pay the $30 and I’m like, ‘No, it’s not for you,’” he told Civil Eats, adding that about 76 percent of black diners also refused to take the $18 they were offered while 80 percent of white consumers chose to pay the extra.
The social experiment was met with both support and disapproval.
“I’m stunned white people would eat there quite frankly,” @p1nkstarf1sh wrote on Twitter.
“Safe to say they just lost customers forever,” @JackHann31 said, although Saartj was only open from February 18 to March 5.
“People have lost their minds,” @Sportsgirlnj16 declared.
“This is a really interesting experiment because it helps people living in that specific community recognize the statistical income gap between African Americans and whites. Yes the world is not perfect, but the problem is something that must be addressed. Props to these g-uys/irl,” @mustasalau wrote.
“Thank God there are some who own their WP [white privilege]. Now let’s take it a little further than a $30 meal,” @isaidnothatswhy said.
“Amazing,” @Rusalkasiren said with a wink-faced emoji.
The Daily Meal has reached out to Tunde Wey for further comment.
For more on the culinary scene down south, check out the best food and drink in Louisiana.