In the midst of Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd one year ago, current and past employees of Commander’s Palace took to social media with complaints about racism in the restaurant.
In one Facebook post former employee Khiry Armstead laid out his grievances with Commander’s Palace highlighting, “The lack of upward mobility in the company, the dangling of promotions in front of my face that ultimately went to less experienced/qualified, white co-workers, watching less experienced/younger/qualified white co-workers be promoted over people of color waiting in the wings. The lack of representation in their upper management positions (no black FOH managers, one black captain, and a couple of waiters that were sometimes captains)…the crazy coincidence that guests of color generally were sat in the back dining room of the restaurant.”
Another Facebook post by a former employee named Terri* described an incident where “An older white couple came in…they complained to a manager that the service so far was horrible and that the restaurant had “gone downhill since the Brennans took it over” because I QUOTE: “back in our day, y’all didn’t have any black people working here.” This was all before their entrees arrived.”
In an interview, Terri elaborated, “This was five minutes after they sat down to eat, right? And so my issue was one, that this happened. And two, it speaks to a pattern of guests being able to say who they want to serve them. And three, it’s not just that they told that explicitly to a manager, they told that to one of the owners, and he sort of laughed it off and was kind of like, “Oh, isn’t that crazy that happened?” And that was really the end of it…like there was no reprimand, we served them through the entire meal.”
On June 4th, the day after Terri’s post on Facebook, Commander’s Palace released a statement on their social media that vowed, “To our Black team members, guests, friends, and entire community: We see your pain, we hear you, we will keep listening, the path ahead is beyond hard, we will walk down that road with you.”
One somber statement arranged on a white background did not placate but rather infuriated many former and current employees. One of those former employees commented on the post, “What does this mean? Are you supporting to charities that support Black Lives Matter? Are you supporting charities that will end mass incarceration? HELL, will you start paying your primarily Black ware washers and food runners a living wage? Bc when I worked there, management was aware of Black employees that were HOMELESS despite their difficult and strenuous employment at CP. These words are meaningless without actionable change. Y’all are part of the problem.”
Feeling hopeful that Commander’s Palace’s vow to support and listen to Black employees was an honest one, some employees got together to create a Commander’s Palace Black Lives Matter Petition which listed out, in detail, what the restaurant needed to work on.
57 employees ended up signing the petition, a sizable amount considering Commander’s Palace’s workforce was around 250, and many employees were too scared to sign, fearing they may lose their jobs.
A long-time former female captain* who signed the petition, and was not asked back, said she felt motivated to do so because “I worked at Commander’s Palace for eight years, so since 2012, and just years of constant injustice for women and people of color and just me not being able to do anything about it, or normally, actually trying to take a stand. So that’s why I just felt like it was finally a way to do that.”
Argyle Wolf-Knapp, who worked for Commander’s Palace for 13 years, signed the petition, and was not asked back, said, “My reason I signed the letter largely was that I had been there long enough to see patterns, a systemic thing. Nothing blatant, but I was there long enough to see the pattern.”
One of the most obvious patterns was the mistreatment of food runners. In fact, the first thing the petition asked for was that Commander’s Palace “Increased earnings of ware washers and food runners up to living wages. Employees have heard of ware washers employed by Commander’s Palace who are unable to afford housing. This is unacceptable…We request an increase of their hourly to the city-mandated living wage…Food runners, another of the departments at Commander’s populated almost exclusively by Black employees, are severely under-compensated for the amount of work they do. Currently, they make $2.13/hour and split 2.5% of the tip share with hosts and the bar. We formally ask for an increase of their hourly to minimum wage ($7.25), in addition to their portion of the tip share.”
Argyle Wolf-Knapp commented, “It always disappointed me there were not more people of color in the front of the house, and I felt that the guys on the utilities end were getting a little bit of a bad rap as far as getting paid for the work they did.”
The food runners are “on their feet for 5-7 hours running up and down stairs and carrying huge trays of food with minimal compensation which was very disturbing to me,” Terri explained. The job is made even more arduous by the fact that Commander’s is multiple stories, has a written policy that guests have the right of away, and allows guests to leave through the staircase that goes down to the kitchen, resulting in food runners frequently standing with heavy trays of food, waiting for guests to pass.
The overwhelming majority of food runners who work for Commander’s Palace are Black. In fact, employees commented that almost all young Black men are started as food runners.
“In the last eight years that I worked there, I think I only saw two White people be food runners everyone else was people of color,” A long-time former female captain* explained. “They’re all gentlemen that lived in the neighborhood that got paid $2.13 an hour plus tips, running trays of food for 800 guests, up the stairs and when any of them would ask to move up the management team would always come up with excuses. I was even told once when I was trying to get a gentleman moved up and I approached my general manager and said “Can so and so move up?” and he said, “He just doesn’t have the dining room presence that we’re looking for.”
An anonymous former employee* who worked on the petition and was not asked back said, “We were hearing stories from other employees about how they would recommend their friends who were Black to work at Commanders, and if these people were, you know, young, strong Black men they were most likely to be made food runners, rather than back waiters. And they tell you that when you’re food runner you can work your way up to back waiter and then front waiter and then captain, but that doesn’t normally happen. The few people I know of who it happened to, two of them are Black, but like the rest of them are White.”
White people, on the other hand, with equal or fewer qualifications, are frequently started as back waiters instead of food runners. A White former captain* said, “The general manager had an affinity for pretty young girls and although I was pretty much as qualified as some of the Black men that applied, and I should have been brought on as a food runner based on what my qualifications were at the time, I was hired as a back waiter. My equals, who were Black, were food runners, and it was really rare for me to see food runners make it out and a lot of the ones that did were White.”
Promotions were hard to come by for Black food runners, or Black employees in a general. A long-time former female captain commented, “There was only one Black captain, for my entire memory that I could think of, you know, from 2012 to 2019.”
Which relates to the next demand in the petition, that there be “More equitable access to hiring opportunities and opportunities for advancement for Black employees. There is currently a large disparity between the amount of time it takes Black employees in good standing to advance in rank and the amount of time it takes non-Black employees in good standing to do the same.” This disparity in promotions is especially obvious since so often Black employees are started in positions that are lower in rank and pay than White employees.
A long-time former female captain elaborated, “All the people of color, kind of got held at the front waiter position and yeah, maybe, we can get you some training to be a captain, but then it wouldn’t be in like the busy sections, it’d be like off to the corner sections and things like that.”
The reason Commander’s was able to get away with this, without being called out for being racist, was because their promotions policy, like many of their policies that contribute to racism in the restaurant, is so vague. “Their policies were so vague that they could be used indiscriminately against Black people and people of color,” Terri commented.
The petition detailed how current promotion policies are “applied extremely subjectively” demanding a standardized policy that would apply across the board.
“If you were a back waiter, you would hear that the way to get promoted to front waiter is to memorize the menu, to study the wines to make sure that you know all of these things so that you can be able to recommend and serve the best alcohol to your guests,” Terri explained. “However, oftentimes people will get promoted to front waiter who didn’t know those things and had only been there a couple of months. And meanwhile, there were people who had been there about nine months to a year who had never been promoted.”
An anonymous former employee, who is Black, commented. “Personally, when I started, I was warned by other Black employees that you’re not going to be promoted as quickly. And I heard them and then I just kind of saw it for myself. I was normally given really good feedback like, I was told oh, you’re doing well, you’re probably gonna be made a front waiter by people I worked with. And that didn’t really happen, and then it got to a point where people who came in after me were getting promoted.”
Commander’s Palace stresses “dining room presence” which, according to their dress code, Black people have to try harder to obtain. The petition explained, “The code on appearance, as it stands, tends to be enforced in ways that disproportionally affect Black serving staff, particular examples being facial hair on Black men being viewed more negatively than facial hair on White staff, or Black women being discouraged from wearing their hair in braids.”
A comment from one of the people who signed the petition said, “I specifically remember being told that women of color could not wear their hair in braids nor could men of color. This “dress code” excludes an entire group of individuals and is archaic.”
One of the biggest points that the petition made was that Commanders should consider the “Adoption of a “Be Nice or Leave” policy for Guests as well as Employees. There have been several incidences where Black employees have been made to feel uncomfortable and the hands of guests or even fellow employees, and then in turn had to deal with no support from management. A Black employee should not have to serve a guest that is making racially charged comments towards them, and should not be expected to work in an environment that tolerates that behavior.”
A comment from one of the employees who signed the petition explained, “I have worked shifts where I felt it necessary to excuse my backwaiter from interacting with certain backward guests and heard stories about guests who made their hate clear without subtlety.”
Many of the guests whose racist or sexist demands are accommodated are XXPs, which are Commander’s Palace’s VIPs. “Managers allow them to make whatever requests they want,” Terri explained. “There have been times where guests will say I only want a team of male servers… and they’ll accommodate that. It speaks to these old ideas that, you know, men are the best servers, and particularly with African Americans, we have been in restaurants but oftentimes we have been the cooks and the cleaners and not the servers.”
Argyle Wolf-Knapp clarified that when it came to XXPs making racist or sexist requests, “It doesn’t happen all that often, but that it’s still happening at all, is kind of disheartening.”
A former captain recounted how, “I was working in the parlor and I guess some of my colleagues in that room were Black, and then we saw a table get seated. And then, before anyone went to greet the table, someone at the table called a manager over and then left the room. And then, I don’t remember who the manager was but when they came back, they said yeah she wanted to be seated in a room with fewer Black people…I do remember there was not really any hesitation to accommodate that.”
She elaborated that some XXPs made it clear they didn’t want Black or female captains. “The crux of my issues with the company was their philosophy towards guests versus staff and how tirelessly they would bend to accommodate guests.”
Terri commented that this “speaks so clearly to the culture that you’ve created, and all of the issues that have already existed…[they’ve] made guests feel so comfortable that they can openly say we don’t want this Black person to serve us for no other reason than that she is Black”
Commander’s Palace never responded to the petition. It was hand-delivered to the restaurant’s General Manager Kenny Meyer, and then, nothing.
The next correspondence the vast majority of the petition’s signers received had nothing to do with it or Black Lives Matter, but rather told them not to expect their jobs back in September.
In September, the restaurant was featured in an article on Nola.com, with the promise Commander’s Palace would take “a fresh look at the restaurant’s staff policies and programs in light of issues of racial equality and inclusion…Martin said she’s proud of the steps her company has taken in the past, like diversity training and staff recruiting efforts, but believes “there’s work yet to be done in our industry, including by us.””
The restaurant is addressing these issues by adding sick leave to its benefits package for staff, seeking out more minority-owned businesses as purveyors, and revamping its internal program called “Pathways to Success” that outlines how employees can advance in the company. Commander’s Palace also hired its first female executive chef in its long history in January.
“We’ve always been about mentoring and career development here, and we want to expand that and ensure a feeling of inclusion,” Ti Martin, who runs Commander’s Palace with her cousin Lally Brennan, commented.
Employees noted that while these changes are a step in the right direction, other than revamping their promotion’s program, Commander’s Palace didn’t address any of the problems mentioned in the petition. Commander’s Palace also never responded to Big Easy Magazine’s request for a statement on the petition, or on what the restaurant has done to show Black lives matter to Commander’s Palace.
With a lack of response and action, Commander’s Palace’s vow they made a year ago on June 4, to see, listen, and walk with their Black team members, guests, and friends remains unfulfilled.
*Many of the former Commander’s Palace employees interviewed for this article asked that they remain anonymous or not have their full names included in this article because they feared retaliation or losing current positions.
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