When our friend (and fab writer) Anjali Prasertong first saw chef Tunde Way's clever, surprising social experiment plans for his New Orleans pop-up restaurant, Saartj, she was understandably apprehensive. "I was kind of afraid," she said. "Like, are white people just going to come to the window and yell at us?"
White people yelling? Whatever for? Well, Wey wasn't just planning to cook braised kale, fried plantains, and Jolloff rice — he was also serving a lunchtime social experiment in New Orleans, a city plagued by dramatic income disparity.
After each customer placed their order at the counter, Wey gave them statistics about the city's racial income disparity, and then told them what their lunch would cost.
The price of their lunch? It was based on their race.
For people of color, a meal at Saartj cost $12, and for white people, it (initially) cost $30. Those price points were selected purposefully to reflect the fact that the median annual income for African-American households in New Orleans ($25,806) is 40% of the median annual income for white households ($64,377).
White customers were given the option of paying $12 too, but after hearing Wey's statistics about wealth disparity and its wide-ranging effects, 78% of them paid the 30 bucks.
"We actually found that white women were more likely to pay the higher price than white men," Anjali told us. "91% of white women paid $30, compared to 54% of white men."
I was a fan of @from_lagos’s writing for a long time before I met him and am super excited to be working with him on his latest project: Saartj, a pop-up lunch counter challenging people to think about racial wealth disparity. Find us at @rouxcarre until Feb 22. He’s cooking Nigerian food and asking tough questions, I’m recording the answers.
Anjali is a graduate student at Tulane's School of Public Health, and she was invited into the project to design a survey customers took afterward. She also conducted interviews with diners about their choices — questions that went well beyond the cost of lunch that day.
"We were interested in social mobility, if people had an awareness of the fact that having access to wealth from family — or not having that access — had changed their lives in some way," she said. "It was clear that minority customers had [already] thought about it, and could point to a definite time in their lives when having some extra money would've helped or would have changed the decisions that they made."
The restaurant had a limited run by design, and fortunately Anjali's initial fears were never realized. Three people did walk away after hearing the premise and one person was "a little combative" in the post-lunch interview, but no one yelled.
She and Wey did start an important dialogue, both at the lunch counter and within the community. (And obviously in the comments section of the Times-Picayune, which no one should read under any circumstances, but ... bless their hearts.)
"That's what Tunde does," Prasertong said. "He brings people together over food at first, and then he has these big conversations with them."
It's hard to put a price on that.