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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: Food Has Always Been Activism

Sarah Delia
Chef Gregory Collier says food has always been a form of activism.

In the latest installment of WFAE's series Social Distancing, we hear from a Charlotte restaurant owner about what it's like to open a new business during the coronavirus pandemic and what activism can look like in the kitchen. 

Leah & Louisein Charlotte’s Camp North End doesn’t feel like any other restaurant in Charlotte. That’s because the couple who created it want patrons to feel like they’re somewhere else: their home city of Memphis, Tennessee.

"It’s about good food, good drinks, great music and just being able to be in your space and be free and be yourself," said Greg Collier, the James Beard award-nominated chef who runs the restaurant alongside his wife and business partner, Subrina. "That’s why my wife calls it 'juke joint chic.' It’s like an updated juke joint, but we ain’t got no leaky walls or windows."

The juke joint chic he describes is a cozy combination of eclectic décor paired with an industrial feel, much of which was found second hand at thrift stores or by using repurposed materials. There’s a pink velvet couch, exposed brick walls, whitewashed wooden tables — think of a distressed picket fence and you'll get the idea — and a long row of pews along the back wall.

"The pews is a nod to, you know, we in the Deep South, church is huge in the Deep South," Collier said. "We wanted to push like what modernization really looks like when it's in the hands of the people who are the originators of the culture."

Credit Peter Taylor Photography
Subrina and Gregory Collier, owners of Uptown Yolk and Leah & Louise

There’s even a ceramic jukebox that sits up high in the corner overlooking the bar.

But the Colliers had to wait for Leah & Louise, their second venture — the other beingUptown Yolklocated at the 7th Street Public Market — to fill up. The original opening was scheduled for March, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the couple to rethink their business model without having sit-down service as an option. Fortunately, it worked out.

"We appreciate it," Collier said. "It’s been really good even though the pandemic has been going on. We have more press now than we had at first which is amazing."

Collier said he kept his staff intentionally small from the beginning. The restaurant has done well on curbside orders. And they got a break on the rent at both Camp North End and 7th Street Public Market. Add investor and community support and Leah & Louise was able to open its doors up for limited sit-down service last Friday under Phase 2 guidelines.

Credit Sarah Delia / WFAE
Every object tells a story in Leah & Louise.

"It’s tough, it’s hard, but my wife and I have been doing this in tough situations the entire time," Collier said.

The pandemic has been a challenge for sure, but as black business owners, Collier said, he and Subrina are no strangers to tough situations. For one, he has to think about his business in a way white restaurant owners don’t.

"You would never not go into a place because it’s white-owned," Collier said. "Lots of white people decide not to go into places because it's owned by a different nationality or whatever."

Another piece Collier has to keep in the back of his mind is how he as a black man is perceived in the world. One of those times is when he’s closing down the restaurant which can be late — sometimes midnight.

"We had a security guard the other day come by the other day and ask us could he trust us to make sure we locked the door?’ Can you trust me to make sure I lock the door of my business? That doesn’t happen to white business owners," Collier said. "Do you think I would just open it up and let people ransack the place? Or do you not really think I own it so 'I need to make sure I tell them because they don’t know how to run a business, right?’"  

Collier hasn’t marched in the street during the recent protests, but he has marched in his own way. The Colliers have made sandwiches for a couple of the protests and participated in activism through the kitchen and how they run their business.

"When people come into the restaurant, there is going to be a black person at the bar, our hostess is black (she's also our assistant general manager), the chef is black, the kitchen has black women in it," Collier said. "And I made a point to curate those spaces because when people see me they need to see excellence. When people see Subrina they see excellence. They need to also associate other black people with excellence."

There’s intention behind every move the Colliers make, from the location of Leah & Louise to the tradition and history behind the Southern food on the menu.

"We’re talking about Southern food in the South — like you cannot not talk about black folks. Not just the backbone, the entire foundation -- the walls, everything -- we are responsible for that," Collier said. "Like literally slaves created Southern food. Food has always been activism. As black business owners in America, especially, in the South especially cooking Southern food, especially playing blues music in the space in a neighborhood that is a food desert in a historically African American neighborhood in a complex that is probably the most diverse complex in the city, all of those things are activism. All those things are statements."

Credit Sarah Delia / WFAE
Leah and Louise has sit-down dining options under Phase 2 guidelines of North Carolina's reopening plan.

These are important and conscious decisions, but, Collier said, they are largely silent ones. Now he’s ready to be more vocal. He expects people to take a stand when given the opportunity.

"Most people just say, ‘I don’t like racism, I’m anti-racist’ under the covers," Collier said. "They don’t say it out loud, and therein lies the issue because then it lets people in your circle who are next to you be racist because you’re not saying anything. So I made a point of saying if you can’t say nothing, if you can’t take a stance, I’m not going to work with you. Don’t ask me to do a dinner or be on a podcast or buy your product. No, I’m not doing it. You have to make a choice to make a choice to support black people. You have to make a choice to be anti-racist."

That choice is one white folks in the restaurant world need to make loudly and clearly, Collier said. And he’s not afraid to walk from possible opportunities if they won’t.

An opportunity Collier won’t walk away from is to have tough conversations and encourage others to do the same. Every little detail put into Leah & Louise, down to the décor, sparks conversation and has a story.

Even its name has important ties to Collier’s family. Leah was his sister’s name and Louise his grandmother’s. Both women, who have passed away, were chefs in their own right. Leah enjoyed throwing a recipe out the door and figuring out the dish as she went along. His grandmother, Louise, followed a recipe down to the T. Collier landed somewhere in the middle as a chef. Both women had an impact on the person he is in and out of the kitchen.

"My wife’s a black woman, my sister and my granny were black women, the leaders in my kitchen are black women, so I wanted to make it a clear notion that black women are very important when we’re talking about food, especially in the culinary South."

Collier hopes people will come to Leah & Louise not just for a great meal but for an experience — one that includes history, family, music and stories that can all be traced back to the revolution being fired up from his kitchen.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.