ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Shortly after President Trump took office, NPR began talking to Americans about their hopes in a series of kitchen table conversations. Today we revisit an Atlanta entrepreneur on a mission to preserve the culinary traditions in a gentrifying neighborhood. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Two years ago, Keitra Bates was trying to buy a rundown storefront in West Atlanta that had been vacant for years.
KEITRA BATES: Here's my dream come true.
ELLIOTT: Back then we peered in through the wrought iron front door at the neglected building she hoped to buy. Now Bates owns the keys.
(SOUNDBITE OF WROUGHT IRON DOOR OPENING)
ELLIOTT: There's a fresh coat of coral paint outside and cozy warm decor inside.
BATES: So welcome to Marddy's.
ELLIOTT: Marddy's, a shortened form of market buddies, is a shared kitchen, a place for home cooks to make and sell their products. Bates calls them hidden entrepreneurs. People like Raisha Williams, aka The Cookie Lady.
RAISHA WILLIAMS: I typically go around to barbershops in the neighborhood and sell cookies.
ELLIOTT: She's the mother of two sets of twins, ages 16 and 12. She started the business when she couldn't find a job 10 years ago.
R WILLIAMS: I had to think about the quickest way to make some money. So it's always been baking for me. Cooking or baking has always been the quickest way for me to generate income.
ELLIOTT: Marddy's mission, says Keitra Bates, is to preserve the flavors and culture of the neighborhood even as it gentrifies and changes.
BATES: It's way bigger than just cookies.
ELLIOTT: Bates says, with rents on the rise, African-American home cooks have fewer local black businesses where they can sell their goods.
BATES: These people have created a business with their talents, and they have a right to survive. Just because, you know, there's new money coming in doesn't mean that their business should get snuffed out.
ELLIOTT: Bates is a 45-year-old caterer. She and her husband, Kevin, a graphic artist and music producer, have five kids. She wants them to learn the value of entrepreneurship. Her vendors include a woman who makes salad dressing, a community gardener who produces traditional Jamaican teas and soups, an elderly couple who sells sweet potato pies and a group called Gangstas To Growers that teaches formerly incarcerated youth to grow peppers and make and sell hot sauce. Marddy's has cooking and prep areas in the back and a long lunch counter with retail space up front.
BATES: This is the original counter from 1949.
ELLIOTT: This building housed a diner called Leila's Dinette that was in business from the 1940s into the '80s, but it's been boarded up for decades until Bates bought it. She recently discovered that the original proprietor, Leila Williams, age 106, is still living. Bates now makes regular visits to see Williams at an Atlanta nursing home.
LEILA WILLIAMS: Hi.
ELLIOTT: Williams is sitting in her wheelchair listening to gospel music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS: (Singing) Every day. Every day.
ELLIOTT: Her goddaughter Charlotte Riley-Webb, a local artist, helps care for Williams.
CHARLOTTE RILEY-WEBB: We got visitors.
L WILLIAMS: (Laughter). I didn't know.
L WILLIAMS: What is that? Ms. Keitra?
ELLIOTT: Williams remembers running Leila's Dinette, where she was known for her fish sandwiches and greens.
L WILLIAMS: All kinds of vegetables. It's been a long time.
RILEY-WEBB: Has it?
L WILLIAMS: Leila's Dinette.
ELLIOTT: Webb says customers included students from the historically black colleges just up the street and civil rights leaders, who were known to have strategy sessions at Leila's Dinette.
BATES: I see you, Ms. Leila.
ELLIOTT: Keitra Bates finds inspiration here.
BATES: To meet them, it gives me a glimpse of, like, what I feel like I'm evolving into.
ELLIOTT: But Webb says the outlook is different today.
RILEY-WEBB: Our outlook on life - Ms. Leila's outlook on life was survival. Yours is accomplishment. Yours is, OK, we can be our full selves, and we can work together. That's what I like about the idea of...
ELLIOTT: Bates would like to see Marddy's be the kind of community hub that Leila's Dinette was...
(SOUNDBITE OF NEIGHBORHOOD CHATTER)
ELLIOTT: ...And it's generating curiosity as people in the neighborhood stop to check it out.
KENNETH: 'Cause I love to cook.
BATES: Tell me your name again.
KENNETH: My name is Kenneth.
KENNETH: Yes. Kenneth.
BATES: I'm Keitra, Kenneth.
KENNETH: Keitra? And I'm going to talk to you again.
BATES: Definitely do come back 'cause, you know, the whole reason we opened this place is to make sure that people in the neighborhood who cook and sell it can have a place to cook and sell it.
KENNETH: Sell it.
ELLIOTT: Bates says she tries to keep her focus local and not get caught up in the endless drama of national politics. But the Georgia governor's election last year felt like a setback, she says. Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African-American woman, lost in a close and hard-fought race against Republican Brian Kemp in a contest marred by allegations of voter suppression.
BATES: The hope of someone like Stacey Abrams and the fact that, you know, I feel like she did not receive a fair run, it makes this work more important to me because it says, hey, we can't really count on things according to the powers that be to be fair.
ELLIOTT: Bates says American institutions have long failed black citizens. That echoes her sentiment when I first spoke with her just after President Trump took office. At the time, Bates said she heard a lot of angst about his election but thought that energy would be better served if people would invest in making their communities stronger. Now Bates says Trump's presidency has pulled the curtain back and sparked a dialogue about race.
BATES: Hopefully, people are talking more and finding out why would they vote, and are they afraid of otherness and are they afraid of erasure themselves? 'Cause I really do think he appeals to white people being afraid of losing power.
ELLIOTT: Atlanta is known as the black mecca, a city that draws African-Americans because of the opportunities here in politics, philanthropy and business. But even as the city was hosting the Super Bowl last month, there were conversations about who was benefiting. Were so-called legacy residents are being left out? One of Bates' vendors was able to get a Super Bowl catering contract with access to Marddy's commercial kitchen.
ALICIA GIBBONS: We want to pipe the edges.
ELLIOTT: Alicia Gibbons prepared 1,500 shot glass-sized strawberry cheesecakes for a Super Bowl-related function.
GIBBONS: I never thought that my food would be in the Super Bowl.
ELLIOTT: For Keitra Bates, the payoff is in seeing new opportunity for these local chefs.
BATES: I want to see prideful expressions all around this neighborhood.
ELLIOTT: She's working now to expand the shared kitchen concept to other neighborhoods in jeopardy of losing their traditional flavors. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Atlanta.
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