Melba’s is a 24/7 joint where you’ll find chicken frying, laundry spinning and daiquiris swirling. This week, the all-purpose eatery also stirred controversy as the impassioned topic of NFL player protests during the national anthem landed at its door.
A man-on-the-street interview given by a restaurant manager quickly led to Facebook comment condemnation and, owner Scott Wolfe says, unfairly tarnished the reputation of his business. It didn’t help that the one who sparked the issue was his own brother.
On Monday, a reporter for WWL-TV turned up at Melba’s to interview customers about NFL players kneeling during the pre-game anthem to protest social injustice. The protests, which began last year, dramatically expanded last weekend after President Trump weighed in on Twitter, lambasting players who knelt with profane comments and calling for their jobs.
What brought the crisis to Melba’s, however, was a comment from the manager on duty at the time. Mike Wolfe told WWL-TV that he didn’t want to show the Saints game if players protested in that way.
The restaurant’s Facebook page lit up with angry comments, accusations of hypocrisy from a white-owned business based in a largely black neighborhood and calls to boycott Melba’s.
But Scott Wolfe, the owner of Melba’s, said his brother's comments amount to an employee of the company expressing a view that doesn't represent the business and is at odds with its character.
“What he said was not the opinion of Melba’s, it wasn’t my opinion, and it’s not how we operate here," said Wolfe. "I know it's confused a lot of people, but the people who know us know that's not what we're about."
Wolfe said his brother would face disciplinary action for violating a company policy by speaking for ownership, though he declined to elaborate on what that action would be.
This weekend's Saints game will certainly be shown at Melba’s, he said, though he’s continuing to deal with the fallout online.
“We’re now trying to explain to people that we understand our past and that we agree everyone has the right to sit, stand or kneel to express their position, because being able to do that is an American value,” said Wolfe.
While NFL players themselves have explained the issue as a statement about social injustice, its intersection with the flag and national anthem has tapped passionate responses about patriotism and respect for veterans.
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Locally, a location of the WOW Wingery & Café chain in suburban Chalmette drew attention when it announced Sunday it would not show the Saints game after players knelt during the national anthem. Louisiana Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser weighed in this week too, saying he would personally boycott Saints games as a result of the protest. Some Louisiana lawmakers this week called for a review of state financial incentives to the Saints as a result of player protests.
One reason the comments from Melba's manager drew such broad disdain was Melba's own profile as a white-owned business in a black neighborhood, and the history behind the business.
The combination eatery/bar/laundry is the continuation of a string of businesses that Scott Wolfe and his family have developed in New Orleans through the years. Before Hurricane Katrina, their Wagner’s Meat grocery stores was a household name around the city, and their Chicken Box fried chicken chain grew in to a high-profile competitor to Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits here. Like Melba's, most locations of those businesses were in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
Scott Wolfe said that's why he finds the controversy that swelled up this week so vexing.
“We are one of the few places where everyone does sit and eat and talk together, which is why camera crews come here in the first place,” said Wolfe. “It’s locals and tourists and everyone enjoying each other’s diversity. It’s a great part of what Melba’s is.”
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