This past August, I hopped on a flight from my Chicago hometown to attend a large scale multi-day Black-led event in Atlanta I was invited to cover. Despite high hopes, I was incredibly frustrated when I arrived. It wasn’t because of the event’s premise itself (which was incredibly uplifting in theory) but the treatment I received once I got there. I had basic questions about the check-in process for the on-site help guides that not only went unanswered because they flat out said they “didn’t know,” full stop, but there was an air of indignant indifference about their helplessness. I wound up waiting three hours in the main lobby of the event space over the course of two days for my media credentials before the issue was resolved. When it was, there was barely an acknowledgement or apology uttered by the support staff.
When I returned home, I vented about the strange and infuriating experience to my circle. One of my sweet friends who has worked in marketing and events rationalized it as an operational breakdown that could’ve happened at any large event. I hesitantly agreed, but in the back of my mind I knew that wasn’t it. My career has allowed to visit many places for various events, so I knew in comparison, the complete dismissal I felt in ATL was different than anything I’d ever experienced, especially from my own people. It felt alien, almost.
Apparently, I wasn’t alone.
Recently, the very viral and beloved food review TikTok creator Keith Lee visited Atlanta with his family to attend the city’s One Music Fest, and took his following of 14 million users along the way. Only, the focus of the reviews wasn’t entirely on how delicious the meals were.
“Yesterday, me and my family were at the One Music festival,” Lee explains in a TikTok post. “Somebody who works with Kandi Burruss walked up to us and said they’ve been trying to reach us since we got to Atlanta. He said he’d been constantly emailing me and constantly DMing me for me to come to Old Lady Gang,” which is the popular restaurant Burruss co-owns.
He continues: “As you can see, I don’t have any bags in my hands. Me and my family showed up and attempted to order before we got here. We called the number they had connected on Yelp three times, no answer. We tried to order through DoorDash and it said it was temporarily closed. So when we pulled up, I sent my family in to order for us. They said on the weekend due to being busy, they don’t do any takeout at all.”
Lee went on to explain that his family (who isn’t as recognizable on social media) was told it would be an hour to an hour-and-a-half wait, like the scores of other customers waiting for a table. He also pointed out that the hostess didn’t take down a name, number or any contact information to notify them of their turn to be waited on. He eventually went into the eatery himself to find out more information and was immediately met with fans who asked for photos. It was then that the hostess quickly told him he and and his family would be served in five minutes. Most of the encounter was seen in the clip, including the moment he decided to kindly decline, and leave.
He implied that the quick change in temperament only came once the restaurant’s staff recognized he had high social currency, but made no move to prioritize the other customers that’d been waiting longer than him.
After the clip quickly racked up millions of views and countless think pieces, Burruss, who is also a respected reality TV and music star-turned-business mogul, took to her large social media platform to address the unpleasant encounter…but not really.
In the video, Burruss acknowledges the lack of to-go order service, but never directly addressed the most infuriating parts of Lee’s attempted dining experience: the quick change in attitude about the long wait time once his popularity was discovered and the lackadaisical follow-up process that seems to be baked into the work culture of the restaurant.
“It is very unfortunate we didn’t get to serve Keith Lee and his family, we would have loved to,” she begins in the video. She politely went on to only apologize about not being able to host them, and that was, pretty much it.
Some social media users quickly pointed out that while Burruss’s response was diplomatic, it completely lacked any real accountability.
“Zero accountability/no real apology/address nothing he said; yea okay 👌🏾,” a user that goes by the name of idonniemua responded in the comments.
This was the second demonstration of poor customer service Lee documented. The first was when he visited popular Black-owned restaurant The Real Milk And Honey, where his family was told they couldn’t patronize due to its temporary closing for deep cleaning. When Lee walked in (because the doors were wide open), however, he said he was told they’d be able to be served. Lee kindly declined the invitation.
In response, a video that was posted to the official TikTok account for the restaurant seemingly dismissed Lee’s take, with people who seem to be affiliated with the brand stating they didn’t know who he was.
The backlash on social media was swift, with many sharing that Atlanta’s Black-owned restaurants have long-touted outrageous house rules, offered subpar service and charge high hidden fees.
As of writing this, The Real Milk And Honey’s original post is no longer visible on the restaurant’s page. On October 31, a statement was posted on its Instagram page addressing the incident.
“In no way were we trying to discredit anyone, if the comments came across as such, kindly accept our apologies.”
Cardi B even chimed in, taking to Instagram Live on October 30 to share that she has to sometimes “drop her name” to receive decent customer service from restaurants in the city.
“Atlanta restaurants, I feel like they don’t like people—they don’t like their customers,” the award-winning artist said.
Unfortunately, to some extent, I agree.
Atlanta, a city I’ve previously written about being the nation’s home of the most Black-owned businesses, is in some ways, failing its own. This truth rings with a bitter irony since most of us know what it feels like to be discriminated against in non-Black led establishments—a harsh reality we have no problem shedding light on. But just as we raise our voices and fingers to point to those injustices, we have to hold space for intra-racial accountability as well.
It’s to be applauded that so many Black founders are finding immense success in what has been affectionately and proudly dubbed as the promised land for us—but it’s starting to become a battleground. Lee’s choice to candidly share his negative experiences online has led some to call him out for being anti-Black. I strongly beg to differ. His blind honesty and the subsequent defensiveness and disrespect he’s gotten from some Black restauranteurs is a meditation on how they truly feel about treating their patronage with care and attention. I don’t, nor have I ever lived in Atlanta, so I can’t quite say why there seems to be such a chasm between the businesses and their patrons. But what I do know for certain is that Keith Lee didn’t expose those restaurants. He exposed the owners’ character.