When a restaurant group and equal rights collide

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Jim Noble and LaWana Mayfield

LaWana Mayfield doesn’t consider it a boycott. Instead, the Charlotte City Council member describes her decision not to patronize a planned restaurant in her district as a personal decision not to spend her money against her own self-interest.

Mayfield tweeted over Thanksgiving that, despite some people’s enthusiasm for the planned barbecue restaurant Noble Smoke in her District 3, she would stay away.

“As the district representative I am happy for growth,” she said, but “as an out queer person of color I will never patronize this business as Noble is one of the signers against the fully inclusive non-discrimination ordinance.”

Let’s back up a minute. Mayfield is describing Jim Noble, a High Point native who began his restaurant empire in the early 1990s in Winston-Salem, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. He still owns the restaurant, Rooster’s: A Noble Grille, near the intersection of Business 40 and Stratford Road along the north side of the Ardmore neighborhood. But he’s since expanded to several Charlotte locations, becoming what the Charlotte Observer called a “local Charlotte food legend” last month.

Noble signed a 2015 letter to the Charlotte City Council opposing a planned nondiscrimination ordinance, one that — once passed — triggered reactionary state lawmakers to pass the much-maligned HB 2.

As Q Notes, a Charlotte-based LGBTQ publication, put it: “The letter — a pretty much word-for-word copy of a legal memo drafted by the far-right Alliance Defending Freedom — repeated homophobic and transphobic scare tactics, falsely linking transgender people and others in the LGB community to sexual predation.”

That was almost three years ago, sure. So why now? Mayfield said in a phone interview that while she privately refused to spend her money at any of Noble’s businesses, she made her first public statement on the matter after a constituent excitedly shared a social media post with her about Noble Smoke.

“I’m not going to tell anyone else how they should spend their funds, but I believe that if you don’t support me, I’m not going to spend my money with you,” Mayfield told Triad City Beat. She added that it’s important to know where you’re spending your money, and said that while she isn’t calling for a boycott of Noble’s restaurants, she hopes people take the time to do their own research and make their own decisions.

“Is it dining out, or is it paying for hate?” she asked. “Is it really a special night out, or have I just subsidized hateful legislation? Do you think we’ll do better if we know better?”

It’s impossible to separate politics from food (or really anything), but just in case you’re the kind of person inclined to accuse Mayfield (or me) of injecting politics where it doesn’t belong, it’s worth remembering where this began.

Noble — who could not be reached for comment — signed the letter opposing the anti-discrimination ordinance by indicating his relationship with his restaurant group. He also signed it as the pastor of Restoring Place Church, a Christian church that meets in one of his restaurants, King’s Kitchen, in Charlotte. And while he could’ve signed as a private citizen or just a pastor, his intentional mention of the restaurant group — which includes the Winston-Salem restaurant — should put to rest any debate about whether the dining establishments should be roped into it.

But Noble isn’t shy about mixing food with religion, which quickly bleeds into politics.

“In 1998, Jim and [his wife] Karen started Restoration World Ministries and their weekly radio broadcast ministry, the Voice of Healing Faith,” the website for King’s Kitchen explains. “An ordained minister, Jim uses this outreach as a way to share the teachings of Christ as well as remain open to the ways God calls him to serve. Over time, Jim recognized the relationship of his two passions — serving food and serving God — and was led to the ministry of feeding the poor.”

There’s plenty to praise about the nonprofit King’s Kitchen in particular. It’s designed to train “men and women most consider to be unemployable,” and profits go towards feeding the poor, in addition to the job training and life-skills training offered through the organization. It’s deeply intertwined with the Nobles’ church, enough so that the phone number listed on Restoring Place Church’s website is actually the main line for King’s Kitchen,

But in a 2013 profile of Noble and King’s Kitchen, writer Jeff Chu describes a sign at the joint restaurant/worship space that equates homosexuality with addiction, criminality and witchcraft. From the piece, available on the Christian-focused Amy Foundation’s website:

“’Wanted for the Kingdom of God,’ it shouts. ‘Drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, pimps, all sick people, gangbangers, gamblers, strippers, AIDS victims, homosexuals, blind, confused, shoplifters, depressed, suicidal people, demon-possessed, and those who are unsaved and cursed by witchcraft.’”

The Chu piece goes on to explain that: “You don’t have to be a Christian to be in the restaurant’s training program (though you do have to go to daily Bible study) or to be on staff (though he says ‘those who don’t have a heart for this usually don’t last’).”

The church’s website includes a statement that they welcome everyone “regardless of background, gender and race,” though it’s unclear that they include transgender in that definition, and sexual orientation is noticeably absent.

Mayfield, the city councilmember, acknowledged that Noble does “good things.” But that doesn’t mean she wants her money to end up supporting discriminatory legislation. She similarly won’t patronize the Billy Graham Library located in her district.

While it’s been years since Noble signed that letter and most of this story takes place in Charlotte, it reverberates here because this is where Noble got his start, and where he maintains a flagship restaurant.

The question, as Mayfield put it, is if we know better, will we do better?

  • CD

    So it’s okay for Mayfield to voice her opinion, spend her money on her self-interests, and have her own personal beliefs but it’s not okay for Jim Noble. Typical.

    • Zarahti

      Exactly how is “I’m not giving him my own money” equivalent to “it’s not okay for him to voice an opinion, spend his money on his self-interests, and have his own personal beliefs”? Twisting reality and pretending to be persecuted; typical.