Students and Local Community Successfully Protest Closure of Food Stall Near Campus

University students alongside members of the local community have successfully protested the closure of the popular West African street-food stall Délice D’Ivoire on Friday 7thJune at the Blackwell’s café just off the University of Leeds campus.

On Wednesday 22nd May, popular street-food stall Délice D’Ivoire run by Aissa Toure was instructed to cease trading in Blackwell’s cafe, the stall’s permanent residence since September 2018. 

Academic book retailer Blackwell’s Bookshop sits opposite Laidlaw Library on Blenheim Terrace, and where many students can obtain key course textbooks through a relationship with Leeds University Union (LUU). Upstairs, its cafe boasts ‘Street Food @ Blackwell’s’ with Délice D’Ivoire trading here every Monday-Wednesday, while Korean street food company Seoul Kitchen trades on Thursdays and Fridays. 

Following review by a Blackwell’s Health and Safety Inspector on May 22nd, Aissa was instructed to cease trading with immediate effect, with Blackwell’s citing grounds of alleged inadequate food safety and hygiene standards. Leeds City Council awarded Délice D’Ivoire a Food Hygiene Rating of 5 (Very Good) following the company’s most recent official inspection on September 18th 2018. This is the highest rating that the Food Standard Agency awards to businesses. 

Leeds City Council confirmed this in a letter dated 29thMay. However, they noted that the issues with Blackwell’s were ‘based on a contractual agreement between Blackwell’s and yourself and [therefore] not a food safety issue between Leeds City Council”. They also stated Blackwell’s were allowed to appoint their own service officers and ‘where issues are identified, then they may inform you of the requirements to address these concerns. These requirements are ‘separate to the legal obligations under the Food Safety and Hygiene Regulations’.

In a letter to Blackwell’s from Aissa’s lawyer, it was stated:

‘We are not aware of any regulations or enactment that give you the power to close down a business in this country as this power is solely that of regulatory bodies or agencies such as the Environmental Health Services for Leeds City Council.’

Additionally, it was also questioned why Blackwell’s ‘did not contact the Environmental Health Officer accordingly’ about their claims. The letter also asserted Aissa had adhered promptly to previous recommendations on 12thMarch from Blackwell’s internal Food and Safety officer and was told, on 18thMarch, that she “was on the right path and that she should keep on”.

Reaching out to Blackwell’s, they declined to comment on the issue stating:

Blackwell’s was very happy to invite both Delice D’Ivoire and Seoul Kitchen to become our food and coffee concession partners in Leeds for the academic year 18/19. As an internal business matter, we wouldn’t comment publically on any trading issues or concerns relating to a concession partner.

Aissa contested her dismissal as unlawful, believing that Blackwell’s Health and Safety Inspector breached the Food Law Code of Practice and on Monday 3rdJune, customers and friends of Délice D’Ivoire ventured to Blackwell’s cafe to express their support and solidarity for Aissa. Speaking to The Gryphon at the protest, many emphasised that Délice D’Ivoire’s importance extended far beyond just food. 

First-year student Axelle Nasah emphasised the importance of the space as one of the few businesses run by a person-of-colour on or near campus stating how ‘from day one, the community has always been at the heart of the Black community because we are a minority’ and ‘we need to have each other’s backs.

In the most recent academic year, White students made up 77% of Home and EU students while those from Black or Black British backgrounds made up 3% of Home and EU students according to data published by the University.

Second-year English Literature student Melody Triumph talked about how the stall’s presence next to campus was one of the main reasons for her choosing the University of Leeds as her first choice. She said “when you feel represented when you feel accepted, you’re more likely to go there” as the stall demonstrated there was a demand for African food and African culture on campus.

Speaking to The Gryphon over the phone, Aissa talked about how to her, ‘African food is something sacred, a blessing’ and regularly described her customers as ‘a community’. This was evident on Monday when we went along to the eat-in protest to interview the people attending as Aissa made sure to talk with every single one of her customers in the café. 

Some students we interviewed additionally took a critical line of the Union and the University who during the dispute between Toure and Blackwell’s released no official statement.

Nasah believes that “the University and the Union often try to take credit for the diversity that people-of-colour bring to campus” while Peninah Wangari-Jones, a student at the University of Leeds, believes it is spaces like Délice that ensure University campuses continue to become more diverse and pointed out “there are not many places where there’s this level of congregation of Black students”.

Peninah and Sharon Anyiam, a student at De Montfort University in Leicester also noted that very few Universities will have a Black-owned restaurant right next to campus and that it is an important selling point for the University.

The University of Leeds and LUU declined to comment.

As a result of the protest and negotiations between Aissa and Blackwell’s, an agreement was reached and Blackwell’s apologised ‘for the distress this situation has caused [her]’. Aissa has been allowed to continue trading until her contract is finished on 2nd September 2019. 

Délice D’Ivoire serves fresh, healthy West African street food, inviting customers to ‘discover the taste of Senegal and the Ivory Coast’. Interviewing her customers, we saw Aissa is beloved by many, with many regulars calling her ‘Auntie’ or friend.

Aissa prides herself, and her business, on bringing people together – her relationship with customers goes far beyond exchanging money or food and described it as a place where people of African descent, and those who want to try West African cuisine, can come together. 

Aissa recently hosted a stall at the annual Leeds Ball over the weekend serving celebrating University of Leeds students all night long.

Discussing her plans for the future, Aissa told us she does not wish to renew her contract with Blackwells’ and that she has made a request to join the Farmer’s Market each Monday outside the Union. She is also seeking to set up a pop-up stall in Leeds Beckett Union and host events there as well as trying to seek compensation from Blackwell’s for her abrupt eviction. 

Reporting done by Ed Barnes and Megan Ardis

Image Credit: Megan Ardis