I was grateful for a soft breeze as I cruised along the levee overlooking the Mississippi River. The sticky heat of summer was already well settled into New Orleans. My afternoon bike ride took me past the charming colorful houses and tangled branches of the live oak trees that lend a whimsical quality to the city. My kids raced in front of me, their eyes bulging at the sights of funky shops and vinyl record stores. Visitors here seem to step out of time and space, into a community that jives to its own rhythm.
My wife’s family is from New Orleans. Many of her relatives still live in the city, and we’ve been able to turn it into a home away from home, thanks to regular visits a few times a year. We spend most of our time eating — beignets from Café du Monde, crawfish etouffee from Jacques-Imo’s Café, and the chicory coffee we can never find back at home in Connecticut. Daily bike rides help us work it off (at least I’d like to hope so) and give us a deeper view into the local culture.
Like many places, the sights and sounds of New Orleans are beginning to buzz back to life. Post-COVID, bars and restaurants are moving toward reopening, but unfortunately, the slow process without much outside assistance has threatened the existence of many of them.
During my visit, I came across some little red beans that showed me how, despite the hopelessness and pain of a year’s worth of closures, communities are coming together to figure out what to do next.
Turning despair into opportunity
In February 2021, the situation was looking grim for many small businesses in major cities across the US. Shops, restaurants, and bars struggled to remain functional while relying on curbside orders or by remaining closed altogether.
Without enough sales to generate an incoming cash flow, owners could not afford the overhead costs to keep their businesses running. Whispers of reopening plans kept them hanging on, waiting to hear when they could welcome customers again. In New Orleans, Devin De Wulf and the Krewe of Red Beans spotted an opportunity to help.
Bars and restaurants need cash to survive. Even when the lights are off and doors are closed, small businesses have bills to pay, such as rent, electricity, gas, and water. They also need to provide their employees with work, or those workers will understandably move to other jobs or enroll in unemployment.
The Krewe of Red Beans foresaw the dangers of waiting for restaurants to reopen after COVID-19 lockdowns. Without cash in hand to pay for their overhead expenses, many establishments might never come back.
The Krewe jumped on the opportunity to band together residents, bar owners, and creators to develop Bean Coin, a local currency that can be used to prepay for tabs at participating bars in New Orleans. I heard about Bean Coin during my visit and was curious to find out where it came from.
Self-organized currencies and communities
Bean Coin, launched in February 2021, is a system that uses little glass beans, each worth $10, to prepay tabs at local bars in the city. From its launch until Halloween (October 31, 2021), Bean Coin can be pre-purchased.
Bars get access to funding right away — the organization has agreed to give 50% directly to the bars to support them while they remain closed. The other 50% will go to non-bar businesses. Then, from November 2021 until Twelfth Night (January 6, 2022), the beans will be produced locally and sustainably out of recycled glass bottles. From January 6 until Halloween of 2022, the beans can be redeemed at local businesses.
The little glass beans carry many functions. They all have the same value, so they are easily recognizable as being worth that amount of food or drink. They represent an opportunity for local residents and businesses to support their community. They might not want to buy a gift card to a specific location, knowing it might not be there later in the year, but they can use the beans at bars all over the city.
Designed to save local businesses and maintain the soul of New Orleans — because as Devin says, who wants to watch a Saints game at Starbucks? — the beans are a locally produced form of currency.
The Krewe of Red Beans, originally a parade group, has raised over $2M this year through its initiatives to feed hospital workers, provide jobs to out-of-work artists and musicians, and now to save the local bar scene. The group has organized itself, using social media channels like YouTube and GiveForms nonprofit fundraising to manage donations and spread the word.
The pandemic forced many businesses and individuals to launch innovative ideas almost overnight, and stories like these demonstrate the resilience of communities to step outside of government or other official support systems, to self-organize using social media and new technologies, and to sustain themselves.