Meals 4 Heels feeds Portland sex workers, and now the wider community
There is nothing subtle about the tagline for Meals 4 Heels. It’s written in big block letters on the back of the T-shirts staff are wearing: “Pro Black, pro Brown, pro trans, pro science, pro hoe.”
That directness makes sense, because there is also nothing subtle about Nikeisah Newton, the founder of Meals 4 Heels, a first-of-its-kind late night food delivery service for sex workers.
Newton’s style is bold, her attitude is unabashed, and she’s transparent about her past: “I’m formerly incarcerated, I’m a college dropout, I’m black, and I’m gay. I just want to remind people: Yeah, you can get back on top [but] you can also serve your community.”
Newton has been cooking in Portland for more than 15 years, working for, as she puts it, “everyone under the sun.”
“I’ve worked for mom and pops, food trucks, high-end restaurants, catering companies, bars and restaurants.” she said.
A few years ago, she was feeling a shift in the industry and feared she was at a dead end in her culinary career.
“I was either gonna get fired or I was gonna walk out,” she said. “It was definitely kinda like destiny to make my own path.”
That shift coincided with a need she saw in her community: “We have 75 strip clubs in Portland. Sometimes there’s three to 15 dancers per club, and that’s just strip clubs. ... There’s many forms of sex work. And there’s many mouths to feed.”
As a trained chef, Newton often found herself preparing meals for a girlfriend who, as a dancer and full-time student, often had to choose between getting ready for work, studying, taking a nap before her shift or making a meal.
“There were times where she had asked me, ‘Hey, can you deliver this to my club?’” she said, “And one of the times I had done that, she just made the comment of, ‘You know, they would pay for this, my coworkers, the other dancers, if you brought us food.’”
Newton delivered her first “official” Meals 4 Heels meal at the end of January 2019. For the first nine months or so, the business was able to survive solely on deliveries to sex workers. But then the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered clubs and limited in-person sex work. Months later, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, nationwide protests against police violence and racial justice movements swept the country. Newton decided to branch out through catering specifically geared towards social justice organizations.
“I get to cater to Don’t Shoot PDX. I catered for APANO, all their business meetings. I’ve catered for the Small Business Legal Center, Pride Northwest, JOIN PDX. I’ve worked with the Oregon Food Bank as well as Feed the Mass, a local nonprofit,” she said. “It’s great to work with groups that care about the same things I care about [and] groups that look out for me and other people that mainstream doesn’t usually follow.”
This month, Newton cast her net even wider. Partnering with the nonprofit Ecotrust, she opened a brick and mortar location at The Redd on Salmon Street. There’s a small walk-up window on the property called The Powerhouse Cafe, which has a restaurant-in-residence program for BIPOC-run food businesses. For the next two years, Newton will be cooking out of this 150-square-foot building.
The meals she’ll be making expand on the original menu she created with sex workers in mind.
“Yes, clubs have food, but it’s geared towards the male usual clientele,” she said. “So steak and chicken fingers and potatoes and stuff like that, it’s not usually what they want.”
Newton’s menu is all vegetarian with a focus on healthy meals. It highlights local ingredients with a wide-ranging mix of flavors, including Tom Kha roasted cauliflower, house-made chow-chow and giardiniera, lemon Ethiopian spices mushroom and vegan cornbread. The dishes have some tongue-in-cheek names, such as “Getting That Paper” and “The Verbal Tipper,” both a nod to Meals 4 Heels’ first customers.
Even though Newton has been cooking in Portland for more than a decade, it’s only been in the last few years that she feels really connected with the community and like she is doing what she’s meant to do.
“I just want to just be an example, a role model for other black women, other formerly incarcerated people, others who are gay,” she said. “I’ve been told all my life from bosses, in college by educators, et cetera, ‘You [have] the potential. Oh, your potential.’ And so now it truly, like in my soul, it feels like I’ve tapped into my potential.”
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting