Famed Parisian tearoom Angelina has renamed its signature hot chocolate drink in New York City and Paris. The drink’s name — formerly “L’Africain,” or “the African” — has been in use for more than a century and appears on the menus of more than 30 international locations.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it met its match with one New Yorker.
Charlene Wang de Chen made her first and only visit to Angelina in late December, when she celebrated her birthday with a mont blanc and hot chocolate from the celebrated Parisian cafe, which opened in November and often has long lines out the door. While eating the treats in nearby Bryant Park, she visited the company’s website to look up the ingredients of its hot chocolate and learned the drink’s official name was L’Africain, an apparent reference to the origin of its cocoa beans, which come from Niger, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire.
“I just want to enjoy a hot chocolate on my birthday, not participate in racist naming or weird colonial leftovers,” Wang de Chen says. Like others before her, she turned to social media to voice her frustration, calling the beverage “out of touch” and “unacceptable” in a public post on Instagram. She thought she was shouting into the void with her post, which received just over 60 likes, but it was enough to be heard.
A week later, Wang de Chen was still feeling “taken aback by the name” and called the cafe to speak with a manager, she says. That’s when she met Anthony Battaglia, the chief operating officer for Angelina in the United States, who informed her that the name of the hot chocolate had been changed an hour after her Instagram post went up on December 30. The drink is now named “old-fashioned hot chocolate,” Battaglia says.
Wang de Chen calls the change “a tiny and mostly symbolic win” but says the name points to deeper issues in the food and beverage industry, which, even when well-intended, can further outdated stereotypes. She points to the scholarship of Carla D. Martin, a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard who has written about the long, problematic history of companies equating Black bodies to food items, especially chocolate.
“Name the hot chocolate ‘Chocolate de l’Afrique’” — which loosely translates as chocolate of Africa — “if you must, but equating a hot chocolate beverage with ‘The African,’ a generic ‘African’ persona and imagined body, is shockingly retrograde,” Wang de Chen wrote on Instagram.
Other brands have also rethought longstanding names and labels as part of a wider racial reckoning in the food and beverage industry. In June, Quaker Oats ended the decades-long use of its problematic Aunt Jemima name and label, which was originally inspired by minstrelsy and the “mammy” stereotype. Companies including Uncle Ben’s, Cream of Wheat, and Mrs. Butterworth’s have since committed to reviewing their mascots and labels.
“We are not from America, so we are listening to everyone,” Battaglia says of the change. “She [Wang de Chen] brought something to my attention that didn’t even cross my mind. If it crossed her mind, it means it could potentially cross the mind of someone else... It’s so easy to change the name and move on.”
Angelina has had “no issues” with the name at any of the company’s other stores, which include locations in Qatar, Saudia Arabia, China, and other countries, according to Battaglia. “Just our New York location,” he says. When asked about the drink’s unique reception here, Battaglia pointed to last summer’s protests over police brutality that preceded the cafe’s opening. “Our chocolate beans are sourced from Africa so it was an honor to those producers,” he says. “Here in English, it’s maybe a cultural difference.”
The original name of the drink will remain at Angelina’s 30 plus international locations, except at its flagship tearoom in France, where the company has decided to rename the drink “chocolat chaud à l’ancienne,” which roughly translates to old-fashioned hot chocolate. The website for Angelina Paris, however, still identifies the drink as L’Africain at the time of publication.
“This name [L’Africain] is to be adapted depending on the countries where we are located and that are more sensitive toward the issue you raised, what we actually did in the United States but also in France,” a spokesperson for the company said in an email to Eater.
The New York City outpost of Angelina opened its doors in November after more than a year of delays from the coronavirus pandemic. Originally slated to open in spring 2019, the company moved forward with its highly anticipated debut in the United States because it “had no choice,” company CEO Isabelle de Bardies had said ahead of the opening.
Austrian confectioner Antoine Rumpelmayer opened the original Parisian cafe in 1903, naming it after his daughter-in-law. In the subsequent century, the tearoom has expanded to more than 30 locations around the world. The establishment has plans to add a couple of more locations in the U.S., based on the success of the New York outpost.