New Orleans Restaurants, Used to Disasters, Reckon With Something Worse - Press "Enter" to skip to content

New Orleans Restaurants, Used to Disasters, Reckon With Something Worse

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NEW ORLEANS — Tommy Tommaseo is not nostalgic for Hurricane Katrina.

Rocky and Carlo’s, his family’s Creole-Italian restaurant in St. Bernard Parish, just outside New Orleans, took on four feet of water when that disaster hit in 2005. There were fish swimming in the first floor of Mr. Tommaseo’s house. His father, Rocky, then 91, escaped floodwaters on the back of a Jet Ski.

“But this is worse,” Mr. Tommaseo said Tuesday, as Louisiana emerged as a new hotbed of the coronavirus pandemic, with the world’s steepest increase in new cases, according to one study. “At least we know what to do for hurricanes down here.”

The virus that has upended lives across the country is triggering memories of past disasters in the New Orleans area, which has had its share, from plagues to floods to oil spills. But Katrina looms largest in the city’s collective memory.

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Fifteen years on, marks of the hurricane are still evident in the scars and swagger of the residents who survived it. It’s also there in the way veteran chefs and restaurateurs talk about the latest crisis.

“I just texted members of our family, and I told them, ‘This reminds me of Katrina,’ ” said Stella Reese Chase, who manages her family’s restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, which was inundated by the storm’s floodwaters.

Restaurant owners and employees haven’t forgotten the toll taken by Katrina and its long aftermath. The hurricane brought floods that covered 80 percent of New Orleans and caused more than 1,800 deaths. At the same time, the calamity underscored how central restaurants are to the city’s identity, economy and mental well-being — just as the widespread closings are doing now.

“Without a robust culinary scene, we lose more than just dollars. We lose our essence,” said Michael Hecht, president and chief executive of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development organization.

Susan Spicer, a well-known chef and co-owner of the restaurants Bayona and Rosedale, said that after Katrina, “people realized that restaurants were more than just places to go eat. They are culture bearers and community gathering places.”

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That realization helped fuel the slow rebuilding of a dining and drinking scene that became more diverse, with a greater variety of restaurants performing at a high level. The city attracted new residents, with different tastes, and ambitious chefs to cater to them.

But the impulse of the restaurant community to lean into adversity has been complicated by the realization that not all the lessons learned in past emergencies apply to the current one. That has been undeniable since at least March 16, when Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all Louisiana restaurants to stop dine-in service. Mass closings and layoffs followed.

Donald Link, an award-winning chef, operates six New Orleans restaurants including Pêche Seafood Grill and Herbsaint. Soon after the order to close, he laid off 360 of his roughly 450 employees, leaving just one restaurant, Cochon Butcher, open for takeout with a menu of favorites drawn from all of his restaurants.

Mr. Link and his remaining staff have been preparing free meals for unemployed former colleagues and their families. “We’re no stranger to doing thousands of meals a day,” he said. He is looking for ways to do more, “but we can’t get too big, because I can’t put too many people in the kitchen. There are these new paradoxes.”

The imperative of social distancing is particularly challenging in a city familiar with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. Local officials increasingly believe that the virus incubated during Mardi Gras festivities, which ended Feb. 25.

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It’s also not uncommon for people in the restaurant business here to physically embrace customers. “It was really hard to get people to elbow instead of hug,” said JoAnn Clevenger, who has closed her restaurant, Upperline.

That can be hard for the staff, too, said Mr. Tommaseo, who is still serving a full menu for takeout at Rocky and Carlo’s. “It gets a little awkward, because you want to keep your distance, but you also want to be able to say hello,” he said.

Food businesses are adapting as best they can, sometimes with good humor. Haydel’s Bakery briefly sold almond cakes in the shape of toilet-paper rolls — edible jokes about hoarding.

“I can’t get any wipes, so I’ve got a bottle of 90 percent alcohol in the car, to wipe things down,” Ms. Spicer said, “and to take a little swig every once in a while.”

Rosalita’s Backyard Tacos, a takeout restaurant down an alley in the Bywater neighborhood, set up a system that minimizes physical contact: Customers text orders in advance, and pay using Venmo.

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Mindful of sanitation concerns, Hao Gong stopped offering sushi for takeout at Luvi, his two-year-old Japanese-Chinese restaurant. “We’re selling a lot of dumplings,” he said. “But we’re not even 10 percent of our usual business.”

Mr. Gong, who worked at one of the first restaurants to open after Hurricane Katrina, longs to provide a sense of community that only a full-service restaurant can. He feels fortunate, though, particularly when talking with his family members in Shanghai. “My dad quarantined 70 days already,” he said.

Two weeks after the mandatory shutdown of restaurant dining rooms, a mirror image of the Katrina dynamic has come into focus. Instead of restaurants rising out of the muck to comfort storm-weary New Orleanians, citizens are scrambling to help the restaurants and their employees survive the crisis.

“I worry that when these restaurants close, the restaurants might be thinking, ‘OK, we’ll just close for a week,’ ” said Devin De Wulf, a local artist. “But what if that week turns into forever?”

Mr. De Wulf addressed his anxiety by creating a charity that, in less than two weeks, has raised about $80,000 to buy food from New Orleans restaurants to deliver to area hospitals. The charity, #feedthefrontline, is an offshoot of the Krewe of Red Beans, a Mardi Gras club that Mr. De Wulf founded to honor of his favorite local dish. (Donations can made at GoFundMe.)

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The charity’s goal is threefold: to provide business to restaurants, a morale boost for health workers and extra cash to out-of-work musicians, whom Mr. De Wulf hired to deliver the food.

Mr. De Wulf said #feedthefrontline is already being copied in other cities, including Baton Rouge, La., and Houston. In New Orleans, he estimates he is now spending $10,000 a day to deliver breakfast, lunch and dinner from over 30 restaurants to a dozen hospitals.

“This is a win, win, win,” said Jeffery Heard, the chef and owner of Heard Dat Kitchen, a small restaurant with a few sidewalk tables that is open for takeout in the Central City neighborhood.

On Tuesday, he and his daughter, Tia’Nesha Heard-Dorset, loaded pans of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, peas and potato salad into the truck of Benji Bohannon, a jazz drummer. “This is my main support, as far as making up for the tourists,” said Mr. Heard, whose food was headed to the intensive care unit of Children’s Hospital New Orleans.

Larger fund-raising efforts are underway to cushion the blow to unemployed hospitality workers. New Orleans has one of the country’s highest poverty rates, and most people working in restaurants don’t earn enough to build up savings. According to the Data Center, an independent local research firm, 93 percent of the full-service restaurant employees in New Orleans are in low-wage jobs where most workers make less than $15 an hour.

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Halting tourism and closing restaurants “affects the hotel worker, it affects the bartender, it affects the Uber driver, it affects the tour guide, it affects the whole economy,” said Andy Kopplin, the president and chief executive of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. “Because of our economic base, we’re particularly vulnerable.”

On Monday, the foundation started the Louisiana Service and Hospitality Family Assistance Program at the urging of Gayle Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, who contributed $500,000, with another $100,000 from the McIlhenny Company, the Louisiana-based maker of Tabasco.

The fund is intended to benefit the neediest hospitality workers first, Mr. Kopplin said.

“There are tens of thousands of people in New Orleans who are out of work,” he said. “Every single one of them needs help. The lower-wage workers who were raising kids or taking care of parents before the pandemic, those are the folks who need it the most.”

A provision of the federal stimulus package that President Trump signed into law on Friday provides forgivable loans to businesses that use the money to retain employees and keep the doors open. “It’s a way of making sure you don’t make a decision today that you regret tomorrow,” said Mr. Hecht of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, a former restaurateur himself. “I would encourage people to pay attention to it.”

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While they wait for help to arrive, restaurant owners are turning their attention to caring for recently laid-off employees.

“I’m trying to manage navigating the storm,” said Marv Ammari, the chief executive of Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, which operates 21 restaurants and 10 bars and banquet spaces in the area. After laying off 1,300 people last week, Mr. Ammari said Creole Cuisine’s remaining staff, mostly managers, is preparing 5,000 meals a day from Broussard’s, a French Quarter restaurant that recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

“We’re committed to feed the employed and unemployed members and their families,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do it until we run out of food or until the authorities shut us down.”

Hieu Than, the chef and owner of Kin, has refocused his menu away from scratch-made noodle soups to less labor-intensive items like sandwiches and rice bowls. He is determined to make his takeout business work in a declining economy, but he worries about the lasting impact of the downturn.

“You can be the last restaurant standing, but if there’s no market of people to come to you, what’s the point?” he said. “We sustain each other in many ways.”

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Brad Hollingsworth, the owner of Clancy’s, a French-Creole restaurant in Uptown New Orleans, laid off 40 employees. He is especially worried about one, Daniel Walters, his longtime maître d’. Mr. Walters tested positive for Covid-19, and has been in a hospital on a ventilator, in a medically induced coma. A fund has been set up to help pay Mr. Walters’s bills and to provide meals for his caregivers.

“He knew just about everybody in Uptown, and their name,” Mr. Hollingsworth said. “We’re all praying for him.”

Mr. Hollingsworth also hopes that when the pandemic ends, the recovery will resemble the months at Clancy’s just after Katrina hit. “In 45 years in the restaurant business, I’d never seen anything like it,” he said. “People just loved being here, seeing their friends again, getting out, getting back home.”

“All we can hope is we experience the same thing after this is all over. All this stuff we’re talking about can be cured with full dining rooms.”

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