Live Oak Cafe
Mother’s Day is traditionally one of the restaurant industry’s biggest days. Last year, Live Oak Cafe was jumping. The music was humming, and wall-to-wall customers were delightfully devouring shrimp and grits, sweet potato bacon Benedict, and raspberry dream pancakes.
This Mother’s Day was, sadly, a bit different. The restaurant offered takeout and delivery only.
The cafe has been keeping above water with the help of the Krewe of Red Beans and Chefs’ Brigade, both organizations directly compensated restaurants for providing meals to first responders. But with Red Beans shut down and Chef’s Brigade regrouping, it’s left Chef Clare Leavy once again readjusting her game plan for survival.
“Those groups were life savers,” she says. “I was part of the first brigade feeding the NOPD’s 3rd District and then we were part of the all-female brigade.”
Leavy started the restaurant in 2014 and it became her own in 2017 when she bought out her partner.
It’s a soulful neighborhood cafe on historic Oak Street, where everything is made from scratch with fresh local produce. She describes it as being, “down home and decadent.”
Leavy worked hard to build a solid team, which makes this COVID-induced slowdown even harder on her.
“We strive for a good attitude here,” she says. “This is a place where the front of the house and back are strong together and everyone is respected. Everyone has the same base pay and we pool tips evenly. This is the place where we all want to come to work.”
The restaurant is known for its live music. Though the venue is small, one corner is reserved for musicians. Leavy gives everyone a chance to play and offers a wide range of genres throughout the week. Katarina Boudreaux regularly curated Tuesdays with her friends, students and family.
“She’s so talented,” says Leavy.
Festival seasons always drew big crowds and Live Oak’s weekend brunches saw customers lined around the block.
In fact, in the past, Leavy was way too busy to put any energy into takeout or delivery. Those days have changed.
“We had to restructure and now we are only doing takeout and delivery,” she said. “It’s hard.”
It has decreased her revenue. Unfortunately, she sees the future as another harsh reality as she looks at the various plans reopening.
“Looking at each scenario, they will all be challenging,” she says. “If we reduce seating to accommodate social distancing, we will be at 20 to 30 percent capacity, at best. Larger restaurants can more easily make those changes, smaller restaurants, like mine, can’t.”
Leavy says so many of her friends in the industry are wondering if they’ll ever be able to make a living wage doing what they love to do.
On its Facebook page, the cafe is hosting a Virtual Brunch show and a Distanced Dinner. The company is posting videos of its musical acts, so patrons can still experience local music from home while enjoying Live Oak Cafe food.
Supporting musicians is something close to Leavy’s heart.
“I really care about what I do,” she says. “The odds have been against us and things are not looking good, but I want people to know I’m not giving up. We’ll just keep reinventing ourselves and we will get through this crisis.”