Pandemic at the Palace

Commander’s Palace continues to survive thanks to a nonstop focus on ingenuity.

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.


 

Across the country, more than 9 million jobs in the restaurant and hospitality evaporated over the past year as restaurant owners downscaled to a minimum, struggling to survive. Many lost that battle.

But behind those iconic blue striped awnings at Commander’s Palace, Ti Martin, Lally Brennan and their team never lost a beat. On March 15, 2020, when Gov. John Bel Edwards mandated that restaurants cease indoor dining, within two days Commander’s was offering a takeout menu featuring discounted wines from its award-winning cellar. As the pandemic raged on, however, takeout was quickly scrapped due to safety concerns. Hundreds of employees were laid off, as Commander’s remained closed for the next six months.

“The first thing we did was focus on feeding our team and assisting the Krewe of Red Beans with their ‘Feed the Frontline’ effort,” said Martin. Commander’s auctioned off a private, at-home dinner — complete with the full Commander’s treatment down to crystal, linens and wait staff. The effort resulted in a $20,000 donation to the krewe. “But somewhere along the line, we had to make some money,” she said.

In search of a possible new revenue source, Martin and Brennan turned to Goldbelly, a very successful, curated marketplace of gourmet offerings that ships restaurant meals nationwide. The first hurdle was freezer space, as most selections must ship frozen.

“Our freezer was the size of a linen closet, as we’d only used it for ice cream,” Martin said. “We quickly bought some used freezers — anything we could get our hands on to scale up.”

Martin said the move to use Goldbelly has helped Commander’s survive.

Another quick pivot came in April. With the world suddenly on Zoom, sommelier Dan Davis recommended the restaurant use the platform for a virtual experience that would involve discussing food, cocktails and wine pairings. When Davis suggested everyone “don a beret” for the debut event featuring French wines, New Orleanians took that to mean, “wear a costume.”

The weekly costume party now numbers between 300 and 1,000 participants. Despite the time difference, winemakers from Europe and South America join in the live sessions, along with musical performances and even burlesque!

All the tomfoolery has also turned into a new events business for Commander’s, with companies requesting their own virtual special events.

When Commander’s Palace’s doors finally reopened in September 2020, the restaurant’s thriving to-go business officially became its own entity. Dubbed Le Petit Bleu, the operation moved into former business offices next door to the restaurant on Washington Avenue. Open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., everything from cocktails by the half-gallon, to turtle soup and Creole cream cheesecake is offered for grab and go.

The Commander’s team has also worked with locally owned El Guapo Bitters to develop a line of cocktail mixers. Made to combine with equal parts liquor, the mixes are available in four flavors including the Adelaide Swizzle, named in honor of Ti’s aunt, Adelaide Brennan. Commander’s Palace’s new Coffee & Chicory, private labeled by French Truck Coffee, also came to fruition. These new products, along with Martin and Brennan’s book, In the Land of Cocktails, are also available at Le Petit Bleu.

The restaurant has even found a way to celebrate this year’s COVID-19 adapted version of Carnival by turning the iconic landmark into a house float decorated by unemployed float artists — another Krewe of Red Beans effort. The design honored the late Pete Fountain, whose Half Fast Walking Club began every Mardi Gras Day at Commander’s Palace for decades, where walkers fueled up for the long walk ahead. This year, the club serenaded their old stomping ground in a socially distanced way while the restaurant opened its doors for the first time ever on Shrove Tuesday.

Martin said that although things have been far from easy, she sees a sliver of a silver lining.

“This has been an absolutely disruptive and devastating time in our industry and our country, but it’s also been an important time to take a hard look at ourselves in order to see things we need to do better, like recruiting people of color and creating better pathways to advancement for all.”

A tall order indeed, but one that Commander’s seems committed to make part of their ongoing evolution, one that I feel has proved itself to be both inspiring and delicious.

 

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.