Serving in a New Way

Threatened with closure, QED Hospitality successfully pivoted from dining to telemedicine.

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.

 

In early March, Emery Whalen and Brian Landry, partners of QED Hospitality, were staring down the inevitable. For more than two years, QED Hospitality had successfully managed all food and beverage operations for the Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orleans and the Thompson Hotel in Nashville. The company’s restaurants, bars and coffee shops totaled eight separate outlets employing over 200 people. After determining that takeout and delivery — the only options available during the COVID-19 shutdown — would not work as a business model, the pair realized a complete closure of their businesses was likely, a decision Brian Landry described as “gut wrenching.”

Simultaneously, Emery’s brother, Ralph Whalen, senior vice president with international IT healthcare consulting firm Divurgent, was facing an immediate need for hundreds of new workers to staff telemedicine hotlines. Divurgent’s hospital clients were overwhelmed by the volume of scheduling calls needed to convert in-hospital doctor visits to telemedicine calls in order to reduce the number of people visiting already burdened facilities without compromising patient care.

When Ralph Whalen heard the distress in his sister’s voice as she described having to potentially layoff so many beloved and valuable employees, a solution popped into his head. What if Emery’s hospitality employees could become telemedicine workers? This could solve the need at Divurgent, while maintaining QED employee paychecks and healthcare benefits until food and beverage operations could reopen.

Emery Whalen immediately called a companywide meeting to present the opportunity to the staff. The new jobs would entail working from home, while maintaining social distancing during the quarantine. Within 72 hours, over 100 bartenders, food runners, chefs and waiters began training. They were ready to start making calls the following week after having mastered multiple healthcare software systems. This met QED’s primary goal — complete continuity in pay and benefits for everyone participating. In order to accomplish this, a new company was formed, QED Resources, which in turn was hired by Divurgent.

Both Whalen and Landry were amazed and inspired by the incredible teamwork their crew displayed.

“In their new roles, the traditional front of the house/back of the house divide disappeared,” Landry said. “On company message boards, we could see sous-chefs coaching food runners and pastry chefs helping line cooks in their new jobs.”

Landry said he had always recognized Jack Rose Executive Sous-Chef Vu Vo as a leader in the kitchen, but now he watched as the talented chef become a leader in a completely new field. Taje Willoughby, a former host at Jack Rose, became one of five selected to
work with the most difficult software system and quickly became a trainer as well.

The QED partners also found themselves in new roles.

“Brian is studying the US CARES Act and handling other related issues in our hospitality company while I’m actively working in the telehealth business, interfacing daily with every employee,” said Emery Whalen.

Although most transitioned workers are making comparable money, and in some cases more, both Whalen and Landry believe that when their food and beverage operations can reopen, most will want to get back to their previous jobs.

“People work in hospitality because they crave social interaction,” Landry said. “Everyone wants to get back into the restaurants, bars and coffee shops.”

Meanwhile, every day brings new stories of ways the telemedicine crew is helping on the front line.

Kaitlin Koste, banquet manager at the Thompson in Nashville, recently called to schedule a routine doctor’s appointment for a woman who had coincidently just returned home from a double shift in an ER.

“She began to cry,” Koste related to Whalen, “and thanked me for my work. She had been too busy to take the time to care for herself.”

The exchange is just one example of how QED Resources is affecting people’s lives.

“Our employees still have the opportunity to serve, just in a different way,” Whalen said. “We are so grateful to Divurgent for taking the chance that a bunch of hospitality folk could apply the same level of care, attention to detail and heart as they did in their previous jobs to a different kind of guest — hospital patients.”

 

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.