Hospitality sets a longer table in the time of Covid-19
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.
ON MARCH 15, DICKIE BRENNAN FACED A socially distanced group of employees from his five restaurant operations in the sanitized ballroom of the Astor Crowne Plaza Ballroom on Canal Street. The meeting was strictly voluntary, but Brennan was adamant about facing his colleagues and coworkers directly.
“It was extremely painful to me as I’ve never had to furlough and lay off an entire staff,” he said. “I wanted an open and honest conversation with them all.”
In subsequent days, all French Quarter operations were “mothballed,” completely sterilized and plastic-sealed in anticipation of when they could safely reopen.
Brennan’s operations manager, Levi Janssen, was able to find paid work for many furloughed kitchen staff at Volunteers of America, where Dickie Brennan & Co.’s next generation — Sara Brennan, Richard Brennan III, Matthew Pettus and Geordie Brower — voluntarily lent a hand on the food lines.
CREOLE CUISINE COMMITS TO FEEDING ITS TEAM
Marv Ammari, CEO of Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, said he felt as though his life’s energy was being sucked from his soul as he laid off over 1,300 employees.
“This is the conversation that goes on in your head and heart,” Ammari explained. “I pray every morning and evening that I’m able to do the best for everyone.”
Scaled down from over two dozen businesses to a single take out location at Boulevard restaurant in Metairie and two Westbank Daiquiri Paradise drive-throughs, Ammari is holding tight by taking care of his people.
“When taking families into account,” he said, “each of our employees actually represents three or more hungry mouths.”
Ammari committed to feed each of his team members three meals daily through either the Boulevard or Broussard’s in the French Quarter.
“We’re prepared to handle up to 5,000 meals a day,” Ammari said. “We’re going to feed our families as long as we can.”
TOUPS MEATERY REACHES OUT TO LAID-OFF WORKERS
Long before the mandatory shutdown occurred, word spread through the tightly knit New Orleans hospitality community that Isaac and Amanda Toups of Toups Meatery were extending their daily 3 p.m. staff “family meal” to any newly laid-off industry friends in need. While running take out and delivery from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. to keep salaried employees working, the 3 p.m. mealtime had ballooned into more than 200 meals daily by the end of March.
Toups began accepting donations of food and cash from vendors and customers alike.
“Our vendors have been great,” said Amanda Toups. “NATCO sent 50 pounds of beef tips. We’ve received donated seafood from Inland, and both Port Orleans and Dixie donated beer.”
Still, the conditions have been taking their toll.
“It’s breaking my heart,” said Toups, “Isaac carries the food out to cars, and recently he handed dinners to laid-off Ritz-Carlton employees with little kids in the back seat. It reminded us of our two little girls at home.”
Committed to providing meals for as long as they could, they began accepting donations through their Venmo account, @toupsmeatery.
ROUSES BRINGS IN RESTAURANTS
Early in the mandated shutdown, local grocery store chain Rouses made broad offers of employment for laid-off hospitality workers, hiring 600 in the first two weeks. The company then reached out to members of the restaurant community with a new idea designed to help keep local businesses afloat. Why not offer to-go menu items from popular restaurants at Rouses Markets?
Commander’s Palace and Saba were first to jump aboard with turtle soup and hummus respectively. Before long, shoppers at selected Rouses locations were able to bring home popular dishes from local favorites like Galatoires, Mandina’s and Ye Olde College Inn.
“When Rouses came on board, we were able to hire back one employee,” said Alon Shaya of Saba.
For some restaurants, it became their only stream of income.
Rouses is turning over 95% of the proceeds from the sales directly to the restaurants (minus sales tax), charging a mere 5 % handling charge.
Although things may change, it is clear that, no matter what comes, New Orleans food culture will survive thanks to the determined diligence and boundless creativity and heart of our people.
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.