By Kevin Flood-Bryzman
“How have you been passing the time?” has become the new idiom when greeting one another, and it seems everyone’s response is “cooking”. With the coronavirus making work from home the new normal, people are left with a lot more time to start that cooking project they’ve always wanted to get done, but just never had enough time. This luxury cooking time may cost you the loss of your favorite restaurant when we are on the other side of this corona pandemic. Restaurants now more than ever are in desperate need of patronage in order to stay afloat. In late February and early March before any mandated restaurant shutdown, according to dining apps, Resy and OpenTable reservations across the United States dropped around 50%. These apps have been replaced with their grocery store related counterparts which have seen a rise of over 200%. These numbers are just indications of the problem that’s damaging restaurants and bars across America. For New Orleans, a city built on the food and drink industry, this hit is a disaster for many of its locals.
The effect of COVID-19 flipped from slowly permeating to rapid-fire. Initially, food and drink festivals were canceled, which felt evident to the large crowds they potentially draw. Then the restaurants began limiting their hours and customers to reduce spread. While a significant blow, restaurants still felt they could run their business. The people of New Orleans didn’t seem bothered by this looming disease. With videos of Bourbon Street filled with partiers littering the internet. This freedom, until on March 16th, the state-wide government-ordered shutdown of bars and restaurants, limiting them to take out only. This order, coupled with police breaking up St. Paddy’s celebrations and large gatherings outside bars. Restaurants were left to figure out how they can continue without seemingly any means.
A few days later, LaToya Cantrell, the Mayor of New Orleans, discussed the shelter in place and its relation to how restaurants should move forward. Within this statement, she ordered restaurants to continue as take-out and delivery only with no allowance for walk-ups or in-person deliveries. Now the dining room closures have extended until May. This order has had a rippling effect throughout the restaurant world from the workers to the importers a lot faster than expected. Most restaurants cannot afford all non-salary workers at this time and are forced to lay them off. Coquette, James Beard award-winning contemporary southern restaurant, tried to give their hourly workers ahead in this matter, by giving their staff advance notice and the materials to file for unemployment. Vicky Novak, a cook for Coquette, was let go a few days ago and couldn’t reach the unemployment office because the line was so busy. It wasn’t until the next morning that she was able to file for unemployment. For others, they aren’t so lucky, “There are still people who can’t get through.” Despite Coquette being forced to operate at a fraction of what they usually do, take-out only, they still are looking out for their employees. Telling their hourly staff, “you need to work, so if you find another job take it, just know that you’ll be rehired when we can.” However, in the restaurant industry, now no one is hiring. “For restaurants and bars, it’s financial bankruptcy for a lot of people.” Jim Yonkus owner of the wine and goods bar and shop The Independent Caveau. Certain restaurants with large staff including servers and other hourly have just made the decision to make massive layoffs and close down. Others want to stay open and help their staff work through the struggle. Jim counts himself lucky to have a retail permit and has remained open as a retail-only shop. It changes day to day for everyone, only “you don’t know who’s going to show up.”
This air of uncertainty is what differentiates the disaster of COVID-19 from any previous New Orleans has faced. When Katrina hit New Orleans, there was an added sense of community that brought people together and realization of how essential restaurants are to New Orleans. However, in an age of social distancing and regulated take-out meals, the city can’t feel anything like that. “The insanity is you don’t know who has it or where it is.” While multiple fund reliefs have popped up to aid kitchens and their staff show a sense of resilience there is no way restaurants can survive with just this support. Opening a restaurant has always been considered a bold if not crazy thing to do, because of how big of a financial risk it was. Those precautions did not account for a suspension of service for months. This pandemic will wipe out thousands of jobs across New Orleans. We don’t know when this will end, and everyday restaurants grow deeper and deeper into debt. Jim says, “After going through Katrina I really know what it’s like to rebuild a city, this is uniquely different” The unknown of the duration of this tragedy makes it unique. You can’t begin to rebuild until a tragedy has finished striking.
This has come at an extremely tough time as a recent wine tariff enacted by Donald Trump made all European imported goods 25% more expensive. “This came after a really difficult six months from the tariffs that’s really fucking our industry up”, Jim said. The restaurant business and food and wine business have faced a string of unfortunate events. He was looking towards spring, which is usually when restaurants see the biggest customer boom coupled with a new batch of imported goods. The coronavirus is crippling the food and drink industry at the worst time. Jim says, “If you don’t have the means, I see a lot of people losing their jobs and taking opportunities somewhere else.” Businesses like Jim’s are now in the hands of the government and the people more than ever. He believes he has a fighting chance to stay afloat, “As long we’re allowed to be part of the essential business.” This time of uncertainty is echoed throughout the city, with many left unemployed or forced to operate inefficient capacity.
The tragedy is upon the city, and its restaurants are forced to rely on the goodwill of its people. “What makes New Orleans New Orleans is that restaurants are back bone”, Jim says. New Orleans’ culture is the most prepared for this sense of global community, Jim says, “I’ve had more phone calls for business in these past couple weeks than in the previous six months. People like to eat and drink to keep themselves sane.”