By Jack Blitz
As New Orleans grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, coronavirus cases are continuing to surge, and the food industry is struggling to hold on. Local restaurants are taking massive hits, with the lucky ones staying open and switching to takeout and delivery business models. While this is temporarily sustainable for some small businesses, restaurant owners and workers are living in daily fear over their livelihoods. With families to support and communities to feed, hospitality-centered cities like New Orleans are facing potential economic devastation. In an economy so reliant on its world-famous Cajun cuisine, restaurants and the city’s tourism industry are left only to speculate on how all of this will play out. James Beard Best Chef finalist and “Top Chef” star, Isaac Toups, of the famous Toups’ Meatery in mid-city New Orleans, knows there is a long, uncertain road ahead. “When we reopen, it will be with a smaller menu, we won’t know how many people come, but people will likely be low in money. We are all playing it day by day.”
Amongst all this uncertainty, local foodie and Instagrammer, Stephen Deaderick, more popularly known as “The NOLA 15” to his thousands of hungry followers, believes there is still a way to support the local community. “I feel like the community has to come together because we are a smaller, tight-knit city that is food and hospitality-driven.” In a time where physical gatherings are not permissible, there is another means to “come together” that we have access to right at our fingertips.
As news has shifted predominantly online in the past decade, social media and food reviews are the primary way restaurants advertise their businesses and how consumers decide where to eat. In this time of global crisis, the food industry needs its online platforms to adapt more than ever before. As a food influencer, Deaderick typically uses his account to update followers on his latest New Orleans indulgence, leaving tasteful snippets of information about local restaurants and meals he recommends. Another reality of the foodie world is receiving invitations to exclusive events put on by local restaurants to spread awareness in the community. “A lot of those events revolve around a new item or promotion a place is trying to have go viral.” In response to COVID-19, however, Deaderick and many others in the foodie scene are provisionally re-branding their accounts to help in what he calls “supporting the people behind the food.” He says they are the ones that serve us year-round and on weekends, so we owe it to them to come together and give back in any way possible.
Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, posts on “The NOLA 15” account have been focused only on supporting small restaurant owners in New Orleans. “I am personally uncomfortable posting one of my regular food posts. Now is not the time for that.” Deaderick has promoted a virtual Tip Jar to assist industry workers currently living without a salary, a spreadsheet about how to support local businesses, and numerous “Instagram Stories,” highlighting which restaurants presently serve takeout food. About these posts, Deaderick explains, “There are a lot of people currently without jobs. That’s been the saddest thing. Talking with small restaurant owners this week, it’s just been really sad.”
At mid-city located Toups’ Meatery, co-owners Isaac and Amanda Toups have been a source of encouragement and support for many New Orleanians struggling to make ends meet. Since in-person service at their restaurant ended, Chef Isaac and their management staff are cooking 300-400 free family meals a day to support people that cannot afford to feed themselves and their families. Amanda Toups recognizes they have a unique opportunity to help people survive, but she knows they cannot do it alone. “The most important thing right now is that these people are hungry; the need is growing each and every single day. It started just out of pocket for a while, and when it got to the point where we were essentially shut down, it couldn’t be out of pocket anymore.” Support to fund this endeavor is wide fetched with Toups’ Meatery receiving donations from local beer suppliers, fellow restaurant owners that cannot afford to stay open, and of course, social media. Chef Isaac understands that the local community is the true hero in all of this, as they are the ones rallying behind the Toups’ social media presence. “People have dropped off homemade masks for us to wear. This community is really helping the little guys out.”
On social media, Toups’ Meatery intends to stay consistent and keep the pressure on to reach as many people as possible. For Amanda, she values anyone who is using the platform for the betterment of the people of New Orleans. “Outreach has mostly come from a place of sincerity. If you genuinely want to get the word out to help the general public, then we will repost everything.” With friends and fellow restaurant owners emptying their freezers to support the Toups’ mission, Isaac and Amanda recognize the power of collaboration and coming together. New Orleanians are promoting their kind, and the potential is unlimited. Amanda recounts, “There are people that send three-dollar donations. What does that tell you? It tells you they have nothing in their bank accounts and are still doing something.”
Chef Isaac Toups feels that his restaurant will be okay at the end of the pandemic, but he also understands that the meatery is going to have to adopt a new sense of normal. “How okay we will be, it’s completely unknown. I am working more than ever.” Additionally, Amanda Toups believes that all the innovative social outreach presently taking place is going to reshape much of the New Orleans food business. “I am trying to think optimistically, a lot of chefs are going to come out of this with a lot of creativity.”
This new normal is also something hosts and hostesses, waiters and waitresses, and additional laid off restaurant staff have to accommodate. Lea Davis worked at Bar Frances before the COVID-19 pandemic, a popular modern bistro owned by the same group as the historic Tujague’s restaurant located in the French Quarter. Just a few days after Bar Frances closed, Davis’ manager was laid-off, a sign to all her coworkers that the restaurant had no intention to serve carry-out meals. “Our entire restaurant family doesn’t know how they will bounce back from this, that includes Tujague’s and Claret Wine and Cocktail Bar.” With Bar Frances’ kitchen completely shut down, there is not much, if any, revenue they can generate. Davis feels the best way to support the restaurant group and her coworkers is by purchasing gift cards that are available online to use in the future.
What is unique about social media is you do not have to be of influencer status to support local restaurants. Simply sharing posts, linking gift cards, or sending out your local restaurant directory can help individuals and families stay afloat during the pandemic. According to “The NOLA 15’s” Stephen Deaderick, the foodie community in New Orleans is unique compared to larger, competitive cities, such as New York, because most of the influencers are not in it for fame or money. “I love doing this because I enjoy food and can support special businesses.” Right now, social media users have a trailblazing opportunity in front of them. By following the lead set forth by passionate, community-driven New Orleans foodies, the simple act of tapping a few buttons could help save an industry we benefit from every day.
As a proud member of the Asian-American community, Deaderick expressed particular concern for Asian restaurants in New Orleans. According to a recent report published by the popular review forum, Yelp, U.S. consumers have had a 54% decrease in restaurant interest nationwide. What is exceptionally grim, however, is that Chinese restaurants have experienced more than a 25% decrease in orders placed and customer reviews since February.
This xenophobia is the source of many hate crimes and violent acts presently directed towards Asian establishments across the United States. While Deaderick is bothered by the lack of business at many New Orleans Asian eateries, he is hopeful that the hateful prejudice seen elsewhere does not impose itself in his city. “Places with large China Towns are mostly being affected, like Boston, San Francisco, and New York. I don’t know if we have a large enough concentration of an Asian community for this to happen in New Orleans.”
One encouraging sign is highly popular social media feeds, such as the NOLA.com “Where NOLA Eats” Facebook community has been very vocal about supporting local Asian businesses. Its 63,000 members see daily promotions about open carry-out locations across the city. As a collective, posting about open restaurants and their great food may drive business, limit xenophobia, and keep struggling establishments viable for the time being.
Chef Isaac Toups is encouraging anyone who can give something to the food industry to do so. With social media, he knows the ways are limitless. As for Toups’ Meatery and his fellow New Orleanians, chef Isaac says, “We are going to feed people until the lights are shut down.”
To support Toups’ Meatery, visit toupsmeatery.com and follow them at @toupsmeatery. To support Stephen Deaderick’s Instagram account, follow him @thenola15. Please consider supporting local restaurant workers by donating to tinyurl.com/nolatips.