By Ghaith Shamaileh
Adaptation: the process of adjusting to become more suited to an environment. Those who fail to adapt are replaced by those who succeed, and those who succeed are at a constant tug of war with their environment. The restaurant business screams natural selection, and in the face of COVID restaurants in New Orleans are fighting a losing war.
How are restaurants owners managing? There would not be a better person to ask than Marviani Ammari. Being the Chief Executive Officer of Creole Cuisine Restaurants Concepts, Marviani oversees operations in over twenty restaurants scattered all over the city of New Orleans in addition to a few daiquiri shops & cafes. In 1989, Marviani took over his first daiquiri store in St. Bernard Parish and later on broke into the French Quarter with additional daiquiri stores. “I was 19 at the time, and a business opportunity came by. It made sense to me and I decided to open Daiquiri Paradise in Chalmette,” Marviani said. Later on, the younger brothers Richy and Zeid Ammari came in from Jordan to take part in building what turned out to be a multi-unit restaurant empire.
Up until Hurricane Katrina, the main focus was daiquiri shops. “from 1989 to 2005 we owned 7 daiquiri stores and one restaurant that we opened up mainly due to licensing problems with that property.” Marviani Said. While in Houston as an evacuee, Marviani saw the destruction done to his businesses and city as an opportunity. His commitment to rebuilding the city sounded like a gamble back then. A gamble Marviani proudly took. Using the insurance money, Marviani acquired more and more spots in the Quarter and gathered staff that were dealing with the same issues. New Orleans recovered, and Marviani was right about it. When Asked about the lessons learned from Katrina Marviani responded saying, “Katrina taught us to own and not to lease. We had a good amount of insurance claims and a bit of cash on hand. The market was pretty open at that time and we knew that we needed to diversify. That’s when we started adding real estate to the portfolio and we realized that people “gotta eat regardless.”
Another hit Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts took was the BP oil spill in 2010. With the majority of the restaurants serving seafood, the BP oil spill was believed to be the nail in Creole Cuisine’s coffin. That nail brought a hefty compensation from BP, and only made Creole Cuisine Stronger. “The BP oil spill pushed us to think outside of the box, the French quarter market was hit hard for us. That was when we initially began thinking about coming out of the French Quarter into local areas like Metairie.” Marviani said. He then added saying, “The main lesson we learned in 2010 was not to concentrate heavy operations within one geographic area. The BP oil spill also reassured us how important it is to hold onto cash and keep a healthy account. When things are bad banks would not help!”
Fast forward to 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic brought with it the biggest test to date for Creole Cuisine Restaurants Concepts. When asked how this test compared to previous ones, Marviani responded saying, “The biggest thing when comparing a pandemic with BP oil spill, 2008 National crash and Katrina is that: first it’s a pandemic, Its worldwide! In the other events you had insurance claims legit and easy to collect on. The mentality was to surpass the pandemic thinking that we won’t get any insurance.”
Marviani continued saying, “What we did when we knew that COVID has made landfall here in New Orleans. The first thing we did is that we had about 1500 employees, paying over 700k of weekly salaries and when the water stops you need to react. That week when everything was shutdown, we made decisions to go down to 38 employees! Three, eight! We walked from one unit to another and told people the truth. We sat with them, expressed how we feel about the whole situation. The units are closed, and we cannot pay the people working for us. We needed to do that. We needed to keep the company standing with the infinite unknowns at the time to ensure that the company is there when things go back to normal so that people get their jobs back in the future.”
Zeid Ammari, Being the Chief Operating Officer is the one mainly dealing with employees. When asked about the situation, Zeid told me: “In 48 hours to let go of over 1450 employees that was the toughest decision I have done so far, and I hope it does not repeat. They were no longer employees, most of them were family.”
Marviani carried on saying, “There were mixed feelings across the board in the company, we immediately went from shutting down units to feeding former employees. We partnered with suppliers and opened two restaurants just to cook for former employees and their families. 38 people still working would meet, operate and think about okay what is the next step. We ourselves the management worked in the kitchen and that connected us on a deeper level with former employees.”
As the state started lifting off restrictions, Creole Cuisine started readjusting to accommodate the CDC guidelines. Limited restaurant capacity, checkerboard seating, QR code menus, hand sanitizers and all else. “The emphasis shifted towards outdoor dining: we added sidewalk, courtyard and balcony seating. The upscale restaurants were toned down to be more casual places.” Marviani explained. It was obvious that the company was readjusting to what streamed more revenue. Zeid added saying, “We still have 6 restaurants that have not reopened simply because of lack of traffic in the city. Some restaurants are open 3-4 days a week, others are open 7 days a week but not every shift. We are currently 850 employees. We need an additional 200 employees to run the shifts we are operating at the moment. The labor pool is very constricted currently.”
Marviani yet again during COVID put all his money on New Orleans. Embracing the concept of save the bulk of your money for hard days, Marviani explained to me how even during COVID there were opportunities for expansion. “Everyone was losing money; it was a matter of who has more cash on hand.” Marviani said. He then added, “Innovation for us is all over the place. Pickup and delivery apps were a must and currently 20% of our operations are to-go. Things are being done differently across the company. We launched a program called We are a Yes Company. We are building this culture within our culture about, see it say it and say Yes to it. The service is the entire experience and when guests ask for things it’s always a yes. For example, at Broussard’s a family comes in with kids and the kids did not like anything on the menu, we own a pizza store half a block down on Bourbon. The chef was allowed to bring in pizza for the kids. We are simply teaching our team members how to go the extra mile to please a customer.”
On a personal level, 2020 brought other problems to the Ammari Brothers. The loss of their beloved father George Ammari and having to rearrange the setting for their sick, newly widowed mother added significant distress. “Mentally to manage everything. Go to work and try to manage that world then leave and go home to manage the kids stuck at home. It was really tough.” Marviani said.
The analogy of walking dead fits in the context of not knowing what to expect with this pandemic, but as the science unveils more about this virus, restaurants owners will have a clearer sense of how to approach the situation in terms of long-term planning. Having risen mainly from devastation, Creole Cuisine has proven to be tested. Thus, devastation for Marviani resembles nothing but hope. “I will continue to put my money on New Orleans regardless. New Orleans has a culture and will always do well. It’s easy that’s why we call it the big easy. All I could tell you is that thank god we survived it. It is a lesson and we will continue to learn,” Marviani said.
On the brighter side, Creole Cuisine is potentially going into a boom. With Europe not recovering as quickly and the international travel restrictions in place. Domestic tourism will peak and there will be a large influx of tourists from all over the United States. Also keep in mind the many restaurants that simply went out of business, reducing competition. At the end of the day, it is all about “survival of the fittest” and Creole Cuisine has already proven to be fit.