By Devin Moore
Restaurants have struggled in New Orleans, a city bursting with flavor where restaurants are more than just a place to dine, but at the heart of its culture.
Ti Martin, Co-Proprietor of Commander’s Palace and Ronnie Jaeger, Manager at Camellia Grill, have been in the restaurant business for a long time now and haven’t seen anything quite as restrictive and impactful as COVID-19.
However, packing up and closing down wasn’t going to be an option.
“We were mature enough to have had some savings in the bank for a rainy day but we didn’t have enough savings to last forever,” Martin said. “We would have lost more money [staying] open than closed. We knew we weren’t going to make money at 50% seating capacity.”
Ms. Martin explained there’s a lot that goes into running a restaurant, and the simply breaking even is harder said than done.
Sentimental value keeps Commanders at the forefront of its owners’ hearts “[The owner] bought this place after Katrina and he’s been helping on keeping it open ever since and keeping it running it better and keeping it good,” Mr. Jaeger said.
But in today’s day and age, keeping things good meant adapting to something our current populations have never experienced before.
Ms. Martin and Mr. Jaeger knew that working around the pandemic was the only way to survive. They adopted a more online, to-go presence. “There is more technology in everything we do. The big things we have done are Goldbelly and then La Petit Bleu… and online ordering you can do there. Then, our Wednesday night Zoom night,” Ms. Martin said.
Ms. Martin is optimistic about the future post-COVID, hoping that people are ready to get back to in-person dining and enjoying the experience people can only experience in New Orleans. “We are not done yet, we got more tricks up our sleeves,” Ms. Martin said.
Will there be that demand for upscale dining? Yes! “I do think people are looking for special occasions, I mean, they want to feel like they went somewhere. I think there is a spot in every city for a special occasion. I do think that people have learned that experiencing the company of others in a darn good restaurant,” Ms. Martin said.
Mr. Jaeger believes that the hygiene adapted from COVID-19 should have always been practiced and should continue to be practiced far after COVID.
“I’m hoping that they continue to stress to people even after we get back to normal, continue to wash your hands, continue to cough in your arms and all that stuff.”
The new advances to Camilla Grill could become permanent, “And with us, one thing that it’s changed for us for sure is the outside seating,” Mr. Jaeger said. “It’s a big hit now so when COVID maybe ever ends and we’re back to normal, we have to figure out ‘how are we going to handle forty more seats, plus a full dining and takeout and we only have two cooks?” Mr. Jaeger said.
Rest assured, “Everything that you loved about New Orleans is still going to be here and I think New Orleans proved one more time how wildly resilient and creative we are,” Mr. Jaeger said.