New Orleans Restaurants, Used to Disasters, Reckon With Something Worse

NEW ORLEANS — Tommy Tommaseo will not be nostalgic for Hurricane Katrina.

Rocky and Carlo’s, his household’s Creole-Italian restaurant in St. Bernard Parish, simply exterior New Orleans, took on 4 toes of water when that catastrophe hit in 2005. There have been fish swimming within the first ground of Mr. Tommaseo’s home. His father, Rocky, then 91, escaped floodwaters on the again of a Jet Ski.

“But this is worse,” Mr. Tommaseo mentioned Tuesday, as Louisiana emerged as a brand new hotbed of the coronavirus pandemic, with the world’s steepest improve in new instances, in accordance to one research. “At least we know what to do for hurricanes down here.”

The virus that has upended lives throughout the nation is triggering reminiscences of previous disasters within the New Orleans space, which has had its share, from plagues to floods to oil spills. But Katrina looms largest within the metropolis’s collective reminiscence.

Fifteen years on, marks of the hurricane are nonetheless evident within the scars and swagger of the residents who survived it. It’s additionally there in the best way veteran cooks and restaurateurs speak concerning the newest disaster.

“I just texted members of our family, and I told them, ‘This reminds me of Katrina,’ ” mentioned Stella Reese Chase, who manages her household’s restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, which was inundated by the storm’s floodwaters.

That realization helped fuel the slow rebuilding of a dining and drinking scene that became more diverse, with a greater variety of restaurants performing at a high level. The city attracted new residents, with different tastes, and ambitious chefs to cater to them.

But the impulse of the restaurant community to lean into adversity has been complicated by the realization that not all the lessons learned in past emergencies apply to the current one. That has been undeniable since at least March 16, when Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all Louisiana restaurants to stop dine-in service. Mass closings and layoffs followed.

Donald Link, an award-winning chef, operates six New Orleans restaurants including Pêche Seafood Grill and Herbsaint. Soon after the order to close, he laid off 360 of his roughly 450 employees, leaving just one restaurant, Cochon Butcher, open for takeout with a menu of favorites drawn from all of his restaurants.

Mr. Link and his remaining staff have been preparing free meals for unemployed former colleagues and their families. “We’re no stranger to doing thousands of meals a day,” he said. He is looking for ways to do more, “but we can’t get too big, because I can’t put too many people in the kitchen. There are these new paradoxes.”

The imperative of social distancing is particularly challenging in a city familiar with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. Local officials increasingly believe that the virus incubated during Mardi Gras festivities, which ended Feb. 25.

It’s also not uncommon for people in the restaurant business here to physically embrace customers. “It was really hard to get people to elbow instead of hug,” said JoAnn Clevenger, who has closed her restaurant, Upperline.

That can be hard for the staff, too, said Mr. Tommaseo, who is still serving a full menu for takeout at Rocky and Carlo’s. “It gets a little awkward, because you want to keep your distance, but you also want to be able to say hello,” he said.

Larger fund-raising efforts are underway to cushion the blow to unemployed hospitality workers. New Orleans has one of the country’s highest poverty rates, and most people working in restaurants don’t earn enough to build up savings. According to the Data Center, an independent local research firm, 93 percent of the full-service restaurant employees in New Orleans are in low-wage jobs where most workers make less than $15 an hour.

Halting tourism and closing restaurants “affects the hotel worker, it affects the bartender, it affects the Uber driver, it affects the tour guide, it affects the whole economy,” said Andy Kopplin, the president and chief executive of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. “Because of our economic base, we’re particularly vulnerable.”

On Monday, the foundation started the Louisiana Service and Hospitality Family Assistance Program at the urging of Gayle Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, who contributed $500,000, with another $100,000 from the McIlhenny Company, the Louisiana-based maker of Tabasco.

The fund is intended to benefit the neediest hospitality workers first, Mr. Kopplin said.

“There are tens of thousands of people in New Orleans who are out of work,” he said. “Every single one of them needs help. The lower-wage workers who were raising kids or taking care of parents before the pandemic, those are the folks who need it the most.”

A provision of the federal stimulus package that President Trump signed into law on Friday provides forgivable loans to businesses that use the money to retain employees and keep the doors open. “It’s a way of making sure you don’t make a decision today that you regret tomorrow,” said Mr. Hecht of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, a former restaurateur himself. “I would encourage people to pay attention to it.”

While they wait for help to arrive, restaurant owners are turning their attention to caring for recently laid-off employees.

Mr. Hollingsworth also hopes that when the pandemic ends, the recovery will resemble the months at Clancy’s just after Katrina hit. “In 45 years in the restaurant business, I’d never seen anything like it,” he said. “People just loved being here, seeing their friends again, getting out, getting back home.”

“All we can hope is we experience the same thing after this is all over. All this stuff we’re talking about can be cured with full dining rooms.”

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