Robért LeBlanc

Founder and Creative Director, LeBLANC+SMITH

Innovating and growing in one of the pandemic’s hardest-hit sectors

Robért LeBlanc made news in July when he announced an inventive new business model for the hospitality industry.

In an effort to streamline operations and promote equity, LeBlanc made all positions at his four restaurants and bars and one hotel full-time and salaried (starting at $30,000 per year) with insurance benefits. All employees, no matter their primary role, also took on more leadership responsibilities. LeBLANC+SMITH’s restaurants and bars also unveiled new systems and safety protocols designed to ease the workload of the now-leaner crews.

The experiment is unfolding at the hospitality group’s French Quarter restaurants Sylvain and Longway Tavern, the Uptown restaurant Cavan, and Lower Garden District bar Barrel Proof, as well as at The Chloe, the company’s brand-new boutique hotel on St. Charles Avenue, which opened in October 2020, the same month Meauxbar — opened in 2003 and purchased by LeBLANC+SMITH since 2014 — closed in the French Quarter.

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Five months after the new system’s debut, LeBlanc said he’s learned a lot, made some changes and is pleased with the early results.

“It’s going well,” he said. “Some people chose to go back to hourly pay so they could have flexibility, but the same principles apply: You pay people a little bit more of an hourly rate and the tips are shared equally. And we still treat everyone as a leader and engage them in all the meetings, so there’s still equity between what the front of the house makes and what the back of the house makes.”

LeBlanc said the staff sizes at his restaurants have grown by more than 50% since the summer. Sylvain and Cavan have been profitable for the last two months and Barrel Proof is heading in the right direction. Longway, meanwhile, is “struggling and may have to wait until the [French] Quarter comes back a bit.”

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The big surprise, said LeBlanc, is that locals have really embraced The Chloe, which occupies a converted French Quarter mansion. The 14-room hotel spans 14,000 square feet and features ample outdoor dining space, along with a pool and gardens. It’s LeBlanc’s biggest project to date. The final price tag was in the $9 million range and was funded by a group of New Orleans investors whom LeBlanc said are pleased with the early response.

“I think we’ve hit on something really special,” he said. “I think people really like the idea of these boutique hotels that can deeply embed themselves in historically and culturally significant neighborhoods and give people a sense of what it’s like to actually live there. The Chloe also gives residents a place they can use as their own lobby.”

Coming off a big win — LeBlanc was named Restaurateur of the Year by the Louisiana Restaurant Association in 2019 — this year has proved to be a real test of the Loyola grad’s leadership skills.

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“You need to make tough decisions in difficult times while instilling confidence in people,” he said. “You have to believe in yourself and in your team. It’s easy to do that when things are going well, but it’s not always easy to do when things are going poorly. The pandemic won’t last forever. If New Orleans is going to thrive and endure, we need hospitality companies that are willing to grow inside and outside of the city.”

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