N.O. Restaurants Use the ‘Taysom Hill Model’ to Get the Jobs Done

NEW ORLEANS – Each New Orleans-area restaurant owner is facing a unique set of challenges as the city and state begin to ease some of the social distancing rules put in place in March to fight the spread of COVID-19.

“We had already gone through a process based on what the governor might announce to get our indoor seating areas ready,” said Jennifer Weishaupt, co-owner of the Ruby Slipper Cafe and Ruby Sunshine restaurants. “When the governor’s announcement came out on Monday, we started moving things around getting ready to have outdoor dining in our New Orleans locations. When the mayor’s announcement came out the following day, of course, we pulled back on that and shifted our energy to our Metairie and Baton Rouge locations that are able to open outdoor dining.”

The biggest challenge for Weishaupt is that, since her operation spreads across four different states, the company has to follow many different sets of rules and regulations.

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In Tennessee, for instance, three of the Ruby Sunshine locations are now able to serve diners inside at 50% capacity. In Alabama, curbside pickup is currently the only option allowed. And, closer to home, Ruby Slipper will begin outdoor seating on May 1 at the locations in Metairie and Baton Rouge but continue with curbside pickup only in Orleans.

Weishaupt said it’s essential to stay organized to manage the challenge.

“We’re basically following a project management process to document what the requirements are and where they differ,” said Weishaupt. “The majority of the time, we’ll just pick the most strict thing and adopt it across the board even if it will be overkill in some markets.”

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At the locations that will allow, Weishaupt said she’s focusing on moving things outdoors.

“We actually set up a really cool outdoor dining area at our Metairie location,” she said. “We had done a green space project at our home office in Mid-City and we had a large piece of turf left over so we basically created an outdoor green patio in the parking lot there. We have a big party tent coming as well. We’re focusing on how to set up the outdoor spaces to make them welcoming for guests and how to put operational protocols in place to ensure that when a guest dines at the outdoor table, no one else sits at the table before it’s sanitized.”

The solution: diners will take a card to their table with them after they place their order. They’ll leave the card on the table when they finish their meal and it will instruct the next guests to avoid that spot until it’s been cleaned. Once a staff member has sanitized the table, then he or she will place a new card on it declaring it ready for use.

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Weishaupt said she’s also looking for food trucks or pop-ups who want to set up shop at her Metairie location from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. each day to make use of the outdoor space she’s building.

“We could have some scaled-down food service and the bar open and then partner with a local pop-up and food truck to provide something else. Our staff will be tired. We’re running our restaurants so lean and people don’t really think of us as a dinner restaurant so I think pop-ups and food trucks make sense.”

There are currently 16 Ruby Slipper/Ruby Sunshine locations throughout the south. (Three locations in downtown New Orleans are currently closed until more people come back to the city.) Adding to Weishaupt’s workload, a new location in North Carolina will be opening soon followed by another in Tennessee. At each spot, the goal will be to provide a great customer experience while adhering to new guidelines.

“It’s a new learning curve for everybody,” said Weishaupt. “If you’re a server or bartender or host, you probably like to interact with people. Now you’re having to do that with a face mask and gloves on while doing as little as possible to interact with the table experience. It’s awkward. So there’s a lot of learning for our hospitality staff as they try to figure this out and take care of their own safety.”

The ‘Taysom Hill’ Method

Billy Blatty is the owner of Sofia Nola, Barcadia New Orleans and Belle’s Diner. He also helps run the brand-new Bywater sushi restaurant Nagomi with partners Kazuyuki “Kaz” Ishikawa and Eli Ramos. His operations are all in one parish, at least, but each of them is so distinct that it creates countless individual challenges.

At Sofia Nola, an Italian fine-dining spot in the Warehouse District, the biggest hurdle has been trying to adapt the menu for to-go orders. With future dine-in capacity limited to 25%, Blatty foresees more of the same.

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New Orleans restaurateur Billy Blatty

“People are going to be tepid about coming into restaurants in addition to the restrictions the government imposes so how do we create to-go food that’s dynamic,” he said. “Some items may be permanently off the menu because they just do not travel well. They’re meant to be eaten as soon as they’re pulled out of the window. Our cacio e pepe pasta, for instance, has the cheese binding to the noodle and at a perfect temperature. You’re pulling from the pasta station, wrapping all the flavors, the salt, pepper, cheese and olive oil, butter. If you take it home … it just doesn’t work as well.”

He said pizzas and proteins travel the best but, even then, “the conceptual basis for italian food is all about balance and delicacy meaning every dish is fragile.”

Another problem is confusion about how the rules may change in the future.

“It’s a big question mark,” he said. “As guidance from our local and state officials varies by the day, we’re just trying to get a grasp on what it looks like to be open,” said Blatty. “As it stands now, guidance from the Louisiana Restaurant Association puts our capacity at 25 percent. The fire marshal says tables need to be spaced ten feet apart. That gives us not much seating inside Sofia restaurant so we’re left with takeout.”

Like many other business owners, Blatty said he and a skeleton crew will handle a wide variety of tasks.

“We’re going with the Taysom Hill model of service where everybody in the restaurant is able to do everybody else’s job,” he said. “Our management staff is going to work double duty. Our bartenders are going to be servers. Kitchen personnel are going to work different positions. People that are working with us are going to be paid very well courtesy of the Paycheck Protection Program. We are spending our time with research and development in terms of different menu items based on the ever-evolving supply chain and what things tend to travel well.”

Meanwhile, across town at the Bywater sushi restaurant Nagomi, there’s a problem that will be obvious to anyone who’s been inside the place.

“It’s a 12-seat sushi restaurant,” said Blatty. “If we seat people 10 feet apart, we’ll fit one to two people in the entire place – so do we put the restaurant on wheels and go back to doing popups for a month or two where we can spread people and still maintain capacity? It’s something we’ll discuss.”

Barcadia, Blatty’s arcade bar restaurant, has the opposite problem. The 10,000 square-foot space on Tchoupitoulas near Poydras will be impossible to fill with so few visitors in town.

“There are pros and cons,” he said. “We have a lot of square footage so we plan on opening all our rooms for service and that way people can spread out per the guidelines and have a safe environment for eating and, if allowed, gaming.

“In theory we can set up every game six feet apart but, I don’t know, will there be rules that you’re not allowed to play Jenga with people unless you came in with them? How micromanaged are people going to be? At some point, there’s going to have to be a dose of common sense and the rules and guidelines are there for us to extrapolate what is safe for our customers.”

Blatty has some creative ideas to drum up business.

“Maybe we will do an outdoor car wash where we have an oyster shucker,” he said. “You place your order at the begin of the wash, go through it and by the end your oysters are shucked and your to-go order is ready. Creativity is king.”

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