Southern Restaurants Reimagine Business Amid the Pandemic

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It’s often said that restaurants are like theater. Few have more flair than Commander’s Palace, a rambling mansion in New Orleans’ Garden District that launched the careers of both Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse.

Birthdays at Commander’s are celebrated with bouquets of balloons. The VIPs are marked with a wide, aqua ribbon across their tables. And when the food arrives, a group of waiters line up to simultaneously place each plate before the guests.

When the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut the doors at Commander’s Palace, the restaurant got into show business for real. An online wine class turned into a regular schedule of virtual tastings and cooking demos, with bottles and food shipped to guests beforehand. The Commander’s Palace team has put on nearly 50 shows, some for small private groups, others for companies that need an alternative to conferences or a fun distraction after a CEO’s presentation. The sommelier now also knows how to set up a light rig.

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“We’re selling New Orleans,” said Ti Martin, one of the proprietors of Commander’s Palace. “They’re loving it. Of course, they’re having a meeting while drinking, so that helps right there.”

Commander’s Palace does not plan to pack away its microphones and lights when the pandemic ends and dining rooms fill again. Virtual tastings and classes are now part of what they do.

Restaurants have been hit hard during the pandemic. A roller coaster of restrictions have been imposed, relaxed and then imposed again. The National Restaurant Association estimates 110,000 restaurants have closed. To avoid going broke, restaurants have pirouetted from one stopgap measure to another: take-out menus, family meal packs, contracts with non-profit charities.

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Many restaurants, like Commander’s Palace, have learned new skills during the pandemic. They’re producing video, shipping dishes across the country and making retail products for store shelves. While these new ventures rarely replace revenue lost to COVID-19 closures, they have helped. These restaurants have decided that diverting their income gives them the best chance of survival.

Emmy Squared started in Brooklyn, but it has brought its square, Detroit-style pizzas to D.C., Nashville, Philadelphia and Louisville, Kentucky. Locations in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina will open later this year. Since the pandemic, founder Emily Hyland has been teaching online pizza making classes to hungry students no matter where they live.

“It’s like a live-action food show essentially,” Hyland said. “Instead of watching someone cook on the Food Network, you actually get all the material and get to do it.”

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Since the pandemic, Hyland herself has been taking yoga classes from an instructor in Philadelphia and a poetry workshop with a writer in San Francisco. She thinks that will continue after COVID-19 abates, just as she believes people will continue to sign up for this new interactive food television.

Hyla has done cooking classes for corporate clients. The general public can sign up on Goldbelly, a site that ships food from iconic restaurants around the country. Emmy Squared has also found success shipping its pizzas and burgers through the site. All the food is packed and shipped from the Emmy Squared location in Nashville’s Green Hills neighborhood, because that restaurant has plenty of space.

“I can’t imagine doing this out of our New York restaurants,” she said.

Goldbelly, which launched in 2013, has doubled both its customers and the number of restaurants offering food through its site during the pandemic.

“We’ve created an economy for local restaurants and food makers that didn’t exist before,” said founder and CEO Joe Ariel.

The celebrated Nashville restaurant 404 Kitchen has also made shipping fried chicken, hanger steaks and smoked ham part of its business in partnership with Williams Sonoma.

“Our private dining room looks like a miniature UPS store,” said Matt Bolus, chef and owner of 404 Kitchen.

Bolus thinks ordering food from across the country will only get more popular.

“To me, it’s the Amazon effect. When Amazon took off, people got to realize this is near instant gratification. What’s the difference with food?” he said.

Gracious Bakery has three cafes in New Orleans and a busy wholesale business. When the pandemic hit, the revenue at the bakeries dropped by half and the wholesale orders disappeared. The owners, Jay Forman and pastry chef Megan Forman, had long talked about selling a retail product in area stores. Now that project felt urgent.

“COVID hit and we saw that we needed to have a position in a different market to generate cash flow, because the retail passthrough just isn’t enough to keep the lights on,” Jay Forman said.

In June, they talked to Elizabeth Tilton of Oyster Sunday, which provides infrastructure to restaurants and food businesses. Tilton researched the market for the best potential products and designed the packaging. Megan Forman decided on a mix for king cakes, the typical treat of Mardi Gras.

Megan Forman sent a recipe for a single cake to the local co-packer Gulf Coast Blenders, which then figured out how to consistently make the cake mix in massive batches. Once the recipe was settled, Gulf Coast Blenders would hand pack the cake mix, yeast, icing mix, purple, green and gold sugar and even the plastic baby.

By November, six months after the first meeting with Oyster Sunday, Gracious Bakery was selling its king cake mix. So far, sales at area grocery stores and specialty shops have surpassed expectations.

“We definitely see this as a bright spot in the middle of COVID,” Jay Forman said.

The initial costs of developing the product and buying the packaging means Gracious Bakery have not yet made a large profit. But they’re going to sell the king mix year round and are already thinking of other mixes they can sell.

Chefs’ endorsements have long been used to steer consumers toward food products, Tilton said.

“People follow chefs for a reason, and they follow restaurants for a reason,” Tilton said. “Now restaurants are putting their foot in the market in a really meaningful way.”

During the pandemic, Commander’s Palace has also launched retail products. The restaurant collaborated with a local roaster, French Truck Coffee, to make their own coffee and chicory blend, the coal dark combo favored by New Orleanians. They bottled mixes for swizzles and lime daiquiris. They signed with Goldbelly and had to install a walk-in freezer to hold all the gumbo, turtle soup and pecan pies they now ship out of state. They kicked their accountants out of their office, converting it into a take-out shop called Le Petit Bleu.

All these innovations have almost gotten the business back to where it was a year before.

“It’s not okay, now,” Martin said. “It’s still financially devastating.”

These changes, Martin said, are here to stay. The pandemic has made Martin and her team rethink what a restaurant business should be.

“I believe in my heart that these other businesses will equal, or one day surpass, the sales from the restaurant,” Martin said.


By AP reporter Todd Price

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