Takeout Shrimp Etouffee? We Got Dat.

COOLinary 2020 returns, but with pandemic tweaks

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on BizNewOrleans.com.

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With so many traditions in New Orleans on hiatus ­— families unable to hold a repast to celebrate a loved one who has passed on; graduation ceremonies replaced with virtual commencements held on front lawns; the cancellation of the NFL preseason and uncertainty for the Saints regular season — we find ourselves holding on to what we can, even if our traditions may look a little different.

One late summer/early fall tradition that managed to continue this year is COOLinary New Orleans, or COOLinary for short. The event is organized by destination marketing organization New Orleans & Company and has been held annually for 16 years. It celebrates New Orleans restaurants and entices diners with prix fixe menus from Aug. 1 to Sept. 13, showcasing local cuisine, albeit possibly from your living room this year.

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“We added delivery and take-out offerings this year because the dining landscape has changed since COVID-19,” said Kristian Sonnier, vice president of communications and public relations for New Orleans & Company. “Delivery and takeout options are now part of the new normal we are all experiencing. Our restaurant community has done an amazing job adapting to all the mandates, restrictions and changes involved in trying to keep their facilities open. Those restaurants that are able to provide takeout and delivery, in addition to dine-in, are happy to have a few more service offerings to try to remain operational and keep their workforces working.”

COOLinary is built around special two- and three-course lunch menus for $20 or less and three-course dinner and brunch menus for $39 or less at restaurants in practically every neighborhood in New Orleans. Over 70 restaurants are participating this year.

“This is about half the number of restaurants compared to last year,” said Sonnier, who quickly noted that New Orleans & Company is pleased with the number considering the hardships the industry has faced over the past five months.

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One restaurant group returning this year is LeBlanc and Smith, which operates four participating businesses, including Cavan, Longway Tavern, Meauxbar and Sylvain. This is the third year it has participated in COOLinary.

“Prior to COVID-19 shutting down our entire industry, COOLinary was a way to get reacquainted with locals returning after summer and a nice shot in the arm financially after slower July sales,” said Robert LeBlanc, CEO and creative director of LeBlanc and Smith. “In this post-COVID-19 world, we hope COOLinary will be a validation from many familiar faces that fighting so hard to stay open will have been worth it, and that it will provide financial resources that will likely be necessary for the survival of most of our local restaurants.”

LeBlanc said his restaurants were created with locals in mind, designed to serve as neighborhood spots. Still, 25% of the restaurants’ guests pre-COVID-19 were tourists. Now, none of them are.

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As for the shift this year to include delivery and takeout in the COOLinary experience, LeBlanc welcomes it.

“I think it will positively influence our sales, but, more importantly, I think it will allow us to go to where people are to offer our hospitality experiences to them there,” he said. “The reality of our current environment is that many people still do not feel safe dining in at restaurants. We want to be sure that those people, who have been very supportive of us over the past two years, can enjoy COOLinary this year, too.”

Sonnier said the team at New Orleans & Company is promoting COOLinary through a variety of media campaigns, including social media, traditional media, print ads, billboards, earned media opportunities and signage at baggage claim at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. The primary audience is local, but they are also working with drive-in markets to bring in tourism.

“We are working with media as far west as Baton Rouge and as far east as the Gulf Coast to invite those who live nearby to visit New Orleans and build on COOLinary dining to plan an extended stay at one of our hotels,” said Sonnier.

New Orleans & Company is highly aware of the impact COVID-19 has had on the employees of the hospitality and tourism sector, like the 50% to 70% of the staff laid off from LeBlanc and Smith restaurants. The organization has been working closely with city, state and federal governments, as well as public health agencies to facilitate the safe and phased reopening of New Orleans.

“One of our team members serves on the Governor’s Resilient Louisiana Commission and has worked closely with the governor, the Louisiana Department of Health, the fire marshal’s office and other state agencies to develop safe and healthy standards and restrictions for reopening businesses,” said Sonnier. “The commission is also developing a strategic vision for how to build a more resilient Louisiana economy as we emerge from the pandemic.”

To learn more about participating restaurants and their menus, visit COOLinaryNewOrleans.com.

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