The Hits Just Keep on Comin’

Already beaten down from 18 months of shutdowns, mandates, staffing and supply issues, Hurricane Ida is just the latest hit to Louisiana’s restaurant industry, but optimism still endures.

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“Basically, you just want to cry uncle. I think we’ve all had enough already.”

These were the first thoughts of Stan Harris, president and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA), when asked about how Hurricane Ida has affected Louisiana bar and restaurant owners, a group already severely challenged over the past 18 months by COVID-19.

“I talked to a guy yesterday who told me he’s been forced to close one of his restaurants permanently and just heard from another person on the Northshore that they have to do the same thing,” he said. “For every big restaurant in this state there are 20 small ones that employ maybe 15 people or less and they just don’t have the capacity to adapt as quick to all these changes.”

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The LRA represents 4,500 members across the state, including 1,200 in the New Orleans metropolitan area, where the restaurant industry is the largest employer. Harris said member restaurants were already struggling with the shutdowns before mask and vaccine mandates created more obstacles — and then came Hurricane Ida.

“We had talked to [Mayor Cantrell] about [vaccine mandates] in regard to making a mandate for guests, but she decided to make it for staff too,” said Harris. “The fact is, there’s a good amount of people who don’t want to get the vaccine and they can easily just go outside of Orleans Parish and get a restaurant job, and we’ve been seeing that happen, which is hurting Orleans Parish businesses.”

Harris said he also worries that changing mask and vaccine mandates will cause visiting large groups to take their business elsewhere.

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“We’ve already lost two large trade shows, one for the chiefs of police and another solar energy show, and I think there’s a real concern among some of these groups that the city could impose additional mandates on them with limited time to prepare,” said Harris, “maybe enough that it would change the way they look at New Orleans and look to one of our competing markets that doesn’t have the same factors.”

The loss of big events is something Frank Gagliano Jr. said is top of mind right now. His family’s business, Frank’s Restaurant, has been serving Italian food on Decatur Street in the French Quarter for 55 years.

“Being located where we are, we live off the big events and festivals Downtown,” said Gagliano. “And I can tell you, after all the shutdowns people were so excited to get back out again that we had the best July I’ve ever seen. But now, with this hurricane, it was like going into the war zone again.”

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Gagliano said his restaurant received some damage from Ida but he was able to make the necessary repairs himself, so he felt fortunate to be able to reopen his doors on Sept. 9, nine days after the hurricane hit.

“We were one of the first restaurants to open all the way from Decatur to Esplanade, and then Decatur to Canal,” he said. “All of our three cooks are back, and we got it open. Now we’ve just got to build things back up.”

Another family-owned business with over 80 years in business, Felix’s — one of the oldest oyster bars in New Orleans — said they’ve definitely had staffing struggles throughout the pandemic.

“Being in the French Quarter, we have a lot of competition when it comes to staffing, just in a five-block radius, said Tony Saltaformaggio, general manager of one of Felix’s Restaurant Group’s two New Orleans locations. The company also operates a restaurant in Mandeville and in Gulfport, Mississippi, and is set to open another in Pensacola Beach, Florida, in October. After being forced to close the French Quarter restaurant for over six months early in the pandemic, Saltaformaggio said 2021 sales were looking really good.

“We were actually doing 30% over our 2019 sales,” he said. “Employees and guests were returning. But then the vaccine mandates hit, and everything just stopped dead. Suddenly, we had zero guests coming in the door.”

Saltaformaggio said the company quickly moved to offer a $200 bonus — $100 for each shot — to encourage staff to get vaccinated, and it worked for 75 of the restaurant’s 104 employees. Business, however, he said, didn’t pick up for the next week and a half, and then Hurricane Ida hit and the restaurant was forced to shut down again, this time for a week and four days before opening to limited hours.

“We’re optimistic, though,” he said. “We usually get great crowds for the Saints and LSU games, so we’ll have to see.”

Pike Howard, director of finance and development for Felipe’s Taqueria, another local family-owned business that started 15 years ago and now includes seven restaurants — three in New Orleans — also noted vaccine and mask mandates have created an added struggle.

“Almost every time there is a new restriction, the restaurant industry is a poster child for it,” he said. “It’s really gotten so that the hurricane was almost just another thing for us to contend with.”

While Howard said he feels fortunate that 80% of his staff — which includes approximately 125 people across its three New Orleans locations — are vaccinated (in large part likely due to the fact the company offers $750 bonuses to employees who choose to get fully vaccinated), he still expressed concern over OSHA requirements announced last month mandating that employers of over 100 people show that all employees are either vaccinated or undergoing weekly tests.

Howard said staffing issues were a problem prior to the first mask and vaccine mandates, so the restaurant has also raised wages by about $2 an hour.

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“After all the shutdowns people were so excited to get back out again that we had the best July I’ve ever seen. But now, with this hurricane, it was like going into the war zone again.”
Frank Gagliano Jr., owner of Frank’s Restaurant

“Our employment costs have risen by 15 to 20% over the last six months — which in the restaurant world is essentially overnight — and then add to that our commodity costs have also risen by 20 to 30%. That’s a 30 to 40% increase we’ve seen in our two biggest dollar items.”

Securing supplies has been a huge issue for the restaurant, whose menu items are packed with fresh produce and proteins.

“Our main supplier is Performance Food Group out of Houma, and they got hit so hard we can’t get anything from them right now,” said Howard just a week out from the storm. “So, I’ve gone to Restaurant Depot seven or eight times in the last 12 hours just trying to get as much product as I can get my hands on. Chicken has basically been almost impossible to find.”

After being forced to close for a week and a half due to Hurricane Ida, Howard said it was an extra hit to find that all of the food in three of the restaurant’s walk-in freezers had spoiled.

“We tried to give away as much as we could before the storm, but we still took about a $250,000 loss,” he said. “And I’m not expecting anything from anyone at this point, even insurance companies. We’ve done spoilage claims before and the deductibles are so high with a named storm that we don’t come close to meeting them.”

Howard was, however, hopeful that Felipe’s would receive aid from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion national program set up to provide assistance to restaurants, bars and other qualifying businesses impacted by COVID-19.

“I applied,” he said, “but I never heard back.”

According to Harris, it’s an all-too-common scenario.

“We asked for $120 billion for the fund and got $28.6 billion, so we knew there was going to be a large hole from the start,” he said. “For the first 21 days, the money was set aside for veteran and minority- and women-owned businesses and basically the money didn’t even cover that group. Many people who got approved never got funded.”

Among them is a local woman-owned business, Happy Raptor Distilling. Co-owner Meagen Moreland-Taliancich said the company was approved and were counting on the money.

“We opened just before COVID-19 hit, so we’ve been basically battling since day one,” she said. “And that money, it would have solidified our ability to keep going. Now, instead, especially with this hurricane adding to things, we have had to really go into crisis mode. We’re definitely taking things one day at a time.”

Harris said the LRA is currently hard at work trying to get companies like Happy Raptor Distilling and Felipe’s Taqueria the money they need, and in many cases, were already promised.

“We have been working on the Entrée Act, which is a couple of bipartisan bills that seek to take $45 billion that’s already been appropriated for COVID relief and use that to get everyone funded who has already applied for the RRF and is qualified,” he said. “We’re not asking for more money, we’re just asking to use what’s already there.”

Harris said the key now is to build up as many co-sponsors to the act as possible.

“We’ve got [Sen. Bill] Cassidy and [Sen. Steve] Scalise and [Rep. Troy] Carter, who have all signed on,” he said, “but we’re going to have to build a bigger tent. The hope is that the bills could be up at the end of this year.”

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“It’s hard to keep being resilient when you’re paddling against the current all the time,” he said. “But we do stretch better than any other community I know of.”
Stan Harris, president and CEO, Louisiana Restaurant Association

Harris noted, however, that even with all the struggles and uncertainty that have slammed the industry over the last 18 months, restaurants continue to give back to the community.

“You see them out there, cooking for the people who need it most, because that’s just what they do,” he said. “If you think about it, the restaurant industry is an essential part of our philanthropic community. There is no charitable event in which they don’t participate.”

Even as it struggles to hold on each day, for example, Happy Raptor Distilling helped feed approximately 160 people in its neighborhood over Labor Day, and they are far from alone. After the hurricane, social media was packed with announcements of area restaurants out providing food.

Among those restaurants determined to give back is the Mosquito Supper Club, a farm-to-table offering on Dryades Street in Uptown run by owner and founder Melissa Martin. The restaurant specializes in the kind of Cajun food Martin said she grew up on in Terrebonne Parish. She said seeing her home so devastated after Hurricane Ida, she knew she had to do whatever she could to help.

So, Martin — along with her brother and two sisters (three of her five siblings) — began strategizing and making lots of phone calls.

“We started a Go Fund Me called in partnership with friends from Chauvin and the Helio Foundation with the goal of getting money directly into the hands of the people who need it,” she said. “We’ve got people there, on the ground, making lists of what’s needed and then we go and hand out cash. We’re also providing ice, water and gas and cooking up hot meals.”

Martin said she’s been focusing on getting big brands that have long benefited from and promoted their ties with bayou communities, including Yeti, Salt Life and Community Coffee. She added that local companies have also stepped up.

“French Truck Coffee just gave us $10,000 yesterday,” she said.

As of Sept. 14, the fund had over 3,500 donors and had reached $371,706 of its $400,000 goal.

“These are people who are sleeping in tents outside their homes because they will not leave their home,” she said. “In the restaurant industry we’ve all been in the hell fire for the last 18 months but so many of us get so much from the bayou, including our seafood, and it just feels right to recognize that and give back.”

Martin added that while her restaurant has had a lot of staffing and turnover issues during the pandemic, she is one owner that is grateful for the mask and vaccine mandates.

“We’ve definitely lost some staff because they didn’t want to get vaccinated,” she said. “But the thing is, I don’t want to work with anyone who is not vaccinated or be around anyone who isn’t, so I thank God the government is doing this.”

Even in the face of so many challenges, the message from many restaurant owners is, maybe surprisingly, still one of optimism. In the ultimate act of optimism, there are some owners that are even expanding right now. Among those is Magasin Café owner Kim Nguyen. Nguyen opened Magazine Street’s first Vietnamese restaurant 12 years ago and has since expanded, opening Magasin Kitchen in Downtown in 2016 and a restaurant in Oklahoma in 2018. Her latest offering, Mukbang, aims to bring a Vietnamese take on Cajun seafood to Oak Street.

“We were supposed to open the beginning of September, but obviously the hurricane changed all that,” she said. As of Sept. 10, Nguyen said she was waiting on electrical work that needed to be done at the new restaurant and dealing with spoilage issues both at Mukbang and her other two New Orleans restaurants.

Not only is Mukbang a new concept for Nguyen, it’s also her largest restaurant to-date — by far.

“We’re taking over the space that was formerly Chiba and, at 3,500 square feet, it’s easily double the size of our other restaurants, so we’ll see how it goes,” she said. “We’re hoping to open the end of September.”

If there’s one word you could use to describe Louisiana’s restaurant industry it would be resilient, but Harris said it’s a word that’s started to really irritate him.

“It’s hard to keep being resilient when you’re paddling against the current all the time,” he said. “But we do stretch better than any other community I know of.”

Howard agrees.

“As a group I know we’re just going to figure this all out,” he said. “We’re in this ever-changing landscape right now that requires so much planning and energy and all we want to do is what we love — feeding people.”

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