COVID-19's Devastating Impact on the NOLA Restaurant Industry

Exhausted, chef Kristen Essig laid her head down on her desk on Monday. She’d just hit send on an email she never knew she’d have to write, laying off the dozens of people who had so dutifully operated the two New Orleans restaurants she runs with her business partners. Knowing the tally was somewhere between 35 and 40 staffers, Essig spent that moment literally unable to face the reality as she heard the “whoosh!” of the email sent off into the Internet ether.

Weeks earlier, Essig and her partner Michael Stoltzfus had happily posted to social media about achieving their restaurants’ latest goal: to provide health insurance for all their employees.

But now, like their counterparts throughout the city, the vast majority of staffers at Essig’s Coquette and Thalia are out of work thanks to the realities wrought by the government-mandated social impacts of the coronavirus. To keep the pandemic from spreading further into local communities (aka help “flatten the curve”), state and local governments around the country have shut down or limited hours within bars, restaurants, and other gathering places.

So, too, in New Orleans, where in 2018 the local analysis firm The Data Center pegged the city’s hospitality workers at about 29,000 people with average wages just north of $29,000, including tips. Though many New Orleans restaurants have turned to take-out, curbside, delivery, and drive-through service, it’s not enough to maintain the full staff of what are traditionally dine-in restaurants. For many business owners, the best option appeared to be lay-offs, clearing a path for employees to apply for unemployment benefits in the meantime. 

That’s why Essig sent the email, she said, hoping to give her staff a jump on the sheer number of people heading to government services while also preventing the potentially harmful healthcare implications of a full-staff meeting during a pandemic. 

“We’re going to try to make day-to-day decisions based on what is best for (our staff) and best for business, and we’re going to keep pushing,” she said. “We feel there are going to be so many people willing to step up, and we have to push through and keep helping each other.”

Hope Clarke, the assistant general manager at the one-year-old Warehouse District restaurant Sofia, said business had been booming before the unexpected shutdown; plans to build out a rooftop bar were becoming clearer by the day. But Sofia, too, laid off nearly all of its employees this week.

“Everybody needs to slash operating costs,” she said, calling the process heartbreaking. “We need to protect the business to have jobs to offer people when this is over.”

At Sofia, Clarke and a bare bones crew are offering deeply discounted meals -- $4 for a beer and a half pizza -- to those in need of one, and biding their time until they can bring their staff back. 

“It’s insane. We’re the lucky ones,” Clarke said, but the plans for the restaurant’s expansion likely won’t happen “if we have to be closed for a month. But closed for two months, and we won’t have a restaurant. You can’t operate at a loss forever.”

At 1000 Figs in Bayou St. John a week ago, with the onset of both wedding season and festival season coinciding, Theresa Galli and Gavin Cady had been preparing for their busiest time of the year. By Friday, Galli and Cady had informed about 35 employees of 1000 Figs and its Pythian Market sibling, Little Fig, that they, too, were laid off. 

“It’s awful, so there’s not even a lot to say,” Galli said. “It’s just sad, and we’re a small business, so in terms of resources for those people, we’re doing everything we can to help them get on their way, but it’s just not enough. It’s not what they need.”

Still, there is a bright spot for Galli, thanks to the outpouring of community support and customers willing to take their orders to go. 

“Yesterday and today were our first days of doing just takeout and delivery, so if we can keep doing the amount of business we’re doing, we can hire people back next week,” Galli said. “We’re just trying to figure out ways to get people the food they need so we can hire more people back.”

That kind of support is crucial, the local restaurant owners said; however, New Orleans restaurants are still sitting on some products that their hands are tied on selling. 

Because local officials have relaxed some restrictions, New Orleans restaurants are able to sell off their beer and wine stock. But liquor typically has the highest profit margin, and with bars closed and restaurants unable to offload theirs, there’s potential money to be made if the rules shift again. 

The entire experience, Essig said, “is going to teach us so much about our government, our industry, personal and private liability and responsibility. We’re going to have no choice but to change.”

“We have to find a way to make positive, influential change a reality. … This is the kind of stuff we have to start talking about right now.”

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Chelsea Brasted is a freelance writer in her hometown of New Orleans, who formerly worked for The Times-Picayune as an arts and entertainment reporter and city columnist. Follow her on Twitter @cabrasted.