Unlike in other parts of the country, September provides little relief from the summer heat in New Orleans, and without electricity — or backup generators — the weather can be inhospitable to just about everyone and everything. Ingredients quickly spoil. Businesses become unbearable without air conditioning. The swamp-like humidity of the city can affect buildings, warping doorways and other wooden structures.
Like a number of chefs and owners in Crescent City, Gulotta spent part of Monday giving away food from MoPho, his Mid-City restaurant dedicated to pho, rice bowls and other Southeast Asian-inspired dishes. He did the same Tuesday with the inventory at Maypop, his more upscale restaurant specializing in Asian and Cajun flavors. Gulotta expects to lose thousands of dollars in spoiled or donated ingredients alone. When he does the rough math on the revenue lost during an involuntary three-week shutdown, he figures he’ll lose another $240,000 between both restaurants.
And that’s during September, a typically slower month in the city, he said.
Ralph Brennan, the third-generation restaurateur whose five establishments in New Orleans include the iconic Brennan’s, agrees that the city’s ability to recover comes down to the power grid.
In typical storms, he said, his managers could shuttle around food to stash in locations where power rarely goes out or is usually restored quickly, including the city’s central business district and in the French Quarter, where there are few trees to down lines and infrastructure is mostly below ground. They could pack walk-ins with dry ice when they expected a longer lull in service. But Ida was something different.
“We’ve just never encountered this before,” he said. “It’s a real guessing game for us right now.”
Staff members will start to throw out perishable items this week, he said, with the expectation that it could be weeks before the power goes on again. He hasn’t yet put a price tag on his losses, but he says between pitched inventory and the loss of business, he and other restaurant owners will take a serious hit — just as they were hoping to recover from the drop in business caused by the surging delta variant of the coronavirus.
“Prior to the hurricane, the delta variant was putting a lot of pressure on restaurants, and some were struggling even then,” he said. “I thought by now we were going to be in pretty good shape.”
Susan Spicer, chef and owner of the popular Bayona and Rosedale restaurants, didn’t immediately start emptying her refrigerators, initially hoping the power might come on soon enough that ice chests and dry ice could get her through. Now she’s planning to donate what she can and volunteer with World Central Kitchen, which is operating out of several locations in the city providing meals to those who need them, as is a patchwork of other restaurants that have turned into makeshift relief centers.
Neal Bodenheimer is an owner or partner in four drinking and dining establishments in New Orleans. He was riding out the storm in Florida but was receiving updates about his restaurants and bars from those still in the city. He said damage was minimal at Cure, Cane & Table and his other spots, though he still needs to inspect the roofs before completely counting his blessings.
The real issue is the damaged infrastructure, Bodenheimer says. It’s not just the Entergy power grid, but also what that power grid helps to operate, namely wastewater sewage plants. In a tweet on Tuesday, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans has “asked residents to limit water usage at home, thus decreasing the amount of wastewater we must pump and treat,” which the agency said will help prevent sewage backup. The board is also relying on turbines, backup generators and other sources to pump storm water from the city while pumping drinking water to residents.
“So you can drink the water,” joked Bodenheimer, “but you might want to pee outside.”
Bodenheimer has instructed his crews to clear out the coolers, low boys and refrigerators at his establishments. The last thing you want, he says, is to have food rot in the fridge over the course of several weeks. Between the rot and potential mold, it can ruin appliances, and commercial refrigerators are hard to come by right now. The supply is low, he says, and the price high.
Unless they have high-powered generators, Bodenheimer, Brennan, Gulotta and the rest of the New Orleans dining establishment are at the mercy of Entergy, which has provided operators with a wide range of estimates on when they can expect power to return. It could be as fast as this week for those in high-priority neighborhoods, such as the central business district. Or it could be six weeks for those in outlying neighborhoods.
Gulotta says he considered buying a generator, but they’re not cheap. Powerful commercial generators — the kind needed to run walk-ins, keep the lights on, heat ovens and power ordering systems — can run tens of thousands of dollars. And that doesn’t even include the natural gas to run them, which can cost $200 a day, Gulotta says.
Not many restaurants, say owners, can afford that kind of expense, particularly during a pandemic when their business has already been affected by curfews, mask mandates, reduced seating capacities and other restrictions. Which is why many establishments will again close their doors and ride out the latest crisis.
Bodenheimer estimates that if his bars and restaurants are forced to close for three weeks, they will lose between $500,000 and $700,000 in revenue and spoiled/donated ingredients. He says his places should be able to withstand the financial hit, but not because of their insurance carriers. As with the pandemic, when restaurant owners have fought with insurers over business interruption polices, Bodenheimer doesn’t expect much help from the industry.
“I don’t expect that we will get compensated for the loss of business,” he said. “I really don’t.”
Donald Link, the chef, restaurateur, multiple James Beard Award winner and elder statesman of New Orleans dining, says he heard a news conference in which Entergy predicted that power could return to the downtown area as soon as Wednesday. But Link remains skeptical, even though the restoration would benefit his restaurants in the central business district.
Even if the power returns this week, Link said, it would be premature to reopen Herbsaint, Gianna, Peche Seafood Grill or his other spots. About 300 of the 320 employees at his six restaurants left New Orleans before the storm, he says. Even if they come back quickly, they will return to a house or apartment without air conditioning, which would be miserable if not outright inhumane. What’s more, Link says, he’s not sure what the supply lines are like. Cell coverage is terrible, and Interstate 10 around the city has been closed.
“I can get shrimp,” Link deadpanned.
All of which makes Link think he will be closed for at least two weeks, during which time he expects to lose $1 million in revenue. But he said that if Hurricane Katrina taught him anything in 2005, it was to build up a cash reserve, which will help Link Restaurant Group pay all employees during this lull, even hourly workers and wait staff.
Brennan says he also fears for his ability to staff up once the city can reopen. He was already down to 300 staffers from a pre-covid 500, he says, both because of the difficulty in hiring and decreased demand. One lesson he drew from his experience in Katrina was to make sure managers had good lines of communication so they could keep track of staffers and make sure they were okay. And to ensure they got their paychecks — unlike during Katrina — he ran the payroll process early so that direct deposits were delivered on Monday, and that hard checks could be delivered.
Spicer says she worries about her staff members going without pay, even for a week. Things had already been tough even before the winds started howling, and she had to cut the shifts of workers who had tested positive for the coronavirus. She said she’s checking with her accountant to see how much she can afford to pay them during the storm furlough.
And even when the power flips back on — whenever that is — it will shine a light on an industry that is battered by more than Ida.
Spicer noted that supply chains, already disrupted by the pandemic, will be further damaged by the storm. Her main seafood supplier sustained damage to its facility and she doesn’t know when it will be operating again.
“I have to say, I’m getting pretty sick of hearing how ‘resilient’ we are, both in New Orleans and in the restaurant business,” she said. “It feels like we can’t go three months without some kind of challenge, from flooding streets to boil water advisories to collapsing buildings, covid, hurricanes, you name it. I think everyone is feeling weary.”
Brennan wonders, too, whether the rest of the country will rally to support New Orleans the way it did after Katrina. In the aftermath of that storm, he notes, people went out of their way to visit or to host conventions and corporate events there to boost the economy, But companies aren’t holding such gatherings these days, and would-be tourists might be staying close to home.
Others, he says, might just be stretched thin. “With covid, people might be burned out,” he said. “People are helping each other, but will they be able to help New Orleans?”
A previous version of this article said that Ralph Brennan’s five establishments in New Orleans include Commander’s Palace. While he is a minority shareholder of Commander's Palace, he does not make management decisions and the restaurant is not part of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group.
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