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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
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Katrina was disastrous for restaurants. The pandemic will be apocalyptic.

I lived through one catastrophe for my industry. This one is worse.

Chef Donald Link in the kitchen at Herbsaint, his first New Orleans restaurant, in September 2008, after a short closure forced by Hurricane Gustav. The coronavirus pandemic could be worse for the industry than even the most dangerous hurricanes are.
Chef Donald Link in the kitchen at Herbsaint, his first New Orleans restaurant, in September 2008, after a short closure forced by Hurricane Gustav. The coronavirus pandemic could be worse for the industry than even the most dangerous hurricanes are. (Cheryl Gerber/AP)
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In the first few weeks of March, our restaurants were breaking sales records. We were serving thousands of customers in New Orleans each day, rolling into what’s normally the busiest and most lucrative three months of our year.

As I read the news about the pandemic spreading, though, I felt a deep anxiety, the same one I’ve had since Hurricane Katrina took everything away from me in one day almost 15 years ago — the worry that, no matter how successful I became or how busy the restaurants were, it could all vanish out of nowhere. I just always thought it would be another hurricane. Katrina cost me my house and all my belongings, but it spared my first restaurant, Herbsaint. I used to joke that if I had to pick one place to save, I’d choose the restaurant: A house can be rebuilt if you still have an income.

I’ve already lived through one disaster for my industry brought on by a force of nature. And even as we begin to reopen our restaurants, I can already tell this one will be worse.

After the 2005 flood, we were told it might be six months before we could open back up. I felt as if everything I had built — and my career — was gone for good. I had no savings account, no business interruption insurance payment coming (it doesn’t cover floods) and no house. My business partner Bill Hammack and I sneaked into the city nine days after landfall, using fake passes to get past the police, so we could personally assess the damage. We found Herbsaint as we left it: fully set up for service, with running water and gas, but no electricity. We also found lots of rotting food and prehistoric-size flies everywhere. The two of us took on the gruesome task of cleaning out the putrid food.

The togetherness that makes New Orleans great also made us a coronavirus hot spot

But despite the dire forecasts, we opened three weeks later, though with only seven of our previous 45 staff members. We became a beacon of hope and rebirth for the city to rally around. Opening day was a madhouse. Everyone was so happy to be back in a restaurant with full service, complete with wine and real glasses. I’ve never seen such joy and emotion in a restaurant dining room. People were crying. I’m choking up just writing this 15 years later. From that moment on, we were busier than we were before the storm. Six months later, I opened my second restaurant, and the business grew from there.

After Katrina, the return of restaurants gave us all hope that things eventually would be okay — that life would go on. Restaurants have always been a barometer of things to come. They are our happy place, where we meet our friends and family, where we relax, celebrate and live.

This time, all that is under serious threat — not just from the virus, but from the destruction to our industry from months of shutdowns and even more months of the restrictions necessary to keep people safe.  If restaurants don’t get more help, we will see the loss of many beloved independent places that won’t have the means and funds to survive. Along with closures, there will also be massive unemployment — as we’ve already seen. 

In early March, I called a chef friend in Seattle, where shutdowns had already started. Get ready, he said. It happens fast. He was right — just like a storm, it happened overnight. On March 16, we laid off 360 of our staff from our seven restaurants and retained just 100 employees. We had to lay off 30 more over the next few weeks. We kept our chefs, sous chefs, managers and assistant managers on salary. Katrina had taught us to save money, and since we were in the peak of one of our best years, we had some reserves. We threw all that into saving the jobs that we could, paying people to cook meals for our laid-off staff, thanks to donations from the Lee Initiative and Maker’s Mark, Tabasco, Zatarain’s, Popeyes and Reily Foods.

We started offering takeout and delivery but stopped after a week: Our guests weren’t observing social distancing, and no one was wearing a mask. We were also at what turned out to be the height of cases and deaths in the city then. We waited almost two weeks, and when we felt we had safe systems in place, we started up again. But takeout paid only 6 percent of our pre-pandemic business.

We opened Cochon, Pêche and Herbsaint last weekend. It felt great. Our most loyal and local patrons came out to support us. But we have just 25 percent of our normal seating and can serve a maximum of 70 diners per night, when we used to serve more than 600.

Our best-case scenarios still have us at 15 to 20 percent of usual sales for this past week, and the name of the game is survival. We are opening with skeleton crews. We are not going to make money, and we’ve spent all of our reserves. We plan on substantial losses for the next few months, with a slight uptick in business through the fall; we hope to break even in the spring of 2021. There are no correct answers and no good options, but we have no choice but to make the best plan we can.

All of us are stressed. My partners and I have devised dozens of strategies and then changed them, sometimes in the same day. At first, we thought we would have conventions in August, then we thought the festivals would come back in the fall and everything would be better — and then those went away as well.

What we all desperately need right now is a lifeline. The government’s Paycheck Protection Program is badly flawed: It allows loan forgiveness based on how much we spend in the eight weeks after we get the funds, based on how many people we rehire. But most places were closed for at least some of those weeks, and we reopened with a fraction of the business we used to have. Are we supposed to rehire everyone, only to lay them off again and have no money left for other expenses? We need the coverage period for forgiveness to extend to the end of the year, and we need 10 years to pay the loans back, rather than two years. We are not going to be back to normal by then.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition and the National Restaurant Association have been working around the clock to turn the PPP into a viable option to help all restaurants. In addition to the flaws in that program, I find it appalling that the business interruption insurance I have being paying for the past 20 years is absolutely useless. We pay $40,000 to $50,000 a year for coverage to protect us if we’re forced to close. Like many restaurants, we have not received a dime, and it seems unlikely we will, because many insurance policies included loosely worded exemptions for viruses. Hopefully the lawyers can figure this out.

My partner said at the start of this crisis: “Donald, you need to be more pessimistic.” No one has ever told me this; I’ve always been more of a realist than anything. But the one thing I have to believe deep down is that this will end someday. It has to. Just as much as we did 15 years ago, we all need a way back to that hope that things will eventually be okay again.

Twitter: @herbsaintdining

Read more from Outlook:

The virus makes us weigh the value of a life. We can’t know if we’ve gotten it right.

Growing up in New Orleans, and dreading the river’s rise

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