At Quarter-Capacity With No Tourists, New Orleans Restaurants Wonder How To Survive The 'New Normal'

May 27, 2020
Originally published on May 27, 2020 5:25 pm

Before the coronavirus, people would line the block waiting to get a table at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a Treme neighborhood restaurant that serves world-famous fried chicken. Now the block sits quiet — the dining room closed indefinitely and line-forming a dangerous act.

Owner Kerry Seaton-Stewart said she’s rethinking how to run the beloved social institution in the era of social distancing.

“We are catered to table service, and right now we are not doing that. However, we are able to sell takeout and do the delivery apps. So now we are transitioning to Willie Mae’s at home,” she said.

For more than a decade, Seaton-Stewart has been running the family eatery that her great-grandmother Willie Mae founded in the 1950s. Seaton-Stewart grew up in the restaurant and learned firsthand from Willie Mae how to cook and run the operation. So when she thinks about the current state of the economy, she imagines what the late Willie Mae would advise.

“She’s like, ‘You got it. You just stay focused. You think about how you can adjust and it’ll be fine,’” Seaton-Stewart said.

The pandemic has devastated the restaurant industry, especially in New Orleans, where nearly a fifth of residents work in food service. Mayor Latoya Cantrell recently lifted her stay-at-home order, allowing businesses to reopen at 25 percent capacity. It’s better than empty, but nowhere near business as usual. Even some of the city’s most iconic restaurants are unsure how to proceed with so few customers and no tourism season on the horizon.

But this isn’t the first time New Orleans’ restaurant industry has been gutted.

It took Seaton-Stewart and her family two years to rebuild Willie Mae’s after Hurricane Katrina. Rebuilding from this disaster is different, though, because the social nature of restaurants is now their biggest liability.

“It’s tough because it’s a place where people hung out. That’s the foundation of it,” she explained.

According to a national survey, four out of 10 restaurants closed during March and April 2020. Businesses that remained open reported a 78 percent drop in revenue. And those losses forced restaurant owners to lay off or furlough nearly 70 percent of the nation’s food service workforce.

“We’ve been decimated as an industry and we’ll take probably the longest to recover,” said Melvin Rodrigue, chairman of the National Restaurant Association and president of Galatoire’s, the historic French Quarter dining hall.

Because restaurants rely on tourists and tourists come to New Orleans for the restaurants, the city will be hit harder than other places.

Louisiana had the highest rate of unemployment in the country before the pandemic. Since then, more than a half million residents have applied for unemployment, including 130,000 from the accomodation and food industry and nearly 80,000 from Orleans Parish.

“We rely on people coming to New Orleans to visit. We only have under 400,000 residents. It’s just not enough to sustain 1,500 restaurants. That only happens with the 19 million visitors that came to town last year,” Rodrigue said.

Galatoire’s recently resumed dine-in service as part of the city’s first phase of reopening. But with 25 percent capacity limits, the restaurant won’t be making any money. In fact, Rodrigue said Galatoire’s will likely operate at a loss for a year or more before business picks up. Many restaurants can’t afford to do that.

“The restaurant industry is comprised of so many small and independent restaurants, people that have their entire livelihoods tied up. How will those small businesses sustain? We know that they can’t,” Rodrigue said.

According to Rodrigue, many closed restaurants won’t be able to reopen, and more will shutter over time if the government doesn’t provide a bailout. In a recent poll conducted by the James Beard Foundation, four out five independent restaurant owners say they are unsure whether they can survive until things go back to normal.

In addition to destabilizing the city’s job market, mass restaurant closures would undermine the character of New Orleans, a place where dining out is a way of life. From Italian mom-and-pop shops, to soul food diners, Vietnamese eateries and Creole bistros, restaurants are social hubs where people gather to experience the city’s diversity of flavors.

“We love to eat out. These restaurants are essential to our community and the story of New Orleans,” said Zella Palmer, who heads the food studies program at Dillard University.

Neighborhood restaurants played a key role in boosting the city’s economy and morale after Katrina. But this time around, they’re the ones that need to be buoyed up.

“Restaurants are celebrities in our town, and if some of these restaurants close down, it will change the fabric of the community and again we’re repeating this cycle of loss,” she said.

Kerry Seaton-Stewart misses walking into Willie Mae’s and seeing a crowded room full of people sharing meals and conversations.

“The people make it home, the love they give and the love we give back. It’s just that whole support system,” she said.

But she’s not letting nostalgia get in the way of her running the business that her family worked so hard to build. She’s putting all her energy into expanding the restaurant’s takeout operation. Because Willie Mae taught her at an early age the importance of knowing when to adapt.

“Are we ever gonna go back to normal?” she asked. “I don’t think so. And that’s the challenge.”

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