New Orleans is a food town, with a dedicated population that holds on tightly to old favorite haunts, while embracing and celebrating new traditions and new faces.
For our annual December list of restaurant, food and drink “bests,” our team of writers, plus our editorial staff, had the difficult task of honoring some of our favorites, a job made even more challenging with the effects of COVID-19 on the dining scene. Restaurateurs, bar owners, caterers, hospitality workers and more have all faced this year’s unique challenges with hard work, innovation and determination.
The people and places listed within mark some of the best of the best for 2020. We look forward to what the menu has in store for 2021.
Finding a new way to survive has been the name of the game for many businesses in these trying times. But chefs and owners are a creative bunch, and the array of adaptations they have made are pretty remarkable. Here is a look at what a couple of them have done to get by.
Brice Sanderford helped launch Riverboat Coffee in late 2019. Having identified a demand for nitro cold-brew coffee, he and his partners came up with an innovate, self-contained kegerator system that was a turn-key fit for offices that wanted to offer it as an amenity as well as cafes seeking an easy nitro solution without having to install taps and lines. “Then Covid hit,” Sanderford said. “The restaurants closed and the offices shut down.”
The company hit on the idea of home delivery of growlers filled with their signature cold brew. To jump-start the initiative, they reached out to the craft beer delivery service Biermi and onboarded with their platform. It proved to be the perfect tech solution to their logistical needs.
Riverboat uses Arabica beans from Colombia for their coffee. The half-gallon glass growlers are bagged in ice and delivered to your doorstep. “We are kind of like the milk man, but for coffee,” Sanderford said. An emphasis on sustainability also means the used coffee grounds go to local farmers and the old glass growlers are swapped out and reused.
Will Avelar’s family enterprise Mawi Tortillas quickly found its footing in this new landscape. When their wholesale corn tortillas business dried up early on, they built out a kitchen in their West Esplanade location and pivoted to prepare take out and specialty food service. Since then they have become a go-to stop for Central American cheeses, dips, salsa and their Instagrammable (and seriously addictive) Birria Tacos.
Even the grande dames have mixed things up. At Commander’s Palace, the pandemic hastened the execution of a plan long in the works: Le Petit Bleu, a walk-in market next door to the restaurant, decorated in the same trademark turquoise hue. The market opened in September and has been gradually adding offerings, from grab-and-go turtle soup and Commander’s salad to family style and a la carte entrees. The restaurant has even created a house muffaletta.
The Commander’s team has long considered a take-out spot to capture some of the neighborhood’s abundant foot traffic. “Every day, out front, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people wandering around the Garden District,” co-proprietor Ti Martin said. “They want to see the cemetery and that ‘Commodore’s Palace’ place across the street, but they’re in shorts and we don’t have a way to accommodate them… We hate telling anybody no, but we believe in our dress code.”
Commander’s Palace is also unveiling a new line of cocktail mixers, which come in four flavors including a traditional lime daiquiri and the Tequila Mockingbird #2, which Dan Davis calls “the best tequila-based cocktail ever.” The mixers will be available at Le Petit Bleu and for purchase online.
Leave it to Alon Shaya to find an elegant way to pivot without missing a beat. In the early days, when in-house seating was not allowed, Shaya hit on care packages as a way to provide food to (very fortunate) Tulane students whose parents were fretting about how their kids would eat.
“We quickly found that our regular customers were interested as well,” Shaya said. “It has been a hit. We also have a lot of customers giving them as gifts. Kids have been sending them to elderly parents as well as it keeps them from having to go out.”
Saba’s emphasis on spreads, snacks and family-style sharing made it a natural fit for Care Packs. Menus change monthly but the cornucopian bags typically include Labneh, specialty Hummus, farmers market vegetables and foil packs of their amazing pita that can be easily reheated. Little treats like brittle, desserts and spiced seasonal beverages round it out.
While the fallout from coronavirus has killed many businesses, others have sprung up, many of them created by out-of-work hospitality professionals. Parish Parlor is one example, the brainchild of craft cocktail bartenders Kelsey Fisher and Mason Romain, who used this period of unemployment to pursue an unexpected opportunity: making ice cream.
Though Fisher admits to a “wicked sweet tooth,” the pair had no intention of opening an ice cream parlor. Pre-pandemic, Fisher had been accepted into graduate programs for interior architecture, which she hoped to study with the intent of designing bars and restaurants. For Romain, the venture grew out of “quarantine boredom” and experimentation with cooking, baking and, ultimately, ice cream.
In mid-September, Parish Parlor opened to the public, offering an ideal grab-and-go product for pandemic life.
Fisher relies upon her cocktail background for flavor inspiration. “Whenever I create flavor ideas, I think about what I would do if I was making that ice cream into a cocktail… Does it need to be sweeter, saltier, brighter? Is it too tart? Does strawberry taste like fresh, ripe strawberries? Or is there just a hint of fruit?” The results include flavors like Bananas Foster and pumpkin cheesecake, which pair especially well with Parish Parlor’s exquisite house-made waffle cones.
“We are well aware that opening in the midst of a global pandemic is super risky,” Fisher said. “But it also presented a unique opportunity. When else would we have the time necessary to start a new business?”
Lucy Boone Ice Cream
Ice cream has always been Abby Boone’s favorite dessert. When she attended culinary school, the Iowa native became fascinated by the idea that she could infuse milk and cream to create any flavor she wanted. After a decade as a pastry chef, Boone married New Orleanian Aaron Schnell, and the two have launched Lucy Boone Ice Cream, named for the couple’s 10-month old daughter.
“I’ve always wanted an ice cream business,” Boone said. “A couple of years ago, I started dreaming and planning. Then during quarantine, I started making ice cream, and here we are now today.”
Lucy Boone’s flavors change from week to week and often incorporate local and seasonal ingredients. Boone makes every mix-in from scratch, from the caramel swirls to cookie crumbles to candy chunks.
Best-selling flavors include S’mores, which laces a vanilla base with fudge, graham cracker crumbles and marshmallow swirl, and Northshore Honey, for which Boone caramelizes honey and makes chunks of honeycomb candy. The next-level Cold Brew blends a HEY Coffee Co.-steeped base with chocolate cookie crumbles and a caramel swirl. The holiday season will bring ice cream pies and cakes as well as sundae kits (complete with homemade fudge and caramel) designed for gifting.
The couple currently sells pints at pop-up markets around the city, including the weekly markets at Coquette and Coffee Science, but hope to one day open a brick-and-mortar shop, preferably in the Uptown neighborhood where Schnell grew up.
Laozi Ice Cream
On Instagram @Laozi.ice.cream and Facebook at Laozi Ice Cream
Sam Caruso never set out to become an ice cream maker. In fact, just three years ago he was homeless, embarking on sober life after a years-long struggle with addiction. In October 2019, Caruso was in a particularly dark place, recovering from a car accident that nearly killed him. Then he came across a few words that changed his life: “Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems.”
That quote from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” led him to dust off an ice cream machine he had bought for a couple hundred bucks prior to his accident. “I thought, ‘Maybe I can make ice cream with that machine and sell quarts for $10 apiece to neighbors,’” Caruso said.
The New Orleans native always loved cooking, but his time in culinary school taught him that he didn’t want to work in a kitchen. He preferred waiting tables and interacting with customers. What Caruso enjoyed even more, however, was watching the chef there make dessert.
Using what he calls “good culinary common sense” and a passion for experimentation, Caruso began selling his creations to friends. Word began to spread, and Caruso moved production to Mid-City coffee shop Monkey Monkey. Every quart of Laozi (pronounced “lousy”) is hand decorated, including the phrase “Made with Good Vibes.”
Caruso now releases two original flavors every week. A recent release included Minty Dog, featuring a mint custard with white chocolate Oreo bark and condensed milk, and Punkin Head, a roasted pumpkin and mascarpone custard studded with chunks of pumpkin ooey gooey cake, pumpkin spice caramel and pumpkin seed brittle crunch.
The pandemic has meant booming business for Caruso, who sells direct to customers following his every swirl on Instagram. Caruso is hoping to find a production space of his own. Until then, he plans to keep releasing weekly quarts to the growing legion of fans. And he will maintain the spirit of independence and creativity that set him on the path in the first place. “There are good vibes on the lid,” Caruso said. “That needs to ring true.”
Al fresco dining used to be an iffy proposition. The pleasant stretches of weather in spring and fall are more than offset by heat, rain and the occasional hurricane. This year has flipped things on its head, making outdoor dining a lifesaver for restaurants fortunate enough to offer it.
Carrollton favorite Boucherie presents its contemporary southern cuisine with a newly expanded outdoor dining area. Executive chef Nathanial Zimet built the covered patio himself, providing a new, safe and socially distanced way to enjoy the restaurant’s selection of house made charcuterie, Cajun inspired menu dishes and a new happy hour menu with small bites and drink specials (Old Fashioneds for $7? Yes please).
Barracuda rolled the dice with its spacious backyard dining room. The bet paid off. With socially distanced seating for up to 65, it also offers heating and protection from the elements while still maintaining its taco-stand vibe. “We also added a standing bar and turned our breezeway into a pickup window,” owner Brett Jones said. “This whole time our way of thinking has been to just stay one step ahead.” Enjoy a margarita and their excellent fish tacos enlivened with pops of pomegranate at a picnic table out back.
Situated on the Lafitte Greenway, Wrong Iron is a beer garden that offers dining from a revolving cast of food trucks. Dogs are welcome at this laid-back bar just at the foot of Bayou St. John. Rem’s Hoochie Coochie Pop Up was providing a full menu at press time.
Alison Vega-Knoll’s Station 6 in Bucktown has always had an indoor-outdoor vibe. Since coronavirus arrived, she has expanded the seating to include patio space on the left side of the restaurant, creating a wrap-around swath of al fresco seating. “The seating is covered,” Vega said. “One side is protected by a drop-down and the other is screened with bamboo.” Her seared pompano with curried brown butter and cashews is the perfect cool-weather seafood dish.
While many restaurants employed innovation, new ways of doing business and creating new business models, a handful of extraordinary new places made their debut in 2020. We look forward to seeing where a new year takes these pioneers.
Chef Melissa Araujo was born in La Ceiba, Honduras and raised both there and in New Orleans. With family involved in the restaurant business in Honduras, cooking was a natural evolution for her, and in addition to six years in Milan, Italy, she earned a great deal of experience in fine-dining restaurants here, including stints at now-closed Mondo, R’evolution, Doris Metropolitan, Domenica and Shaya.
She opened Alma at 800 Louisa St. in August to serve the food of her native country. It may not have been the ideal time to start any business, let alone a restaurant, but given her experience and the quality of the food she’s putting out, Alma will undoubtedly be around for years.
Araujo makes her own tortillas, but that’s just the start: Alma’s kitchen turns out everything from yogurt, Honduran-style crema, mayonnaise, biscuits and what she calls “Honduran crack” sauce that adorns the “Cric Cric” sliders in house.
If you are familiar with Mexican food, you’ll find a lot of the menu at Alma recognizable; huevos rancheros, breakfast tacos and migas are all options, but the real stars are the Honduran dishes like “Moros y Christianos” (rice and beans cooked with coconut milk and herbs) and a variety of guisos (stews) with main ingredients such as brisket, pork, grilled shrimp or lengua (tongue).
Then there are dishes that aren’t necessarily linked to a specific cuisine, but which reflect Araujo’s skill and experience, like the Louisa toast, which features lump crabmeat, soft scrambled eggs, mushrooms and herbs on a piece of rustic bread. The “Dirty Allison” is one of several “bowl” options; it’s fried chicken with tasso-mushroom gravy over dirty rice with pickled red onions and chimichurri sauce. The Ana shrimp dip comes with local shrimp in a “secret” mayonnaise-based sauce.
New Orleans has a large Honduran community and in the last few years a number of restaurants serving the country’s cuisine have opened. This is a good trend made better with the debut of Alma.
We first met chef Nhat “Nate” Nguyen at Kin, the restaurant he opened in Central City with chef Hieu Than a few years ago. It was a tiny space, with a miniscule kitchen, but they produced inventive takes on all sorts of food. We were most taken by their ramen.
With Jeff Gapultos, Nguyen opened Union Ramen on Magazine Street in August. The restaurant specializes in recipes for the Japanese noodle soup that Nguyen has perfected over the years. Ramen, in its most basic form, is a bowl of broth with noodles and flavorings. There are dozens of regional variations, and Nguyen features two styles distinguished by their broth – Tori is poultry-based and miso features to an umami-rich soup.
The basic Tori ramen is traditional, with roast pork, bamboo shoots, scallions, egg and fried garlic providing the flavor. The regular miso ramen features confit oyster mushrooms, roasted tomato, spinach, wakame seaweed, black garlic oil, poached egg and kale noodles. Then there’s the “Slap-ya-kimchi” mazemen, (brothless ramen) in which the noodles are accompanied by blackened chicken, spinach, house-made kimchi, a poached egg, seaweed flakes and cilantro.
All of the ramen bowls can be customized by adding blackened chicken, roast pork, ground beef, tasso and confit oyster mushrooms.
Nguyen serves shishito peppers with brown butter, thyme and parmesan cheese, and his sweet-spicy chicken wings come with a pepper jelly glaze. Lumpia (Filipino fried spring rolls) are stuffed with cream cheese, crawfish and shrimp, and Spam musubi are a Hawaiian version of a “sushi” roll, with the seaweed wrapped around a filling of canned meat, cucumber, lettuce, curry aioli and rice.
Chef Kina Bullock describes the food at her restaurant, Soulé Cafe as “vegan and friends.” It’s a clever way of explaining that while most of the menu is aimed at vegetarians and vegans, there are options for carnivorous friends, too.
Soulé is a family-style, neighborhood restaurant located in a corner building on Banks Street in Mid-City. It’s the sort of place that has daily specials (red beans on Monday, seafood pasta on Friday) and where food is meant to be shared.
Appetizers like fried green tomatoes, onion rings and spinach dip are all excellently prepared, and if you are a fan of combining sweet and savory flavors, you’ll want to order the fried cauliflower; it’s addictive.
Bullock serves a lot of vegetables, as you’d expect, and they don’t suffer from the lack of meat. There are meat-based versions as well, should you find the concept of collard greens or string beans without some form of pork to be sacrilegious. There are vegan poor boys, as well, and a burger made with jackfruit, which has a neutral flavor and a meat-like consistency that one often is prepared like barbecued pulled pork.
Meat options include chicken, catfish and shrimp poor boys, burgers and many of the dishes can be made with plant-based ingredients. For example, the special on Tuesday is tacos, and you can order them with tofu, cauliflower, beef, chicken or shrimp.
All of this would be nice, and convenient if you have a friend or relative with specific dietary restrictions, but it wouldn’t rate mention were the food not good. It is, though, and it’s a wonderful addition to the neighborhood restaurant scene.
Chef Todd Pulsinelli was born in Germany, where his father was serving in the Air Force, but his family lives in Ohio and that’s where he received his culinary education. It’s also where he met chef Michael Gulotta, whom he’s known for 25 years.
Pulsinelli came to New Orleans 16 years ago for an externship through the culinary program at Nicholls State University. We first became aware of him when he was running the kitchen at Restaurant August, after succeeding Gulotta in that position.
Earlier this year, the Leblanc + Smith group announced that Pulsinelli would oversee the food and beverage program for Hotel Chloe, a 14-room hotel in a converted mansion originally designed by Thomas Sully on St. Charles Avenue, and while the start was a bit rocky, things have picked up.
Part of that is undoubtedly the space itself, a beautifully restored mansion with multiple dining areas both inside and out. It’s what you’d expect from the Leblanc + Smith gang, whose other ventures include Sylvain, Barrel Proof, Cavan and Longway Tavern.
The hotel’s interior design is by Sara Ruffin Costello, and it’s elegant, but not so much that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting on any of the furniture. There is a pool and patios at both the front and rear of the property. When all restrictions are lifted, and when considering the entire property, Pulsinelli told me they can accommodate 120 people.
Chef Pulsinelli is an inventive chef. At Warbucks, the restaurant he opened with BRG Hospitality in 2018 that closed last summer, he did a play on onion rings made with shrimp mousse, and while his menu at The Chloe is not quite that unusual, his cleverness is still on display.
The menu, which is divided into breakfast, lunch and dinner has a base of classic dishes, sometimes played straight and sometimes combined with flavors and ingredients from elsewhere. The seafood salad features shrimp, crabmeat and ravigote sauce, for example, but beef tartare comes with black garlic ice cream and malt vinegar potato chips. There’s a grilled hanger steak with fries and persillade sauce as well as grilled cauliflower and broccoli with crispy chili, peanuts, lime and fresh jalapenos.
There are a good many nods to Creole cuisine, too. Agnolotti Gumbo Z’herbes with pot liquor and the North African hot sauce harissa is one option, and there are shrimp étouffée dumplings with crushed chili and ginger, too.
It’s hard to debut during a pandemic, but The Chloe is making it work.
As the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine and restrictions began to sink in, a group of extraordinary people banded together to make a difference to aid hospitality workers and restaurants across the area, while bringing essential meals and resources to those in need.
When we asked Howie Kaplan what motivated him to do all of the work he’s done to help people during the pandemic, he said it was because he saw the city’s culture bearers – the folks that form the backbone of the authentic New Orleans experience – in trouble. As the owner-operator of the music venue the Howlin’ Wolf, he’s intimately familiar with the musicians, hospitality and service-industry employees who are the “face” of our way of life – the people that locals and visitors meet when they attend a concert, dine out or meet for a cocktail.
They’re a critical component of New Orleans’ economy and more importantly of our essence, and the pandemic has hit them hard, just as it’s hit music venues like the Wolf.
When the virus blew up and the lockdowns started, Kaplan told us that he was reminded of the time after Katrina when Drago’s was serving food in its Fat City parking lot – as so many restaurants did. Kaplan decided to do something similar for musicians, service industry employees, first responders and, at this point, just about anyone who needs assistance.
He partnered with the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic to found Meals for Musicians, and started cooking meals to be picked up by musicians at the Howlin’ Wolf. The organization is now also delivering meals, groceries and other essentials to culture bearers, first responders and in particular older folks who are at the highest risk of exposure to the virus and are homebound as a result. Kaplan has been a part of Chef’s Brigade – serving first responders and at-risk residents of New Orleans – from the early days. He’s worked with purveyors to obtain donations of all sorts of product, and shared those donations with other restaurants when he could.
This year marks 20 years that Kaplan has owned the Howlin’ Wolf, and his primary focus remains on musicians and clubs. He’s active in lobbying in favor of Save Our Stages, (saveourstages.com) a proposed bill in Congress that aims to provide assistance for independent music venues nationwide. Kaplan noted that U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond have co-sponsored the bill in Congress, and there is some optimism that it will pass.
Kaplan is the sort of person who sees a problem and acts on it. He’s a guy who gets things done, and it’s no surprise that’s what he’s doing during the pandemic. He’s one of many people trying to keep our traditions and culture alive, and we’re all lucky that people like him are a part of our community.
Amy Sins, chef/owner at Langlois, has built a substantial side gig: “rogue do-gooder.” Beginning with the Louisiana floods of 2016, Sins has found herself moving closer to the center of efforts to feed and care for people affected by hurricanes, floods and now, a pandemic.
“I’m not a legitimate organization,” Sins said. “I’m just a girl with a Facebook page who facilitates a lot of things and tries to help as many people as possible.”
With the increasing number of disasters affecting the region, that flood and disaster outreach Facebook page has become a hotbed of information exchange among restauranteurs, nonprofit workers, faith-based groups and individuals just looking to help. Sins is in the process of setting up her own 501c3 organization so that she can be even more effective in the work she has grown to love – and that thousands of others have grown to depend on.
Over time, Sins has learned that her greatest contribution to these efforts isn’t necessarily firing up a stove – there are many others capable of that. It’s connecting would-be helpers with people in need: sending an 18-wheeler filled with bottled water or 200 pounds of smoked pork from a New Orleans restaurant to Lake Charles or distributing socks to evacuees affected by Hurricane Laura. Sins works closely with nonprofit organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank, NeedServ, Mercy Chefs and SBP to direct food, supplies and volunteers quickly and effectively.
Sins’ social media network is disaster relief gold. She recalls a moment in 2018 after Hurricane Florence, when she was cooking at Second Harvest for people in the Carolinas who were flooded in and needed food: “I put on Facebook, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be amazing if someone could just give me a private plane and we could fly this to people?’” A contact from NeedServ swiftly responded with a message that she had secured two private planes.
“It gives me chills because you start to realize that this network comes together, and once you find the right connections, you can really make a huge difference,” Sins said. This year, that impact took the form of six 18-wheelers filled with supplies for storm-battered central Louisiana, in addition to scores of smaller gestures that are harder to quantify.
This year has seen many nonprofits consumed by COVID-related efforts, making additional demands – like hurricane response – more challenging. Second Harvest approached Sins this summer with 2,000 pounds of beans and rice that needed cooking; their kitchen had reached capacity with meal relief efforts. Sins quickly found kitchen space within Dickie Brennan’s organization.
“If I call them, they always say yes,” Sins said, as do the Better than Ezra Foundation and frequent collaborator Robért LeBlanc from LeBlanc+Smith Restaurant Group.
Even for the seasoned disaster relief veteran, the work takes a toll. “Every time I say I need to not get so emotionally involved, and I never listen to myself,” Sins said. But she also knows the value of a helping hand, having been on the receiving end of many after Hurricane Katrina flooded her home. “A lot of strangers brought kindness and helped us… Every time disaster strikes, it gives me an opportunity to pay it forward and teach others the process so they can be do-gooders in their communities.”
On March 15, maritime journalist Troy Gilbert sat on his back porch wondering how to help restaurant-owning friends who were facing a dire situation. He recalled an idea he had conceived, but never pursued, after Hurricane Katrina: a system to harness the power of multiple restaurants to feed front line workers. Gilbert called friend Robert Peyton (who is also a writer for New Orleans Magazine) and tapped others in their networks, and Chef’s Brigade was born.
Working quickly to bundle dozens of local restaurants into brigades, the organization was able to deliver its first meals to local first responders on March 26. Chef’s Brigade began crowdsourcing funds and raised $80,000 from people across the country, enough to operate five brigades of restaurants for 42 days.
That initial run proved the brigade concept was effective, but the system needed a more stable source of funds to continue. For three weeks, brigades sat idle while the leadership team searched for funding. A stroke of serendipity came in the form of a request for proposal from the city of New Orleans seeking an operator for a new mass feeding initiative.
Gilbert and Peyton knew the brigade system could handle the proposal’s call to provide 60,000 meals a day, but they needed more partners to make it happen. Revolution Foods and NOCHI stepped up, and the team sketched out a system that would leverage 80 food providers to produce high quality meals that could be distributed safely around the city. The City selected Chef’s Brigade as the winning proposal. “We blew everybody out of the water,” Gilbert said. “But suddenly, we had to turn the thing on a few days later. We did it even without the contracts being signed.”
Since July, Chef’s Brigade has been providing three services: daily hot meals for homeless people; stocking refrigerated trucks at distribution points around the city where registered plan participants can pick up meals; and home delivery to every neighborhood in Orleans Parish (with delivery service provided by d’Livery NOLA).
The 80 participating restaurants represent a broad spectrum of the food industry, covering mom-and-pop shops, caterers, food trucks and old-line French Quarter restaurants. According to Gilbert, “The trick for Chef’s Brigade has been to touch as many restaurants as we can within this program while also not diluting the amount of meals we can push to these restaurants.” Given the bleak outlook for the city’s hospitality industry, Gilbert hopes the program can serve as a “bridge” to help these restaurants get to the other side of the pandemic.
He also believes that this program can – and should – be replicated in other cities and disaster situations. “New Orleans should take pride in the fact that New Orleanians have built this system that is unprecedented in the culinary and natural disaster history of the U.S. I am stunned it hasn’t been pushed out to the rest of the country because it is economical and efficient. It is absolutely making a difference in effectively saving a huge chunk of the New Orleans restaurant industry – keeping people employed and keeping people fed.”
Feeling at Home with Delivery
Although 2020 brought some trends we’d like to forget, there were a few positive developments as well. Fresh croissants or boiled seafood delivered to our doorsteps? Yes, please. Finding restaurant-made products we love in our local grocery stores was also a win. And the collaborations that sprouted among various independent makers gave rise to some amazing markets. We’d be happy to see these phenomena stick around even after coronavirus (finally) makes its exit.
Mr. Shrimp is on Facebook at Mr. Shrimp and Instagram @mrshrimp504.
Mr. Shrimp delivers fresh local shrimp, either raw or as the featured ingredient in that week’s special dish. For Larry Thompson, Jr., Mr. Shrimp is both his company name and his identity. “One of my customers said, ‘The name fits you because of how you produce the product,’” Thompson said. “You have to stand by your name.”
Thompson has long been drawn to food, developing his talents in the kitchens of House of Blues and Margaritaville, among others. More recently, Thompson served as full-time caregiver – and cook – for his ailing father, who complimented his son’s frequent use of seafood. When his father passed in April 2019, Thompson decided to get serious with seafood, forging relationships with local shrimp boats and becoming a wholesaler for New Orleans businesses and consumers.
Mr. Shrimp launched in August 2019, but with the onset of the pandemic, business took off, particularly among customers seeking fresh local seafood without a trip to the store. Now, Thompson delivers raw shrimp Monday – Saturday, as well as selections from his 300 prepared seafood recipes. Those plates range from boiled and fried seafood to fan favorites like shrimp alfredo with garlic bread and fried fish.
Thompson has also released “Throw it in the Pot” seasoning to help customers replicate his seafood boils at home. As the holidays approach, Mr. Shrimp plans to keep customers well stocked with shrimp for stuffing, gumbos and other traditional favorites.
Thompson prides himself on personalized customer service: “When you buy anything from me, or if I just talk to you on the phone, it feels like I’ve known you for years.” He considers it a blessing to serve those who are homebound, citing two elderly women who are longstanding customers. Although he is grateful for the many new clients who have found him during the pandemic, Thompson misses sharing the warm greetings – even selfies with customers – that were a pre-coronavirus Mr. Shrimp hallmark.
“My purpose in life – I love to see people happy,” Thompson said. “The product is good, but when I cook it, I feel like I’m giving you me. A lot of things have changed during this pandemic, and for me to give you a little taste of New Orleans in your home, it makes me feel like I’m doing something with myself.”
Collabs + Markets
The effects of the pandemic continue to disrupt the status quo, creating a chaotic environment through which operators must pick a careful path. a silver lining has been the launch of a new gourmet market, a high-tech upgrade for a traditional farmers’ market, and the birth of an artsy, hyperlocal weekend collab. the ways businesses have found to adapt has been remarkable.
Coffee Science in Mid-City has always been more than a coffee shop – owner Tom Oliver is curious and inventive and has been tinkering with the store’s DNA since opening back in 2018. But corona (and the help of his business partner Leah Valtrot) has thrown this inventiveness into overdrive.
“Early on we were hearing from our customers that they couldn’t get things they needed in the groceries like milk and produce,” Valtrot recalled. “I reached out to Covey Rise [Farms] to see if they’d be interested in doing produce boxes for us and it took off from there.”
This initial collaboration morphed into what has become an exceptionally well-curated small market. The vendors are hyperlocal — relative newcomers to the food scene like Lucy Boone Ice Cream, Viola Heritage Breads and more. They represent the next generation of purveyors and you can catch them all here on Sundays between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Coffee Science also offers an evening open-air art market on weekends with pop-up dinner service from purveyors like Wolf n’ Swallow.
What is more decadent than waking to a warm-from-the-oven croissant or crusty baguette outside your front door? The owners of Compagnon Bakery, Quinn Berger and Andrew Roth, tapped into this need for comfort during the most challenging months of 2020. Their initial pivot to home delivery was born of necessity, with farmers markets closed and restaurant and café wholesale accounts suspended. But even after those sales resumed, the pair enjoyed delivery so much that they continued offering it.
Compagnon’s philosophy is built upon its use of organic grain from Barton Springs Mill in Texas to create naturally leavened breads and pastries ranging from crusty table loaves to lush brioche cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting.
Like many small producers, Compagnon saw its footprint grow during the pandemic, making a strong social media push to help customers find them online. They also benefited from pre-order, drive-through farmers markets. “With the drive-through market, we got a lot of new customers,” Berger said. “It’s an even playing field, rather than walking into the market and buying the first loaf you see.”
It helped that Compagnon was offering the right product at the right time. “In the beginning, grocery stores kept running out of bread, and people needed bread,” Berger said. They also needed comfort in the form of cinnamon rolls, one of Compagnon’s most popular items, croissants and pecan raisin chocolate loaves.
As they work toward their goal of eventually opening a storefront, Berger and Roth will keep pushing to expand wholesale and retail sales (current outlets include restaurants Justine, La Petite Grocery and Patois, in addition to Café Bon Ami, Faubourg Wines and St. James Cheese Company). But they will also continue delivery, something Berger considers a “silver lining” of the pandemic. “For people who can’t get to the market, we are thankful there are opportunities for them to get fresh local bread.”
Breads + Bakeries
Alison Vega-Knoll is best known as the owner of Station 6, her on-point seafood spot in Bucktown. But several years back she owned a gourmet food shop in Antigua. This experience now informs Larder, a new destination for prepared food, deli and wine in Metairie.
“The model is for the times,” said Vega, who co-owns Larder with Emeril’s alum Chris Wilson. “People can easily pick up restaurant quality food. We knew it wasn’t the time to open a restaurant but we saw the success that groceries were having with prepared foods and decided to follow suit.”
The focus is on quality, speed and convenience. Customers can order ahead and pick up in person or through the drive-through. Counter service is also offered. Larder turns out next-level prepared foods to go such as heat-and-serve family meals, charcuterie platters and creative salads. A variety of local companies sell their wares here as well, including Piccola Gelateria and Gracious Bakery. Keep Larder in mind to help with upcoming holiday meals and gifts.
Crescent City Farmers Market
Few enterprises are as community-focused as the Crescent City Farmers Market. So when the pandemic struck, organizers were left in a difficult position – how to safely reopen and connect their wide network of vendors with the individual customers. Complicating the picture was their need to accommodate SNAP enrollees. Eventually they settled on WhatsGood, a farmers market-focused app that seamlessly helped link vendors with customers. “That was a great solution for us – customers could place orders with multiple vendors and pay them directly,” Director of Markets Angelina Harrison said.
Customers order online and print out a placard that is placed on their dash. They are then directed through a loop of vendor stalls where farmers and purveyors place the pre-packed orders in the vehicle. As restrictions ease, the more traditional market will return along with hybrid models, but so long as there is a demand for this model of service CCFM will continue offer it. “So far it has been a great fit for our vendors and our customers,” Harrison said.
Kate Heller’s professional journey has taken her many places, but she always felt happiest by an oven. Heller owns Leo’s Bread, a pop-up bakery whose rustic loaves, pastries and bagels have long been a Crescent City Farmers Market staple. When the pandemic closed the markets, Heller took Leo’s on the road, offering home delivery to carb-seeking customers.
“Delivery helped things stay steady,” Heller said. “It’s such a basic and comforting food, bread and pastries. People really responded to that – getting some treats when the world was in total chaos.”
The Washington, D.C. native started Leo’s Bread after moving to New Orleans about seven years ago. During the venture’s “scrappy” early days, Heller sold loaves from the trunk of her car outside a Mid-City coffee shop. She continued to hone her skills, working part-time at the French Quarter’s Croissant d’Or Patisserie while operating Leo’s on the side.
Heller eventually connected with Gavin Cady and Theresa Galli of restaurant 1000 Figs, and the trio teamed up to open Echo’s Pizza in Mid-City in early 2018. That venture closed in the summer of 2019, and Heller was eager to get back to baking. She resurrected Leo’s and returned to the farmers market, happy to be outdoors interacting with vendors and customers once again.
Heller is now working on her next step: opening a neighborhood bakery. Heller is excited for Leo’s Bread to have a permanent spot, which happens to be right by the coffee shop where she once sold bread from her car.
During a tumultuous period, Heller had what she calls her “pandemic epiphany”: “You’ve got to stay happy. I want to keep making things that make people happy.”
Viola’s Heritage Breads
Carla Briggs and Kathryn Conyers created a line of baked goods designed to evoke memories of family traditions, especially their signature teacake. Even when a customer tells Briggs, “It’s a really good cookie, but it’s not the one my grandmother made,” she knows they have struck an all-important chord of nostalgia.
Viola’s Heritage Breads emerged early in the pandemic when Conyers noticed the shortage of bread in grocery stores. She tried to make her own but failed – repeatedly. That’s when she joined forces with Briggs, a friend and pastry chef. They initially sought to make simple loaves suitable for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. After positive feedback from friends, they branched out to sweet potato rosemary, now their most popular loaf, as well as brioche and seeded loaves, teacakes, cornbread and cookies.
Briggs believes customers are drawn to the simplicity and comfort of their offerings as well as the desire to support a Black-owned, women-owned business. “We are defying the odds to create something good,” Briggs said.
Currently Viola’s Heritage Breads are sold online (for delivery and pickup) and at popup markets around the city, but the owners hope to place their products in grocery stores, making them more accessible and building a business for the long term. In the meantime, the company will offer gift subscriptions of bread for the new year as well as king cakes for Carnival, both a traditional flavor, and in a nod to their Heritage, sweet potato.
When the number of COVID-19 cases began spiraling in New Orleans in March, many businesses shut their doors for months while figuring out their next moves. Gracious Bakery was not one of them. According to co-owner Megan Forman, Gracious closed its doors on a Friday, furloughing employees. By the end of the day, she and husband/co-owner Jay Forman (who is also a long time New Orleans Magazine contributor) were already working out a plan to reopen.
“By the following Wednesday, we had devised a pre-order menu,” Forman said. “Jay did all the transactions at our Prytania location, and I did all the cooking and baking for a month or two.” The pair gradually brought in more employees to meet customer demand for staples like baguettes and breakfast pastries as they felt their way from one unpredictable week to the next.
During this challenging year, Gracious made collaboration a priority. The bakery hosted pop-ups from several local bakers and chefs, including Serigne Mbaye of Senegalese-inspired pop-up Dakar Nola, Katitlin Guerin of Lagniappe Baking, and Indigo Soul Cuisine.
According to Forman, these collaborations highlighted the need for empathy in a difficult time. “Let’s help each other,” she said. “There are so many amazing bakers now, people who don’t have spaces. Let’s give them a taste of what it’s like to run your own thing and get their names out. These talented younger people might not have the resources or springboard. I like to think trying to do the right thing comes back around.”
As for customer appetites, people are seeking indulgence. “People will often go crazy for something on Instagram but don’t actually buy it,” she said. “Now they will – life’s too short.”
These indulgences include donuts, which had left the menu temporarily but have now returned for good. “We will never take those off again,” Forman said. “There was near murder.”
As Gracious closes out a year to remember (but not repeat), they are already gearing up for king cake season. This year, in addition to their popular selection of king and queen cakes, Gracious will be offering a king cake mix for people hoping to replicate the delicacy at home.
Libations To-Go (and More)
Over the past nine months, restaurants, bars and brewpubs endured tumultuous ups and downs with changing regulations around alcohol sales. When establishments were forced to close their doors to patrons in the spring, to-go cocktails, wine and beer offered a revenue lifeline to suffering establishments. As the pandemic worsened, city government banned to-go beverages in late July, ultimately legalizing them again in October as the number of COVID-19 cases dropped. Along the way, a few spots stood out for their mobile drink offerings.
Picnic Provisions & Whiskey
When bars and restaurants started turning to take-away, Picnic Provisions & Whiskey was a step ahead because the restaurant’s picnic-friendly philosophy has always included casual food and drink to-go. In addition, the shaded outdoor picnic tables and cornhole entertainment were perfect for social distancing – no makeover needed.
“We wanted to have it be one of those spots that mom and dad can bring the kids and the dog but they also want something good to drink,” owner and co-founder Ti Martin said. “That’s why whiskey is in the title.”
As shifting city regulations behind to-go alcohol sales permitted, Picnic focused on offering appealing beverages that could be enjoyed anywhere. “We were one of the first to get the to-go cocktail license,” Martin said. Takeout beverage hits included the frozen pina colada and “Adult juice boxes,” all sealed in plastic pouches. The junior set can sip on a Ducktail, which blends house made lemon-lime soda with sour blue raspberry ice cubes and a rubber duckie.
As restrictions relaxed, customers could once again enjoy Picnic’s You Make Me So Happy Hour Wednesday through Sunday as well as monthly whiskey tastings. They can also sample the continually evolving menu, which now extends from crawfish boil hot fried chicken and the wildly popular blue crab dip to lighter options like a grilled chicken club sandwich or an Ochsner Eat Fit-approved salad.
“Picnics are such a big part of COCIS,” Martin said. “People want to be outside and they want to have something good to eat.”
Urban South Brewery
One of the city’s largest craft brewers, Urban South Brewery, kept customers coming into its Tchoupitoulas Street facility by developing a more take-home-friendly approach. According to founder Jacob Landry, prior to the pandemic, 90 percent of Urban South’s product went to distributors for sale in grocery stores, bars, and restaurants, with the rest enjoyed by customers in the onsite taproom.
With the taproom shuttered, Urban South aimed to make it easier for customers to purchase and take those specialty brews to-go. The brewery typically releases a slate of three to four brand-new specialty beers every Thursday evening so that customers can pick them up throughout the weekend. These releases include creative concoctions like the All Tropical Triple or the Side Line Dry Hopped Gose as well as packaged “beer slushies” in flavors such as Lychee Guava Mint.
According to Landry, the wholesale-heavy brewery took a dramatic hit when bars and restaurants closed in the spring but was largely able to offset losses with robust retail sales as customers purchased Urban South standards like Who Dat Golden Ale and Paradise Park American Lager in stores.
As of press time, city regulations allow Urban South to offer outdoor seating and limited indoor service, with potential for more. Until then, Landry hopes the to-go model will continue helping to sustain the business: “It certainly doesn’t make up for not being able to open onsite, but it’s definitely been a lifesaver.”
Palm & Pine
The proprietors of French Quarter restaurant Palm & Pine know a thing or two about resilience. After opening in July 2019, the fledgling business suffered a blow with the collapse at the nearby Hard Rock site in October 2019. Then came coronavirus.
Through all the obstacles, chefs and co-owners Amarys and Jordan Herndon have soldiered on, working with their team to offer creative cocktails to-go, host a range of pop-ups showcasing local talent, and serve fellow members of the hospitality community with free weekly meals.
To-go batched cocktails were an early key to bringing customers back to Palm & Pine. “We had people making a small to-go food order and a large batched cocktail order,” Amarys said. The drinks were also affordably priced, from $30 to $40 for a quart.
For people “Festing in place,” the restaurant created “Jazzeracs” by the quart. “It’s something that felt like New Orleans, felt like Jazz Fest and connected us to our guests we were missing,” Amarys said. As the weather warmed, the bar team concocted boozy sno-balls with homemade syrups incorporating seasonal fruits.
Amarys credits “stubbornness and creativity” with getting the restaurant through rocky times. “We use it as a skill or accomplishment instead of feeling defeated,” she said.
The Herndons also feel a responsibility to help others in the service industry, serving them free meals every Monday since the shutdown began. “We have only missed one week,” Amarys said. They have brought in guest bartenders to serve at weekly Pop-up Tuesdays, giving out-of-work industry members an additional earning opportunity.
Pop-ups hold a special place in the heart of Palm & Pine, which started out by popping up in local establishments Erin Rose and Black Penny. “Taking care of people in our industry is the foundation of what we want to do, no matter what,” Jordan said.
Though Palm & Pine’s early days have thrown plenty of curveballs, the Herndons remain optimistic. “I am excited for us as a restaurant,” Jordan said. “I can’t wait, whatever happens when we get out of this, to hit the ground running.”
Twelve Mile Limit
As Mid-City watering hole Twelve Mile Limit celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, owner T. Cole Newton is riding a wave of ups and downs. Like other neighborhood bars, Twelve Mile Limit seemed to reinvent itself again and again through the roller coaster of COVID-related government regulations. In March, Newton set up an “ad hoc, low tech” preorder system with contactless payment. A couple of weeks later, the bar shut down completely for a month-and-a-half before a conditional restaurant permit allowed it to offer packaged drinks and frozen specialties to-go.
After another round of loosening and tightening rules, Twelve Mile Limit was finally able to settle into a system of patio dining (with food provided by longtime resident pop-up Que Pasta) and drinking, with to-go beverages still playing a key role. Customers can order ready-to-drink batches of customer favorites like the bourbon-based “Baudin” cocktail as well as classic daiquiris and an expert Old Fashioned.
Most important for Newton is that bars survive. “Neighborhood bars are so critical to New Orleans’ cultural identity,” he said. “People love their neighborhood bars… They are a hub for the community in a meaningful and tangible way, an important part of people’s lives. It’s tough that we are on the brink of losing so many of them.”
For Barrel Proof, to-go cocktails have offered a small window of normalcy in an anything-but-normal time. The bar first closed its doors from March 16 until early July. At that point, frozen-friendly regulations from city government led Barrel Proof, primarily a whiskey bar, to purchase a frozen drink machine and begin serving margaritas through a to-go window. The frosty drinks were popular with neighbors and regulars until the bar was forced to shut down again in late July amidst rising COVID-19 numbers.
On Sept. 13, Barrel Proof was back in action, with a conditional restaurant license and a popup kitchen serving food from Matchbook Kitchen and Que Pasta. “We have changed the way we approach service, but it has at least allowed us to be open and keep our heads slightly above water until things start to get better,” Barrel Proof partner Liam Deegan said.
As of press time, Barrel Proof’s walk-up window is open from noon until 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, making it an ideal place to grab a cocktail of any kind – from pours of whiskey to frozen margaritas – while strolling Magazine Street or enjoying Barrel Proof’s outdoor seating. At 4 p.m., the bar opens inside for dinner service.
Over the course of the year, Deegan has seen changes in local drinking habits. “We noticed people weren’t drinking as late as they used to – they were shifting more to day drinking.” Now, he observes, people are coming in at all times.
Deegan and his colleagues are just grateful to see those customers coming. “People have been really happy to see the doors open, to come in and support us. It’s nice… to have a little sense of normalcy.”
Best Take Out
‘To go’ orders have been an indispensable source of revenue for restaurants this year. Some owners have had to adapt to this new demand whereas others were already were well suited for it. Here are some of our favorites.
Wishing Town Bakery
Wishing Town may be best known for its stunning desserts, including airy, multi-layer “Mille Cakes” in creative iterations like green tea. But what many don’t know is that it also offers a terrific savory menu that is well-suited to takeout. What’s more, its authenticity is a welcome departure from Americanized Chinese fare. Try the mini bao, bite-size steamed buns, as well as the “Onion and Beef Triangle Dumplings” and “Chicken Floss Cold Noodle.”
At press time, this Bywater favorite was only offering pickup and delivery. Yet few dishes lend themselves better to takeout than pizza. And when the pizza comes from arguably the city’s best New York-style pie stop, you’ve got a take-out dish that everyone will enjoy.
Brigtsen’s is an example of a restaurant that had to adapt. “I realized early on that some dishes just would not work, like our seafood platter,” owner Frank Brigtsen said. “But it gave us an opportunity to do things in a different way and serve dishes we wouldn’t otherwise be serving.” Along with classics like his “Roasted Duck with Dirty Rice and Cherry Sauce” and an insanely delicious crab and corn bisque, look for more left-field choices like “Duck Boudin Egg Rolls.”
Chefs and Grocers Team Up
2020 was a banner year for retail groceries. The onset of stay-at-home life brought skyrocketing demand for staples from sliced bread to household cleaners to toilet paper, and stores fought to keep shelves stocked. It didn’t take long for chefs and restauranteurs to determine that one of the best places to connect with their former dining public was in the aisle of their neighborhood grocery.
Rouses stocked items including Galatoire’s shrimp remoulade and Saba’s hummus and pita. Langenstein’s offerings included lentil soup from Jamila’s Café and GW Fins’ Salty Malty ice cream.
According to Langenstein’s COO Trey Lanaux, the connections happened organically. “It just kind of originated with talking to customers who had restaurants or knowing businesses who weren’t doing well. We figured we were doing well, and we had the ability to help people out, so we started bringing on their products.” In some cases, like with Jamila’s soup, Langenstein’s turned over all the sales to the restaurant. For others, the store provided a valuable distribution point, like for NOLA Boils, which held crawfish boils in the parking lot of Langenstein’s Metairie location.
Collaborations extended beyond food to health and safety. According to Lanaux, “We had customers that started making face masks at home with their sewing machines, and we would sell those and donate the proceeds to local nonprofits.” Stores also stocked hard-to-find hand sanitizer from locally owned NOLA Brewing Company and Seven Three Distilling Co. As Lanaux said, “It was like a wartime effort.”
While eating outside and picking up take-out has become second nature to New Orleanians, many restaurants found themselves pivoting in creative ways with new window-service options that is serving them (and their customers) well.
When CureCo (the folks behind Cure and Cane & Table) announced the restaurant they planned to open on Freret Street, it was to be called “La Ventana at Val’s,” an indication that takeout service was always intended to be an important part of their business model – ventana means “window” in Spanish.
They dropped the “La Ventana” at some point, but the idea was prescient, as current circumstances greatly favor eateries with outdoor and takeout options. The means by which food is served, however, is less important than the food itself, and the offerings at Val’s do not disappoint.
Chef Alfredo Nogueira, chef at Cane & Table, oversees a small menu of Mexican dishes, including antojitos like chips with a choice of charred tomato or cremosa salsas, guacamole, queso fundido with chorizo, shrimp ceviche, frijoles charros (pinto beans with bacon) and elotes, Mexican-style grilled corn on the cob.
Tacos are served on house-made tortillas, and can be ordered with crispy beef (suaderos, or crispy chopped beef belly), pork shoulder, chicken in green mole sauce, Baja-style fried fish and sweet potato with salsa macha, a piquant, nutty salsa made with dried chiles.
As befits a restaurant from CureCo, there’s an excellent selection of cocktails based on tequila and mezcal that run well past the standard margarita. There are a few wines by the glass, beers and a michelada, which should be on more menus.
Some might say that Angelo Brocato has always been a “window service” place. There are a few tables, but a lot of people order their pastries and frozen desserts to go, if only because it’s hard to get a seat much of the time.
After the lockdowns, though, the limited space inside the shop put the iconic place in a difficult position. In response, they put a window in the door that previously was an employee-only entrance, and they’ve been serving their specialties from it successfully ever since.
Angelo Brocato Original Ice Cream Parlor has been around since 1905. That kind of longevity does not happen by accident. There just aren’t that many places where you can get the sort of high-quality pastries, cookies, cakes and baked goods of all kinds that they make, and nowhere to find some of the Sicilian specialties they produce.
Take the biscotti regina – the oblong sesame cookies – are indisputably the best thing one can have with an espresso or strong coffee, followed closely by the cuccidati fig cookies.
Then there are the almond crescents, with their ends dipped in a bittersweet chocolate. They are not actually made by angels, but they could be.
You may also be aware that Angelo Brocato Original Ice Cream Parlor serves gelato and fruit ices. These are also outstanding, and while you can purchase them in local groceries, there’s something special about getting a scoop or two at the source.
Junior’s on Harrison
Junior’s on Harrison took over the space formerly occupied by Cava late last year after a renovation.
Junior’s is owned by Nick Hufft and Lon Marchand, who also run two restaurants in Baton Rouge – Curbside Burgers and the Overpass Merchant in addition to Gail’s Fine Ice Cream, a dessert truck.
They had planned to open a window on the side of Junior’s to serve their ice cream before the pandemic, but after the lockdowns, they’ve used it for takeout service. It’s worked well; it allows a separate area for people picking up food, and when there’s a line for indoor dining, customers can order a drink while they wait.
Junior’s menu is eclectic – starters include a thai peanut salad, cheese curds with ranch dressing and steamed buns with a choice of Korean pork belly or hot chili cashew chicken.
Larger plates include a cheeseburger and spicy chicken sandwich as well as a Korean “Philly” sandwich, which adds bulgogi-style ribeye to the classic combination of caramelized onion and white “whiz” on a seeded French bun. Weekly specials include items like red beans on Monday, and catfish and corn maque choux on Thursday, with discounted beverages from an extensive cocktail list each day.
Purveyors + Produce
Restaurants and establishments rely on the fresh produce, seafood and market deliveries. Coronavirus restrictions forced many purveyors to make a shift, by providing products both to organizations in need, as well as direct to homes, with winning results for all.
Louisiana Fresh Produce
Louisiana Fresh Produce, has a long history of supplying local restaurants, hotels and caterers, among others with “farm to table” connections and high quality ingredients. They also have a consistent record of supporting groups and causes. Add to that list a number of groups working to feed people during the pandemic, including Chef’s Brigade.
In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, and remembering the huge amount of product they were forced to throw away after Katrina, they opened the doors of their warehouse and over five days, donated thousands of dollars-worth of produce to service industry workers.
Piazza Seafood is the sort of company that has been around a long time, but which you probably haven’t heard of, working behind the scenes, supplying restaurants.
The Piazza family traces its roots to Sicily. They came here in the 19th century and not long thereafter they were involved in the seafood business. Starting with a hand-drawn cart, the family built the business to what it is today, a trusted purveyor of quality seafood.
They specialize in local seafood, but they have global reach and offer everything from catfish collarbone to high-end sushi-grade fish.
David Biggar works at Piazza, and when the pandemic hit, he immediately saw that his customers were going to be in trouble. He looked around and found Chef’s Brigade and started offering discounts and donations to restaurants cooking for first responders and, later, for the community.
Like most purveyors, Piazza had a lot of product they’d expected to sell. They could have declared it a loss and made an insurance claim, possibly, but this is a company that would rather not see product go to waste. Piazza Seafood is a local operation, and a part of the community, so while it shouldn’t be a surprise that they stepped up during a time of crisis, it’s remarkable.
Ragged Branch is a producer of Virginia straight bourbon. It’s a fantastic, award-winning bourbon, but that’s not why we’re writing about them here. It’s also not because of the Louisiana Reserve Bourbon they produce in honor of Chris Sarpy, a New Orleans native and one of the owners of the company.
Rather it’s because Ragged Branch decided early on to grow the grain that they’d use in their whiskeys, and as a result they ended up in the cattle business. They have 50 to 100 cows on two properties at any given time, and those cows have the great good fortune to consume the residual mash from their distillation process.
This is similar to the way certain cows are fed the lees from sake production in Japan. Those cows are the true “Wagyu” beef, and while so far as I know the folks at Ragged Branch don’t massage their steers as sometimes happens in Japan, the meat they harvest from their cows is among the finest you will taste.
When pandemic restrictions caused restaurants to close, Ragged Branch had a good bit of ground beef that needed a home. They donated hundreds of pounds of it to feed first responders in New Orleans, and they’ve continued to support local efforts to feed people in need.
Ragged Branch didn’t ask for publicity for their donation, and most of the first responders who benefitted from it have no idea where the best beef they’ve eaten came from.
As people hunkered down at home, screens became lifelines to jobs, school, friends and family. Restaurants and food and beverage institutions quickly picked up on the opportunity to connect with the community online.
Commander’s Palace “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” Wednesdays virtual wine and cheese seminar/costume party/bacchanal hosted by Commander’s Palace may have begun as a lark, but it snowballed into a pandemic fixture that shows no signs of stopping.
After the first successful event, the number of attendees doubled… then doubled again. “It was lightning in a bottle,” Commander’s Palace “Wine Guy” Dan Davis said. The team set up a system for wine and cheese deliveries and pickups for attendees, whose ranks continued to grow. The weekly event became a fixture on many calendars – Davis estimates that around 75 households have attended continuously since the beginning. “We even notice when one of them is out of town,” he says.
Beth Biundo Sweets
Local bakery owner Beth Biundo moved her popular baking classes online. Each class covers a single topic, from biscuits to pâte a choux to tarte tatin. Classes are interactive, with participants typing questions in real time as they cook along. They are also completely hands-on, with students making every recipe element, as opposed to working with pre-chilled dough in a standard class.
The classes can be given as gifts – one of many options Biundo offers for the holidays, including packaged items like pound cakes and mini sugar cookies, and her signature special order cakes.
4801 Tchoupitoulas Street.
When Hansen’s Sno-Bliz owner Ashley Hansen reopened this summer, she had to adapt to salvage the store’s peak earning season by implementing a sidewalk system that included social distancing and Plexiglass screens. She first reopened with a limited menu, but quickly expanded the selection after customers begged for their favorites. “People want what they want,” which, according to Hansen, are New Orleans flavors like nectar and satsuma.
Chance in Hell Snoballs
On Instagram @chanceinhell_snoballs
Local cabaret and drag performers Kitten and Lou created the weekend porch pop-up, located at the corner of France and Burgundy Streets, in late May and the business quickly boomed, with an estimated 200 sno-balls a day at their peak.
Chance in Hell uses all-compostable packaging and organic produce from local growers, with a rotating menu of creative flavors like ginger basil plum and the “Vampire Slayer,” a blend of black garlic, molasses and chocolate.
Culinary Classes with a Local Flair
For local food-and-beverage-related organizations that relied heavily on foot traffic and in-person workshops, online classes became a logical – and necessary – step. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum, the Sazerac House and NOCHI faced a common challenge when they could no longer offer in-person classes, and they all developed remote offerings to keep people learning even from afar.
Sazerac House has brought several of its cocktail-related offerings online. Cocktail kits are available for curbside pickup, and participants can choose from “Drink and Learn” classes on topics like Creole holiday traditions or virtual cocktail demonstrations.
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum has restarted many of its in-person offerings, but it also maintains virtual options. Every Wednesday at 4 p.m., the Museum goes live on Facebook with cook-along programming, with topics ranging from homemade peanut butter cups to cookie decorating to holiday latkes and more. Classes are free, and calendar information is available on the Museum’s Facebook page.
The New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute (NOCHI), also turned to the internet to reach its at-home clientele. NOCHI kicked off its “Cooking in Quarantine” series (now “NOCHI Together”), during the early days of quarantine. The classes have offered participants from all over the world a chance to cook along with talented instructors as they work their way across cuisines. Participants can register in advance to receive shopping lists and recipes so that they can create in real time or replicate dishes at their convenience.