As I write, Chef’s Brigade has idled. I understand Red Bean Krewe shut down this past Sunday. Chef’s Brigade will be back in the near future and I hope the same for Red Bean Krewe, but for the moment the restaurants depending on both organizations are in limbo.
Neither organization was going to “save” New Orleans restaurant industry, because that industry is far too large for citizen-led groups to really affect. There are many more restaurants in New Orleans than existed 10 or 15 years ago, and they employ many more people. The closure of restaurants for anything but delivery and curbside pickup was devastating because so many of our people are employed directly or indirectly by the restaurant industry.
In the last 10-15 years New Orleans has seen an explosion of restaurants and that’s good and bad. The good news is that we have more diversity in our dining options than we’ve ever had. Count me among the people who mourn the loss of fine-dining restaurants but it’s hard to have regrets when there are so many great places to eat and so many different cuisines to experience.
The bad news is that we have a difficult time staffing that number of restaurants. It’s not cheap to live in New Orleans, particularly if you have a family, and the restaurant industry is not known for making the sort of profits that, in better times, oil companies used to make. Restaurants can’t pay too much to fill jobs, but with all of restaurants in town, they’ve been paying more and still looking for workers.
Chefs and restaurateurs told me before the current crisis how hard it was to find people to fill jobs in the kitchen and front of house. They told me that the competition for customers made an already tenuous financial equation more difficult. Not one of them wished ill on any new place; they just worried about how sustainable it all was.
It seems more and more likely that when we eventually reopen for business as usual, we’ll do so with a lot fewer restaurants than we had on Feb. 1. That’s distressing because of the people who’ll be out of work, but it will affect our food culture, too.
It may occur to you that given the arguably over-saturated restaurant market here that losing a few places might be good for the industry overall. That may turn out to be the case, but consider which restaurants are most in danger of closing now?
It’s going to be the small places run by families serving neighborhood customers that will be the first to fold. Those are the places that make us such a great food city. We don’t have any restaurant with Michelin stars, but everywhere you go in New Orleans people know good food, expect good food and will patronize places that have good food.
I hope when we get back to normal and relief arrives that there’s consideration for those places. I hope we keep the family restaurants as well as the new places and the multiple restaurants that, let’s be clear, should have Michelin stars in a just world.
I hope we have visitors again soon and that we are all at least trying to support our favorite restaurants by ordering takeout, if nothing else. I hope we can get through this without losing too many places and without losing our culture. I believe we’ll come out of this OK because this is not the first time we’ve faced adversity and if we hold on to our love of food and good times, we’ll succeed again.