[New Orleans Creole Cookery/Facebook]

The Big Comeback of Dining In: Are We Ready?

23:44 May 11, 2020
By: Kathy Bradshaw

In a foodie and fun-loving city like New Orleans, the closure of our restaurants and bars has been a very hard hit. We miss our brunches, our martini lunches, our oyster Happy Hours. All the service industry workers surely miss their jobs. And although select local restaurants have still been cooking up our favorites this whole time for curbside pickup and delivery, it's just not the same as a sit-down meal with fine service and a cocktail fresh from the bar. Takeout simply can't take the place of a meal out.

Those restaurants that have remained open to offer us food to go have managed to bring in some revenue, but places everywhere are still struggling to stay afloat among the decreased business—to say nothing of the lack of tourist and convention dollars that most local restaurants rely heavily on.

And now, as restaurants are finally gearing up to reopen their dining rooms, there are still plenty of things to consider: What does that look like now? How can restaurant workers and guests stay safe? And are people really ready to sit in a restaurant and eat, side by side, again?

Anna Tusa and her husband AJ, owners of local restaurants Briquette and New Orleans Creole Cookery, also own Hammerhead's Bar & Grill and Roberto's Pizza in Sandestin, Florida. Florida is slightly ahead of us on the grand reopening path, and Tusa opened her restaurants there this past Monday, May 4.

We asked her how she is working the "new normal" of eating out and how she will soon transition this over to her New Orleans eateries as well.

"Even though Florida doesn't require masks for employees, we follow the CDC guidelines, and everyone on our staff wears mask and gloves," she says. "We properly sanitized the restaurant while closed, have policies in place for social distancing, cleanliness between uses, etc."

As per city and state government law, she has already put other safety precautions into place as well, including single-use paper menus, "no-touch" menus with QR codes, and lower seating capacity. To limit contact among people, there will be no table service for the time being. Counter-service style, customers will order, pick up, and take their own food to the table themselves. Want another cocktail? You'll need to walk up to the bar and order another one, because "no one's going to bring anything to you at the table," Tusa explains. In addition, she tracks all employees in a log, checking in with them consistently—complete with temperature checks—to see if they have been exposed to the virus or are exhibiting any symptoms.

Tusa also plans to put into effect a program that she refers to as "customer education," where restaurant guests will need to be schooled on the number of people who can sit at any one table and social distancing protocols. Every customer will also need to leave both their egos and their personal details at the door, including name, address, and telephone numbers, for coronavirus "contact tracing." And remember those old-school signs that used to be posted in restaurants everywhere: "No shirt, no shoes, no service"? Well, the 2020 version will read, more or less: "Experiencing symptoms of COVID-19? You can't come in. Recovering from COVID-19? Sorry, please come again later." It's the sad reality of the coronavirus age.

Since the Monday reopening of their Sandestin restaurants, Tusa has already seen some encouraging signs. People have been turning up to take advantage of their dockside dining, and their takeout orders there have increased significantly. Even though up to 25 percent seating capacity is allowed indoors in Florida restaurants, people are opting instead to eat outdoors. But either way, they're coming out and eating out.

As for how this will all occur in New Orleans, Tusa says that she is still waiting for official guidelines to be announced for "Phase 1" of the restaurant reopenings here. Everything is still in flux and very uncertain. "We can't really make a long-term plan," Tusa says, "because everything is so fluid, and everything changes."

Though the tentative permitted reopening date still stands at May 15, this has not yet been confirmed. The city is holding off until they receive updated data on current coronavirus stats from the CDC. Whether or not our curve is now flat enough to flat-out open our restaurants remains to be seen. In fact, while the state of Louisiana okayed restaurants to offer outdoor onsite seating as of last weekend, the city of New Orleans overrode that, saying no-go for within Orleans Parish. Jefferson Parish diners, on the other hand, could be seen enjoying gumbo or shrimp and grits alfresco.

Though Tusa recognizes that getting people in the doors and making them feel comfortable and safe doing so is an ongoing challenge, she is optimistic that folks want to dine out again and will come back to her restaurants. "Our location in the French Quarter has a beautiful courtyard; our locations in Sandestin are on the Bay. And I think folks are ready to come out," she says. "I'm sure it might start out slow, but we will adjust our staffing accordingly and work on new ways to attract business: specials, themed nights, etc."

On the other hand, Tusa admits that she has some concerns for her New Orleans locations, which get the bulk of their business from foot traffic from tourists and convention-goers out on the town. Their famous chargrilled oysters or impressive cocktail list might bring in the locals, but it's not enough to counteract the slump in tourism to her French Quarter and Warehouse District spots. "I'm sure that we'll have some of our loyal customers who will come and support," she says. "But they're not going to support us seven days a week."

Tusa adds that they might need to resort to reduced opening hours or events such as Wine-Down Wednesdays as a potential draw, but she is also hopeful to get a good bit of business from regional tourists and locals on staycations. "We're going to have to get creative to generate a customer base," she says. For now, she confesses that she is keeping her expectations low and will be happy just to pay the bills and break even.

Having her establishments shut down for so long has, naturally, not been easy on Tusa as a restaurant owner. She has seen the business suffer and has had to simply stay the course and wait it out. When not working toward an eagerly awaited reopening—which is now a reality in Florida and soon to become one in New Orleans—she has kept herself busy the past couple months with gardening, walking and biking, cleaning, and cooking. "I have a green thumb," she jokes. "My husband and I can pressure wash anything."

Throughout the closures, Tusa has also made a point of keeping up her connections with her restaurant customers via social media, sharing both new recipes and a little blind faith for the future. But she is certainly ready to get back to work fulltime. "We have been closed in NOLA since March 17; we have zero income, but we still have expenses," she says. "We have kept our management team on—they are working on projects to make an enhanced dining experience when we reopen—but all hourly staff was furloughed. We have to restart the economy."

And, of course, the timing couldn't be worse. New Orleans restaurants were closed during prime festival season, when they do the most business, and are reopening just in time for the slow summer stretch. Other challenges and concerns could come up, such as the possibility of losing staffers who opt instead to keep collecting their stimulus-boosted unemployment payments, and there's always that fear of being sued by someone who claims to have contracted the virus in one of her restaurants. Tusa doesn't anticipate seeing any real semblance of normalcy until as early as September. But she's taking it all in stride.

"We don't have a textbook that says, 'after coronavirus, this is what we do, and this is what's going to happen,'" she says. "We'll take it one day at a time, and just try to make the best of it."

Tusa continues to remain positive and do her part to keep her staff and customers safe and to get her restaurants—and New Orleans itself—back on track again.

"We will come back from this. We came back from Katrina and the BP oil spill," she adds. "We'll adapt and change and survive. It's going to be a long road, but it will happen."

The Rules for Reopening

The reopenings in Louisiana are taking place in phases. Phase 1 involves primarily restaurants, cafés, and coffee shops, while most other "non-essential" businesses, from massage parlors to tattoo parlors, will remain closed. Unfortunately, this also means that we won't be taking shots six feet down the bar from our friends at the local watering hole anytime soon, as drinking establishments (unless they serve food) will remain closed—until Phase 3, which is an undetermined distance down the road from now. In order to progress to the next phase, all guidelines must be successfully met and without any major spikes in COVID cases. If we relapse, we reclose.

During Phase 1, if you are heading to your favorite restaurant for an eat-in meal, the powers that be advise that you leave Grandpa and Great Aunt Esther at home and kindly bring them back your leftovers instead. Anyone considered high-risk for contracting COVID is still advised to stay home.

As places gradually begin the reopening process, the city and state governments are keeping close watch, and they mean business. They are not messing around or taking this lightly. The list of guidelines and restrictions for reopening is lengthy and rigorous. Here are some of the main requirements restaurants must meet in order to be permitted to reopen. Please note that as this situation is in a constant state of flux, some of this information may change.

  • 25 percent max capacity.
  • Tables must be separated anywhere from 6 to 10 feet apart.
  • No table service.
  • No buffets.
  • No guests lining up inside. Customers must wait outside, while maintaining appropriate social distancing.
  • Staff must likewise remain at least six feet apart—from other employees as well as from guests—in all working spaces, including the kitchen.
  • Obligatory "Crowd Managers" will be assigned to police any social distancing and capacity breaches. Will also be in charge of enforcing seating arrangements, all the while staying six feet away from everyone else.
  • Staff will be regularly screened for COVID-19 symptoms and will not be allowed to work if any are present.
  • Staff must wash hands often and always wear gloves, which much be changed after each customer, and employees are forbidden to touch customers' hands.
  • Clean, clean, clean—using soap and water and a disinfectant and/or bleach (do not drink).

For more information on Louisiana's restaurant reopening guidelines, click HERE.

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