In the wake of Harvey, the hurricane turned tropical storm that has displaced more than 30,000 residents, restaurant workers who rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 are eager to help their Texan counterparts dealing with the rebuilding processes Louisiana residents know all too well, and residents of Florida and much of the Eastern Seaboard are facing with the fast-approaching Hurricane Irma and two others gaining strength in the Atlantic Ocean.
Using #WithLoveFromNOLA, restaurateurs have been organizing donations, gift card collections, fundraisers and Texas-themed specials to help lend a hand.
Ti Martin, co-proprietor of New Orleans haute Creole restaurant Commander’s Palace, has partnered with the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Louisiana Restaurant Association to organize the Hurricane Harvey Hospitality Employee Relief Fund, which has already raised north of $100,000.
The fund will benefit those restaurateurs like Martin’s own brother Alex Brennan Martin, who owns Brennan’s of Houston. Alex Martin had helped Commander’s rebuild after Katrina, says Commander’s co-proprietor Lally Brennan, so returning the favor was a no-brainer.
“Houston was there for us, and we want to be there for them–without hesitation,” Brennan says, describing Katrina as “the scariest thing” she’s ever experienced.
“You go to sleep one night and you wake up the next day and your whole world has been turned upside-down. You don’t know if you have a future,” Brennan says, adding that Commander’s had to be completely gutted after the storm to bring everything up to code. “But after living through what we did in New Orleans, I know that this, too, will have a happy ending.”
At fellow New Orleans restaurant Angeline, chef/owner Alex Harrell is offering a complimentary drink, consisting entirely of Texas-made products, to any guests who shows they have donated to relief efforts. The promotion, which Harrell plans to run indefinitely, currently features a line-up of Saint Arnold Brewing Company’s Fancy Lawnmower beer, a whiskey-ginger made with Rebecca Creek whiskey, and a vodka-lime cordial made with Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
“The idea to help is in two ways,” Harrell explains. “One, through donations, and two, by supporting Texas-based businesses through revenue.”
Harrell knows first-hand the importance of supporting the hospitality industry during times of crisis. In recovering from Hurricane Katrina, at a time when he had to sanitize his restaurant and try to retain at least a portion of the displaced staff, he says having fellow businesses reopen helped boost the morale of the entire community.
“I remember my first hot meal in New Orleans after Katrina. It was a hamburger and it was the best burger I’ve ever tasted,” he recalls. “Dining out gave me a sense of normalcy, an escape from insurance adjusters and clean-up. It was empowering.”
“Keep your cool, be patient and be understanding. People will be mad at the circumstances they face. They will come to your restaurant as an escape or sanctuary.”
At Commander’s, Brennan says once the employees’ salaries and insurance policies could be funded, the restaurant was able to reopen in a fitting way.
“My wish was to open with Sunday jazz brunch with Joe Simon and his jazz trio, and brandy milk punches,” Brennan says, “and that’s exactly the way we opened.”
Golden Corral’s Kenner, Louisiana, location was one of the first restaurants to reopen after Hurricane Katrina, opening its doors with limited staff and service hours just 10 weeks later thanks to an out-of-town construction crew that traveled to replace sheetrock and carpets and patch the roof, all while showering with a utility room hose and sleeping on makeshift beds in the restaurant overnight.
Malcolm Clark, the franchise’s head of operations, says at first, customers were primarily first responders and recovery workers who were happy to find a hot meal from the buffet chain that will also be providing assistance for restaurant employees in Texas.
But nothing compared to seeing regular customers walk back through the doors, he says.
“It was very gratifying when we reopened to the public and were able to see our regular customers come back,” Clark says. “It was like a family reunion. We would share stories about the storm and the recovery, and it felt good, in a small way, to move past everything that happened in the area.”
But these restaurateurs know that before there can be a reopening, there will be weeks, months, or sometimes years of hardships. Their best advice: patience and support.
Clark suggests keeping in contact with staff, whether through texting, emails, or even Facebook and Snapchat. Reopening is top-of-mind, he says, but remember that some staffers may be preoccupied with finding a place to live.
The whole process can be overwhelming, Clark says.
“Hang in there and don’t be afraid to help. Don’t think you have to do it all yourself, particularly if you are part of a restaurant chain,” he says. “Keep your cool, be patient and be understanding. People will be mad at the circumstances they face. They will come to your restaurant as an escape or sanctuary.”
Brennan echoes those sentiments.
“It helps to be a good listener. That can help somebody a lot more than you realize. Everyone wants to tell their story,” she says. “It’s all about helping people and giving back as much as you can, in whatever way you’re capable of giving back, be it monetarily or just being a shoulder to cry on.”
Harrell says the spirit of New Orleans–much like that in Texas–is what buoyed the community up from the damage of flood waters.
“There was a spirit of community and resolve that New Orleans was our city and we’re going to rebuild. There was a sense that it was just going to have to be us, the citizens, driving the rebuild and helping one another,” he says. “There was a bond you saw everywhere. In grocery stores, lines were long and people needed things, but there was a civility and a bond. You understood what they were dealing with and they understood you. [There was] a sense of hope that we’ll rebuild and come back stronger.”
And when some days are tough, remember there’s always tomorrow, Brennan says.
“I tried to take it one day at a time. Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she says. “At the end of the day, be proud of what you’ve accomplished, as little as it may seem. Have a glass of wine, go to bed, and start all over again the next day.”