Mandina’s reopens after short, needed break; Gris Gris returns with new plan
Last Monday, when the red beans and rice should’ve been on the blackboard, Mandina’s Restaurant was closed. It was just a short break after a long slog. However, proprietor Cindy Mandina still spent the day fielding frantic phone calls. Some regulars only heard the “closed” part. She had to assure them it didn’t mean for good.
In fact, Mandina’s reopened the following Friday (July 31) after a much-needed break, rolling right back into the regular weekly specials of shrimp étouffée and Creole eggplant.
But the unaccustomed interruption at this anchor for Creole Italian tradition, and the reaction to it, underscores some of the tensions around restaurants as they continue to fight through the coronavirus crisis.
Restaurants are closing, some temporarily, some permanently. Nothing is off the table. Restaurants that seem to be managing the crisis are still struggling. Constant change is the current “normal,” even for places that feel unchangeable.
Mandina’s is a fourth-generation family-run New Orleans institution dating back to 1932. The pink corner building trimmed in neon and the sight of families leaving with boxed-up leftovers is as much a part of Canal Street as the streetcars that rattle past it.
Since March, the restaurant has been through every phase of the crisis, from takeout-only to limited capacity. When an employee reported a positive COVID-19 test result, Mandina knew it was time to shut down, run yet another round of cleaning and make sure her staff was safe. She also wanted to catch her breath.
“We’re all dealing with a tremendous amount of stress; every day it feels like something new happens,” she said.
“I’m responsible to make the right decisions for my employees, my customers, my family. I’m trying to do everything right. We needed to hit pause and regroup.”
That feeling is increasingly prevalent around the New Orleans restaurant business as the coronavirus crisis stretches past its fourth month, and it’s playing out in different ways.
Some restaurants have switched back to takeout. Some have closed outright, while other operators have shut down for extended and undesignated amounts of time.
Chef Eric Cook took that route with Gris Gris, his modern Louisiana restaurant in the Lower Garden District, though now Gris Gris has a path back. This week, the restaurant will begin booking private events for August and September, using its adjacent private dining room and balcony areas while regular service remains on hiatus.
Cook took a cautious approach to reopening earlier in the crisis, starting with takeout before resuming limited dining-room service on July 1. But just a week later, the chef posted a wrenching open letter to the community explaining that he had to close after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. He was desperate to save his business and resume his calling, but under constantly shifting rules, he couldn’t find a path forward.
“I felt like I was backed into a corner, but I took some time, put my phone down, really immersed myself in the restaurant space and it dawned on me that this is a way we could get back and get the wheels turning,” Cook said.
He sees private dining as a way to get back into business while controlling risks and costs with prearranged menus and limited seating. The new plan is to draw up custom menus for dinners or cocktail parties with customers one event at a time.
The “pause” at Mandina’s lasted only four days, but Cindy Mandina was eager to get back open. She knows how hard it is to regain momentum.
“Every day I’m closed it’s that much harder a struggle to reopen,” she said.
The menu and daily specials will be rolling again, and she knows her regulars will file in as usual. Still, she said, what happens next is anyone’s guess.
“In this business, you know you have to plan, you know summer is bad so you put money aside to get you through a few months,” she said. “But this is different. I wake up every night thinking about it.”