With their own businesses hurting, New Orleans restaurants still feed others
The biggest pot chef Isaac Toups has in his arsenal is a crawfish cooker, and on Thursday afternoon he had it filled to the brim with gallons of couvillion, a Cajun seafood stew based on his grandmother’s own recipe.
This time, though, the hearty dish was not part of the take-out menu that is maintaining a trickle of business for his Mid-City restaurant, Toups’ Meatery. Instead, it was the day’s “family meal” offered free to neighbors and fellow hospitality workers.
Family meal, normally the meal cooked up for a restaurant’s own staff, has taken on new meaning in a city wracked by the coronavirus crisis.
With so many in the hospitality sector out of work, Toups’ Meatery has extended its family meal to anyone who needs one. Between 200 and 300 people have been turning up daily.
“We were cooking to feed our own cooks, then I said, ‘I’ll just make more,’” said Toups. “If you’re cooking for 10 you can cook for 20. It started doubling every time. It just snowballed.”
The coronavirus fight has caused massive unemployment across New Orleans, and in the hospitality sector the toll has been especially stark. While private foundations and charities have been setting up funds and grants, government relief programs have been slow to materialize.
Yet the same independent restaurant operators who have seen their businesses dismantled by the crisis have been among the first to step up with support, providing help as direct as putting food in the hands of now jobless workers.
They’re pulling it off with thrifty cooking, donations from their suppliers, support from their customers and their own money.
“Food goes pretty quickly when you’re out of work,” said Dana Honn, who has been giving away between 65 and 100 free meals daily at his downtown restaurant Carmo. “It’s been a complete mix of folks from different backgrounds coming in.”
Before the coronavirus crisis hit, the crew at Blue Oak BBQ had planned on competing in the Hogs for the Causecharity cook-off Saturday. Instead, staff and volunteers were sent to spend the day giving away lunches and dispensing a dose of industry solidarity.
“It’s a pretty simple thing to execute, and you can see how much people need it right now,” said co-owner Ronnie Evans.
The give away is a drive-up format, held about a mile away from the restaurant near a warehouse at 3300 Gravier St. for easier distribution with social distancing. For the first edition last week, Blue Oak BBQ gave out 500 free lunches in a little over an hour. They were preparing 700 lunches for Saturday.
While it takes place away from the barbecue restaurant, the business Blue Oak BBQ is still doing through take-out meals is helping fund the free Bag and Beer effort.
“It just shows you, the money people spend at restaurants and bars in this town just circulates around, it never really leaves the community,” said co-owner Philip Moseley. “That’s always true, but you really see it now when you see what you can do with it.”
Many needs, different meals
Restaurant companies that have seen large layoffs in the crisis are in some cases still cooking for their out-of-work staff. Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, which until last week operated some 20 local restaurants, has been cooking 1,500 meals a day for its impacted workers in the courtyard of Broussard’s Restaurant, its now-shuttered French Quarter eatery.
A range of restaurants around town have been finding their own ways to support hospitality sector peers, from discounts on their take-out menus to supplying family-style meals to other organizations in the community.
Culture Aid Nola, for instance, is a newly-launched initiativeworking with a coalition of other community groups. It’s distributing some 600 meal kits donated by the restaurants Cochon, Sylvain, Justine, Backspace Bar & Kitchen and Luke.
Some have made free meals a daily part of their operations for those in need.
In Harahan, for instance, Nacho Mama’s Mexican Grill has been offering free tacos to hospitality workers.
Ruby Slipper co-owner Jennifer Weishaupt said the restaurants started cooking meals for the company’s own staff to bring home daily, since many are now out of work. They expanded the scope to help others in the industry.
“I’m a firm believer that you give what you get, and while we can still give, we’ll give,” Weishaupt said. “If we can be a channel for people who want to give but don’t have a great vehicle to do it, then we can expand this too.”
Carmo started dishing out free meals to anyone in need earlier this week. Honn said that need was obvious, and the effort has been supported by contributions and customer tips. Suppliers have contributed ingredients, and Carmo is able to stretch them into nourishing meals with both vegan and non-vegan options.
“With tropical cooking like we do here, there’s always a way to do a one-pot meal or a rice dish that will feed a lot of people,” he said.
Unified, but separate
These efforts are orchestrated to follow the principles of social distancing, the mandate that shut down so much of the hospitality sector in the first place.
At Toups’ Meatery, people call in ahead of time so meals can be boxed up for them to hand out one at a time. At Carmo, people fill out a short online form in advance to reserve a free meal, and choose vegan or non-vegan. People are reminded to keep at least six feet apart.
From his restaurant kitchen, Toups and his crew have been cooking meals for local hospital staff and nearby firehouses, too. Family meal, though, has quickly become a fixture.
“This is what we do, we cook,” said Toups. “We can’t wait on anyone else to help, we have to take care of each other.”
Offered daily for all, from 3 p.m. at 845 N. Carrollton Ave.
Call ahead to place order: 504-242-5999
March 28, from noon at 3300 Gravier St.
Free bagged lunch for impacted service industry workers and musicians
Offered 8 a.m.-2 p.m., call ahead at 504-525-9355
Locations are 315 N. Broad St. (daily), 2802 Magazine St. (Wed.-Sun.) 2700 Metairie Road (Wed.-Sun.), 2001 Burgundy St. (Wed.-Sun.)
Offered Tue.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., 5 p.m.-7:30 p.m. at 527 Julia St.
Book online in advance at cafecarmo.com/book-online
Free tacos daily for impacted hospitality workers, at 1000 S. Clearview Pkwy.