New Orleans has ordered restaurants to close, with only carry out and delivery business (Photo by … [+]
Across the restaurant industry, owners and chefs in a number of places are faced with a perplexing new atmosphere.
In big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver, their dining rooms can no longer accept guests. Instead, they are limited to carry out, curbside pickup and delivery in order to stay open.
Some big names have decided to adjust.
In Chicago, Rick Bayless has created a pop up version of his famed Frontera Grill, offering delivery of a limited menu of upscale Mexican cuisine, such as ceviche verde and Oaxacan carne asada.
In New Orleans, Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s has published a meals to go menu, with crawfish and corn soup, roasted duck and pecan pie.
But a long list of chefs across the U.S. have decided that it doesn’t pay to stay open under these circumstances.
One of them is Michael Gulotta, the chef and owner of MoPho and Maypop in New Orleans.
He is a four-time semi-finalist for the James Beard Award, including a nomination this year as Best Chef-South, and is a frequent guest on the Today Show.
Ironically, Gulotta says Maypop, in New Orleans’ central business district, just enjoyed its strongest weekend ever, right before he made the decision to shut down.
“The government was telling us it was no big deal, and then suddenly, it was a big deal,” Gulotta says of the coronavirus.
A key factor is his decision was the expectation that New Orleans residents eventually would be quarantined, because the city has become a southern hot spot for COVID-19 cases.
Through Tuesday, 171 cases had been reported in Louisiana, most in New Orleans, and four people have died.
“Now that they have test kits, they’re going to find thousands and thousands of cases in New Orleans,” Gulotta predicts.
Last week, his own staff began calling in sick, and then other employees expressed fears about coming in, for fear of falling ill themselves. Meanwhile, customers also said they were afraid to come in.
“We were just getting hit by all sides,” Gulotta says
Until then, Gulotta was enjoying strong business at both places. MoPho serves about 350 people on a busy day, with the average check at around $21, while Maypop serves about 200, with checks of $45 per diner.
So, the decision to close means a loss in revenue of around $17,000 daily, between the two places, and sometimes more, he says.
Originally, Gulotta thought he could close Maypop and move his operations over to MoPho, which is near City Park west of downtown.
MoPho’s menu of quick dishes lends itself better to delivery, and he envisioned turning staff members into delivery drivers.
But, Gulotta says, he likes running dining rooms, and enjoys seeing tables of patrons lingering over his food.
“If I was just going to do delivery, I’d run a kiosk,” Gulotta says.
Beyond that, he didn’t know how many people he would need to run a delivery or takeout only operation.
And, he doubted he would have enough business to even pay a skeleton crew of hourly employees, cooks and salaried employees who work in the front of the house. He faced an agonizing decision over who to lay off.
“How do we decide who gets fired and who stays? They’ve all done a good job,” Gulotta says.
“It came down to, ‘stop it now,’ and make sure everybody gets their last paycheck? Or keep it slightly open, and then not be in a position to pay the staff?”
So, he announced Monday on Instagram that he would temporarily shut both places. Gulotta says he’s prepared to be in “a state of suspended animation” for a while.
There isn’t much else he can do for his laid-off staff, whom he loaded up with food after service was finished on Sunday. Gulotta plans to come into one of his places a couple of days a week, and cook a family meal, to make sure they’re being fed.
However, he hesitates to ask anyone to take part in the food drives he’s sure will be put on for needy New Orleanians.
“In our community, we’ve always been the ones who mobilize to deal with situations,” Gulotta says of chefs and restaurant staff. “It’s part of our nature to jump in and help. I could get people to volunteer, but how do I ask people that I’ve let go?”
Even though there’s talk of a bailout for workers in the hospitality industry, Gulotta believes restaurant staff can be better deployed cooking for people.
And, he isn’t a fan of the stimulus checks the Trump administration says it may distribute. “I wish they could think of a way to put us all to work,” he says. “I’m willing to work for that money.”