Most of the main players in Lagasse's network were back, including managers, sous chefs and waiters, and some of them hadn't spent much time off the clock at all. In the weeks after Katrina, many of Lagasse's displaced New Orleans employees were dispatched to his restaurants in Las Vegas, Florida and Atlanta, keeping morale up and teams together. Lagasse's French Quarter restaurant, NOLA, reopened a week after the flagship, while repairs continue at Emeril's Delmonico for a planned reopening in the spring.
Few restaurateurs anywhere can muster the resources of Lagasse's culinary empire, but local restaurants with far less juice nonetheless benefited after Katrina by virtue of multiple locations, and especially locations outside the New Orleans area. Owners credit these sibling restaurants as key factors in helping them reopen their New Orleans restaurants sooner than would otherwise have been possible and with veteran staff in place.
It was a lesson not lost on others. Several New Orleans restaurants have already opened in other cities (such as Galatoire's with its Baton Rouge bistro) or plan to open additional locations out of town (such as Mandina's in Baton Rouge, Pho Tau Bay in Philadelphia and possibly GW Fins in Chicago). While such expansions are a normal way for successful restaurants to grow, they now also show how restaurateurs are diversifying their risk in the post-Katrina world.
"Your options are to diversify into different markets or have very good business-interruption insurance," says Glen Armantrout, chief operating officer for Acme Oyster House. In light of the widespread problems local restaurateurs have reported with tapping into those business-interruption polices since Katrina, Armantrout adds, "And make sure you know exactly what you're buying with your insurance."
Multiple locations proved the most reliable back-up plan for some restaurants that expanded well before Katrina and the appetite for more seems to have grown since the storm.
Acme opened its fourth restaurant (and its second on the Northshore) on Dec. 28 in the former location of Boule Prime House in Covington. By the end of February, the company expects to secure real estate for a new Acme in Baton Rouge, and Armantrout says he's also looking for sites in Lafayette to open later in 2006.
"We looked at these options before and figured they were two or three years away. The storm adjusted all that," Armantrout says.
Like Lagasse's restaurants, Acme was able to keep many employees working at its Covington restaurant and, to a lesser degree, its San Destin, Fla., restaurant while the French Quarter and Metairie locations were closed after the storm. The company was already hiring for its second Covington location anyway, Armantrout says, which helped with distributing displaced staff members who wanted to work. The Metairie location reopened in October, giving more employees a place to work, and now it is even home for some of them with 10 travel trailers set up behind it. Armantrout expects Acme's original French Quarter location to reopen at the end of January with the completion of storm-damage repairs.
Tenney Flynn was able to reopen his Zydeque Cajun Barbecue in the French Quarter just four weeks after Katrina hit and initially staffed it with some employees from GW Fins, the high-end seafood restaurant he also owns on Bienville Street. He and business partner Gary Wollerman "snuck in" to the city early to start cleaning up, Flynn says, converted the barbecue smoker to run on propane and started cooking with bottled water before the city could deliver safely from the taps. They rounded up waiters and food runners from GW Fins, hired others and got back to business when the number of open restaurants in New Orleans could be counted on both hands.
"My waiters from Fins found they could make good money (at Zydeque), because you can turn five tables doing barbecue in the same time you turn one in fine dining," says Flynn. Even after GW Fins reopened on Nov. 25, some employees from the seafood restaurant decided to stay on at Zydeque. Now back on their feet with both restaurants open, Flynn and Wollerman are considering expanding GW Fins with a second location in Chicago.
"We're looking, if the right deal comes along," Flynn says. "It's a concept that could fit in different places."
The eclectic/rotisserie restaurant concept behind Zea restaurants has proved successful in other cities, growing to nine locations through expansion or franchise. Co-owner Gary Darling was relieved to find the out-of-town locations able to help when his four New Orleans restaurants had to close. Displaced local employees were able to take shifts at Zea locations in Lafayette, Mobile, Ala., Pensacola, Fla., and even out west in Albuquerque, N.M.
"We kept as many people as possible on the payroll with their health insurance intact," says Darling.
All but a handful of the 80 managers at Zea's local restaurants stayed with the company through the storm's aftermath, which Darling says is a big part of the reason all four of the New Orleans-area restaurants are now open. Zea in Harahan opened first, followed by the Clearview location, the Kenner location and finally, in mid-December, the new St. Charles Avenue location, which had first opened in July in the former City Club building.