“Be optimistic,” my admissions counselor encouraged as I anxiously waited to hear from my dream school, Tulane University. Optimism, I pondered, what’s even the point? That same spring, I stepped foot on Tulane’s soil for the very first time. Little did I know, I was embarking on a cultural feast, not just one of Tulane University, but of New Orleans in its entirety.
As we strolled through the busy French Quarter, my dad read me a famous quote by Ellis Marsalis: “in New Orleans, culture doesn’t come down from on high, it bubbles up from the streets.”
We soon stopped at Antoine’s Restaurant,extolled for its rich gumbo and jazz brunch. It was then that I realized, New Orleans is its very own gumbo. Crafted with a wide variety of ingredients, New Orleans, like Gumbo, is a unique concoction of its very own ingredients. Unlike any other city, New Orleans really does “bubble up” from the streets. Quite literally, food, music, tourism, a predominantly Black history, and nightlife add spice to the city. Without any one of these ingredients, New Orleans would ‘taste’ immensely different.
Four years later, I now stroll through the French Quarter in the midst of a pandemic. Barren, sullen, and absent of much of the flavor that makes New Orleans a cultural hotspot, the French Quarter cries for help. Covid-19 has altered the gumbo that is New Orleans, and many fear it will never be the same. With the heart wrenching closure of Black-owned cuisine such as Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe, our city is in dire need of some new flavor. But, how do we repair this flavor, when much of its absence is due to inherent, systemic flaws in our government and society?
It’s no secret that New Orleans is home to a 60% majority of Black citizens. In fact, this ingredient is part of what makes New Orleans so unique. During the pandemic, however, Black citizens have been disproportionately affected. Essence Fest, a festival in honor of Black culture, had to be cancelled this year, thus hurting classic restaurants such as Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Black-owned restaurants and businesses, as a whole, are suffering…or so I thought. Many businesses are pushing through the pandemic and flourishing despite having to adapt to a “new normal.”
I decided to take a visit to the infamous Black-owned Camellia Grill ,which is open and running smoothly, to see what they are doing right. This New Orleans staple holds the secret ingredients to running a successful business, even during a global pandemic. I asked Leonard, one of Camellia’s employees, what makes the restaurant so special, to which he responded, “the location, the food we cook, the customers, our sense of humor, and the fact that everything is made with love.”
Maybe by taking a hint from local Black-owned businesses that have maintained their reputation throughout the pandemic, we can glean important information for other small businesses to utilize. Below, I have identified steps that have helped The Camilla Grill prosper and what businesses should keep in mind when trying to navigate this unwarranted pandemic.
Step 1: Central Location
Picture this, it is a lazy Sunday, you hop onto the street car for a peaceful midday ride and you see a peculiar white building.Craving an omelet with hash browns, you pull the lever and walk right into this classic diner. Opening in 1946, The Camellia Grill has been serving customers for over 70 years. The restaurant is not one to miss, located directly on the historic St. Charles Streetcar Line, one can hop right on and off the streetcar. Uptown, and away from the busy French Quarter, customers wanting to escape the downtown scene can make their way over for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When deciding where to place your business, think about the places people pass on their daily commutes, walks, or bike rides.
Step 2: Diversify Your Food
Expecting to order the omelet you are craving, you read the menu and are shocked by the plethora of unique food options. Ranging from po’boys, to catfish, to fluffy pancakes, The Camellia Grill has a dish for every hungry customer. If you are craving mac and cheese bites at 10:00 a.m. or banana foster pie at 1:00 a.m., you have found the right place. The Camellia Grill has crafted a unique menu that will satisfy the curious tourist and the regular local at the same time. Variety is key, and The Camellia Grill recognized that. When designing a menu for your business, think about the days where you have no idea what you are in the mood to eat. Having a diverse assortment of options on your menu may reel in that stubborn couple who cannot agree on where to go.
Step 3: Love Your Customers
Waiting for your burger to cook you fall into conversation with one of the employees. Laughing and exchanging stories about your pets, you forget you were even waiting for food in the first place. The Camellia Grill employees tend to treat their customers like friends. The more gregarious the employee, the better. When hiring people for your business, find the individuals that don’t just leave their customers with a happy stomach, but also with a smile on their face.
Step 4: One-Of-A-Kind Atmosphere
Sitting on a bolted down swivel stool at a countertop across from chefs frying eggs and blending shakes, you may feel like you are in an old-fashioned movie. Not the traditional atmosphere one may expect is what sets The Camellia Grill apart from other diners. With its rich history and its unique setting, you may just experience a one-of a kind meal. When designing your business, find something that will help your restaurant stand out. Whether it is the unique arrangement of tables, color of the walls, or music playing, your restaurant may bring customers closer to the New Orleans cultural experience they were seeking.
Restaurants do not just have to be places people go to eat and drink, they can be an escape from reality. Combating the pandemic will not be easy, but the little things that make The Camellia Grill so special may just inspire you. So, follow these steps, and stay optimistic!