Facing a new reality- The long road ahead for New Orleans restaurants following the Covid-19 Pandemic

When Wayne Baquet announced his retirement from Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe last year and faced permanent shutdown due to the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the news shook all of New Orleans. Local publications and news stations broadcasted the headline, leaving community members devastated by the prospect losing this symbol of New Orleans culture and history.

The street view of the infamous Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe. (Photo by ViaNolaVie).

Lil’ Dizzy’s isn’t just a place to sink your teeth into some superior fried chicken, but it is a pillar of historic pride and the Tremé neighborhood and a congregation place for friends, relative, and curious tourists. Stemming back to the 1940s, the Baquet family has been in the restaurant industry for over four generations. Lil’ Dizzy’s is the last remaining restaurant owned within the family line. Lil Dizzy’s redefined the meaning of traditional Creole soul food, lining up trays of fried chicken and catfish, southern style collard greens, macaroni & cheese, candied yams, and potato salads inside the confines of their cramped kitchen. Recent news announces that the family cafe will reopen under Arkesha and Wayne Baquet Jr.. They plan to refresh the space with a new set up and the same historic recipes. With that good news, we can all take a much needed sigh of relief. 

However, not all restaurants in New Orleans were lucky enough to meet the same fate as Lil’ Dizzy’s. In fact, at the height of the pandemic, The Louisiana Restaurant Association projected that one in four restaurants statewide wouldn’t survive the grueling road ahead, which is especially devastating for New Orleans because of the fact that the city’s culture is so deeply intertwined with food. Nationally, restaurants lost nearly $240 billion over the past year, leaving 17% of all restaurants with their doors closed permanently. This reality has left millions of Americans unemployed and without a safety net. The restaurant industry is a huge employer of minority communities, so there are significant socio-cultural implications in addition to the economic implications of the Covid-19 response.

To explore this narrative from an insider’s perspective, I sat down with Jessica Speight, the Director of People and Culture at Pom Hospitality, which is a New Orleans based restaurant and hospitality management group. Jessica started her professional background in the HR department at Pat O’Briens in the French quarter and has been a resident of the city for over 11 years. The pandemic was a catalyst in her search for a change. She recently assumed her current position overseeing management and logistics at Pom Hospitality’s numerous restaurants, which include the James Beard award winning restaurant, Saba. Though the industry’s economic future remains formidable, her insight left me with a sense of hope for the future of the city and its businesses. With a bright smile and a candid, open heart, Speight is the picture optimism. She expressed her innate gratitude for the city’s rich cultural roots and the cultural implications of food on its inhabitants. 

Speight recognizes the importance of collaboration and friendship within the restaurant community. She stresses that in this time of uncertainty, restaurants shouldn’t be viewed as competitors, but rather as a collective community that is all facing a similar reaping. At Saba, they support communities by sourcing the majority of their products from local vendors and farmers. For example, their menu features a to-die-for tahini gelato from Piccola Gelateria.

The service industry was hit hard by the pandemic, causing chefs, servers, and other vital members of the restaurant industry to seek jobs elsewhere fearing unemployment. This mass occupational shift left restaurants with an extreme under-staffing issue and a lack of resources. Jessica explains that, as a restaurant, it is imperative to emphasize putting your team first in order to keep morale high.

When a citywide leniency toward Covid related policies became more apparent in New Orleans, Saba saw a massive spike in business. Regardless, the restaurant continues to close its doors for two days of the week, sacrificing a large portion of potential revenue in exchange for releasing some of the pressure off of their staff. 

As the conversation shifted to a more focused discussion about the tragic effects that the pandemic has had on minority owned businesses specifically, Jessica expressed that she is saddened by the fact that minority communities are always hit the hardest by tragedies. The fact that racial and socioeconomic disparities still flourish in New Orleans is often disregarded when we are not faced with extreme loss. Minority owned restaurants and businesses have been in this city for generations. New Orleans is characterized by its fusion of ethnic diversity, and the majority of these culture-bearing establishments are not big chain restaurants with large financial backers. Rather, they are local, family-owned operations that have been devastated by the repercussions of the pandemic. It was at this time when Jessica mentioned Lil’ Dizzy’s, and we shared a similar feeling of heartbreak and loss at the release of those headlines. 

She expresses that once we lose the local restaurants that tell culturally significant stories through their cuisine, we will lose the true spirit of New Orleans. I found this statement extremely powerful, given that my research thus far has centered around the economic fallout on the restaurant industry due to the pandemic. This is no longer simply a conversation about restaurants and money, but rather a pivotal dialogue about preservation of spirit, culture, and history.

To learn more about how to support local New Orleans restaurants: #savenolarestaurants


This piece was edited by Eliza Griggs as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University. 


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