#MondayMotivation: The Restaurants That Stood Up To Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans restauranteur Ralph Brennan looks back, 12 years later.
April 17, 2017
We were totally unprepared for Hurricane Katrina.
When it happened, there was this mass exodus of people from the city. We were supposed to go to Florida, but because of all the shutdowns, we ended up in Jackson, Mississippi with some friends. What is usually a three-hour drive took us 12 hours.
The first thing I did when I got to Jackson was to call our restaurant staff. The cell towers had gone down, so most 504 [New Orleans] area codes weren’t working. I was able to get in touch with a few key managers, and I had one of them go out and buy cell phones without 504 area codes that she then sent to all of us. I was making it up as I went. From our key managers, we reached out to as many of our staff members as we could. A number of them were in Houston in the Astrodome—they were able to tell us how people were doing, but the immediate problems were: where do we sleep at night? What do we do with our family?
I knew I had to get back to New Orleans to check on our restaurants, so 10 days after the storm hit, I went with one of our suppliers. I was probably the luckiest restaurateur in the city because none of my three restaurants had majorly flooded. There were a few issues, of course, but we called our contractor, and he was able to help us bring in generators and humidifiers to stop the potential mold. After looking around, I knew it was important that I get the restaurants up and operating as quickly as I could.
Everybody says restaurants are important for the community, and after Katrina, we really saw how much that was true. There was this coffee house near where we were staying after we evacuated, and that turned into the place where New Orleanians would gather and trade stories about what we were hearing. I felt like it was important to create that space in New Orleans, and also send a positive message to the rest of the world that the city was coming back.
So we got started. Slowly, our staff came back — even the ones whose houses flooded. They wanted to be a part of the solution and the recovery. We helped all of them with accommodations, we continued to pay them, we kept them on our health insurance. We did everything we could to help them out. And a month after the storm, we got two of the restaurants back open: Red Fish Grill and Bacco. Red Fish had the first health permit issued after the storm, Bacco was the third. We opened without potable water or gas, but we had a wood-fired grill and we were able to make a menu of a piece of fish, a burger, and a few other things. We used plastic plates; we were serving these incredible wines in plastic cups. But people were so appreciative to have those spots to share stories and hang out during an incredibly stressful period.
Once we got open, it was just a matter of holding on while the recovery took place. It was financially very expensive to do, and we lost a lot of money, but I figured it was important, so we did it. Once the mayor was eventually able to get power back to the city, we re-opened our third restaurant. But other spots didn’t come back for a while. Others were not as lucky as us.
Looking back, I am proud to say that the city has more than recovered now. The New Orleans restaurant industry is really vibrant. I remember hearing our food critic Tom Fitzmorris, who has a radio show, say on the air that when Hurricane Katrina hit he was tracking 890 restaurants, and now he is up to 1,400.
Katrina taught us all to expect the unexpected. We had a hurricane plan, but it never took flooding into account. Now, we make sure we have contact info for all our employees, and if evacuations happen—we’ve had two small ones since Katrina—we make sure we pay people in advance, so they have enough to get by. We all learned and grew from the storm.
But more than any restaurant, it was the people of New Orleans who brought this city back. I can’t emphasize [that] enough.