Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu is in demand these days as a speaker for groups discussing hurricane recovery efforts. But not even the state's second in command could keep seats filled at the afternoon session of a forum held recently by the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA).
"Half of the restaurant owners had to leave early and get to work because they had no one else to open their kitchens for the night," says Tom Weatherly, a spokesman for the Metairie-based industry group.
Chefs are having an easier time finding fresh and varied groceries for their menus, and restaurant owners who are open are having no problem finding customers. But finding employees is still a crisis-level problem for restaurants in New Orleans three months after Katrina.
"Everyone at our forum, to a person, said (staffing) was their biggest problem," says Weatherly, who estimates up to 45,000 local food service employees have yet to return to the area.
To get open and stay in business, restaurateurs say they have to pay more to lure workers, get creative in staffing critical positions and burn midnight oil themselves.
"I had 49 employees and I'm down to nine, including myself," says Duke LoCicero, chef-owner of Caf Giovanni.
LoCicero has always described the tight-knit staff at his French Quarter restaurant as functioning like a family, but now he really does have his family running the place with him. His wife, Kelly, washes dishes, his teenage daughter Crystal works as receptionist and his 10-year-old son Nicky sometimes helps clean up.
"How do you get people back here?," says LoCicero, voicing an often-heard concern among local business owners since Katrina. "You don't have a place to live, you don't have Charity Hospital if you get hurt, you don't have schools if you have kids. A lot of people can't do it."
Restaurants across town are facing full dining rooms with seriously diminished staff at the front and back of the house, sometimes forcing them to reduce hours and serve smaller menus.
For instance, staffing constraints is the reason Muriel's Jackson Square has not resumed lunch service, opening instead for dinner only, though on a nightly basis. Of the 85 people who worked at the contemporary Creole restaurant before the storm, 25 have returned, including two-thirds of the managers.
"We had a great nucleus of people come back and that's really what helped us get open," says Rick Gratia, a partner in the restaurant.
Gratia has hired about 20 new people since reopening Oct. 12, bringing the headcount to about half its pre-Katrina norm. Gratia is also calling in favors from his connections with the Brennan family of restaurants, where he was a manager for many years. He says he is "borrowing" a few waiters and cooks from Mr. B's Bistro, which sustained heavy flood damage and does not expect to reopen until spring. Muriel's also contracted with an Atlanta company to provide dishwashers and cleaners for the restaurant, positions that are now commanding much higher wages.
"It's more expensive, but these people are amazing workers and they're here," says Gratia.
Muriel's also upped the ante for wait staff, boosting base hourly pay to $5.50 from the standard $2.13 before the storm. With tips, Gratia estimates servers are walking away with $150 to $200 on busy nights for a five- or six-hour shift.
"It's a good gig for them," he says.
To restore an employee base that had reached 300 people before the storm, restaurateur Ralph Brennan has held his own job fairs and offers a $500 referral fee to employees who bring in good job candidates for his three restaurants. Brennan's Redfish Grill reopened on Sept. 29, followed by his Italian restaurant Bacco three days later. The reopening of his Ralph's on the Park on Nov. 9 marked the first restaurant to reopen in hard-hit Mid-City. The large restaurant, which Brennan opened in 2004, took wind damage but no flooding and was packed for its opening night. The restaurant now serves only dinner, plus a Sunday brunch, due to staffing limitations.
"We're doing one shift per day now and we'll build from that," he says.
In an effort to help the situation, the LRA is collecting donations nationally for a new fund that pays travel expenses for local restaurant workers trying to return home. Weatherly says the group is talking with state officials about ways to house workers once they get here, including using a cruise ship docked downtown or creating a dormitory for foodservice workers in otherwise empty buildings. Some restaurants have already set up trailers adjacent to their businesses for workers, including Mother's Restaurant in the CBD and Drago's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Metairie.
Smaller restaurants are having a somewhat easier time rounding up employees than large establishments, but they too have to get creative in bridging staffing gaps.
Richard Benz reopened his Uptown cafe Dick & Jenny's on Nov. 15 with almost all the same front-of-the-house crew from before but only half of his previous kitchen staff. Rather than try to hire a dishwasher, he has set up a schedule for all employees to take a shift at the sink night by night.
David Whitmore, owner of MiMi's Restaurant in Jefferson, was able to round up most of his kitchen staff by driving to their houses and asking them to come back to work. He also managed to lure a dishwasher away from a construction job by offering higher pay.
Whitmore is still looking for a place to live himself, however, and is now trying to get a FEMA trailer to set up beside MiMi's.
"I'm working 16-hour days anyway, so it will be nice to just crash there after," he says.
- Good to be wanted: Restaurants find themselves having to be creative to lure employees, doing everything from doubling the hourly pay rate to physically going out to convince old employees to return to New Orleans.