As managing partner of four restaurants, Michael Boudreaux would like nothing better than to see things go back to how they were before the coronavirus pandemic put a stranglehold on the industry.
But he knows things may never be exactly the same for the four eateries in Juban's Restaurant Group.
"What's normal now?" he asked. "It's being in a different normal."
And for Boudreaux, that "different normal" has meant changing menus and coming up with new concepts to keep customers coming, at least enough so the restaurants break even. It's also meant shutting the doors of some when necessary.
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Along the way, Boudreaux said the management of the four restaurants — Juban's Creole Restaurant, 3739 Perkins Road; Beausoleil, 7731 Jefferson Highway; Christina's Restaurant, 320 St. Charles St.; and Adrian's Restaurant & Bar, 18143 Perkins Road — has learned some valuable lessons.
In the initial lockdown to contain the coronavirus, restaurants were allowed to offer takeout and delivery. But Boudreaux said management chose to close both Juban's and Christina's.
Juban's, he explained, is a fine dining restaurant that did not have a reputation for takeout, and Christina's business relied on downtown workers who were under stay-at-home orders.
But Beausoleil and Adrian's prospered, Boudreaux said, and it proved a good chance to figure out Adrian's identity as a restaurant.
"We boiled crawfish in Adrian's parking lot, and we had a huge success with that," Boudreaux said. "We actually saw a big turn with Adrian's at the beginning of the year, and I felt like Adrian's was just now able to develop its own identity, and finding that identity was very hard."
Boudreaux said he knew Juban's needed to be associated with Adrian's in the beginning, but he didn't want Adrian's to be a Juban's twin.
"It was our goal for Adrian's not to be too casual but not to be too upper end," Boudreaux said. "For example, we didn't want to be a Ruth's Chris, but we didn't want to be a Golden Corral. Kind of like the Outback, you know, in the middle. We thought we could do that, as well."
But Adrian's took a different direction during the lockdown. The restaurant began offering plate lunches for takeout, which became a popular combination with the parking lot crawfish boils.
"That's when we came up with plate lunches and the small pre-fixed menus and the good, simple salads, and we noticed the difference," Boudreaux said. "We found that the majority of clientele for Adrian's wanted a more casual approach, something simple and quick."
When the state went into Phase 2 of reopening, allowing dining rooms to operate at 50% capacity, Boudreaux decided to temporarily close Adrian's.
"We're just putting our finger on the pause button for right now until we know what the future holds," Boudreaux said. "We're going to look at Adrian's again. The best scenario will be reopening either Sept. 1 or Oct. 1. The worse scenario would be reopening on Jan. 1. We're just going to see what the market does."
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In the meantime, Christina's has reopened, as has Juban's, though with a less-formal vibe.
"The favorites are still on the menu," said Juban's general manager Jeremy McNight. "We've come out of COVID as a more casual environment, and we've introduced a more bistro-style menu to bring the price point down, because, at this time, I know people are a little bit more price sensitive, so we wanted to be more inclusive to the clientele and offer better options."
Juban's also is trying to build a takeout business, because even with 50% dining capacity, many customers are still not comfortable sitting in a room with other diners.
"The 50% hasn't really helped us," Boudreaux said. "It's just the general consensus that the public is scared. My son and I stopped at a restaurant last week, and it was the first time I've eaten at a restaurant since they reopened, and it's just that irky feeling in the air. People are not feeling secure. It's just a weird feeling."
Beyond dining in, that weird feeling is killing Juban's private party business, with its nine private dining rooms staying empty.
Adding to the problem is the lack of staff.
The federal government in April added $600 per week in supplemental funds to Louisiana’s maximum unemployment payment of $247 per week to laid-off workers or those with significantly reduced hours.
"It affected us," Boudreaux said. "And, fortunately, we have a core group that just said, 'we're not worried about money, we just want to work,' that pushed us through and is still pushing us through."
But much of the staff that had been laid off is opting to stick with unemployment benefits through the July 31 cutoff date.
"So, that's why we thought, let's just put Adrian's on hold," Boudreaux said. "We knew we wouldn't make money during this time. The whole goal was to lose the least amount of money as possible. If we can break even for three months, that's fine, but we have to adjust each restaurant in different ways to break even."
The restaurant group's eight-week Payroll Protection Program funding from the federal government played out on June 10, Boudreaux said, which also contributed to Adrian's temporary closure.
"The government's money is supposed to help, but in reality, no one's going out to eat, so you have no sales and you can't function," Boudreaux said. "So everything's dissipated. If everything is dissipated, it didn't stretch us out in the right way."
Boudreaux said he has since talked to New Orleans restaurateur Melvin Rodrigue, president of Galatoire's and chairman of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, who said his restaurant decided not to use government money and put everything on hold. (John Georges, owner of The Advocate, is a partner in Galatoire's.)
"In hindsight, it would have been better to do that and let the market do its thing," Boudreaux said.
And if another virus wave forces another closure?
"People keep asking me, 'What are you going to do?'" Boudreaux said. "I can only do what the market lets me do."