A new reality show featuring Raising Cane’s founder Todd Graves helping family-owned restaurants hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic debuts on the Discovery+ streaming channel Thursday.

“Restaurant Recovery” will spotlight 10 independent restaurants that were successful for years, but found themselves struggling to stay open. Two South Louisiana eateries will have episodes devoted to them: Poor Boy Lloyd’s in Baton Rouge and Domilise’s Po-Boys & Bar in New Orleans.

Graves said Poor Boy Lloyd’s, a downtown mainstay, helped lead him to creating the show. The restaurant is close to Cane's corporate offices. While Cane’s saw its sales skyrocket during the pandemic, thanks to its drive-through service, Poor Boy Lloyd’s was hurt because the employees and downtown visitors that make up its customer base vanished.

“I didn’t feel good seeing independent, family-owned restaurants struggling,” he said. “Their American dream is as important as mine.” Early on in the pandemic, Graves took steps to help local restaurants, like buying hundreds of gift cards and distributing them to Cane’s employees.

But Graves, who previously hosted the reality show “Secret Millionaire,” said he realized a way he could help restaurants was by offering them the resources that a nationwide chain like Cane’s can provide and giving them a national spotlight. “My goal in general was that viewers will watch the program and support small businesses better,” he said.

Putting on the 10-episode series cost Graves $4 million, which includes $100,000 he put in each of restaurants featured in “Restaurant Recovery.”

Shows that feature successful restaurant operators going in and fixing small businesses are a reality TV staple. But Graves said “Restaurant Recovery” is different from Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” and Robert Irvine’s “Restaurant: Impossible.” For one, his approach to the restaurants is more positive than the bullying done on other programs.

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The other is that all of the restaurants featured in the show were successful for years before the pandemic. It's just that the crisis found them struggling to keep their heads above water.

“These folks are great owners who couldn’t predict the pandemic,” he said. “Some of them were over 100 years old.”

Much of the work Graves did on “Restaurant Recovery” involved making eateries coronavirus-safe, paying off debt and setting up the properties for takeout service. For Poor Boy Lloyd's, he helped launch a local marketing campaign to remind people to go downtown and visit the restaurant. A new mural was painted on the side of the building to generate buzz on Instagram. For Domilise's, he renovated rooms behind the restaurant to expand the dining area. A food truck was also set up to allow people to get the famous po-boys in other parts of New Orleans. The goal is to not only help the businesses now but to set them up to be ready the next time a disaster, such as a hurricane or flood happens. 

Along with the help from Raising Cane’s, the restaurants also got assistance from some of Graves’ celebrity friends. LSU legend Shaquille O’Neal will be featured in the Poor Boy Lloyd's episode, which will be available April 29. New Orleans Saints star Michael Thomas, former Saints Quarterback Archie Manning and the Rebirth Brass Band will appear in the Domilise's episode, which will be available May 13. Rap greats Snoop Dogg and Nelly will be featured in episodes set in their hometowns of Los Angeles and St. Louis.

Getting high profile guests not only is a way of attracting viewers to the program, but it was a nice boost for the restaurant owners, Graves said.

“These families are working so hard, they’re so stressed out, they’re racking up debt, so for them to meet Shaquille O’Neal, you can see in their faces how enjoyable this is for them,” he said.

While Graves wouldn’t say how much of an impact “Restaurant Recovery” has had on places like Poor Boy Lloyd’s and Domilise’s — you have to watch the show to find that out — he does hope it leads more people to make an effort to go to their local restaurants. After all, if these long-standing businesses close, they’re not going to come back.

“My message is we are not nearly out of this yet,” he said. “Small businesses need you.”


Email Timothy Boone at tboone@theadvocate.com.