Randazzo’s Italian Market, a small family-owned Denham Springs restaurant and deli that sells imported meats and cheeses, was devastated in the 2016 flood.
“We were down for eight months,” said Kyla Randazzo, who owns the business with husband Antonio. “We had no idea what to do. We were so lost, we had no idea where to begin.”
Because Antonio Randazzo’s family is from Italy, one of the countries hardest hit early on by the coronavirus pandemic, the couple felt like they were a little bit better prepared for it. “We saw stuff was coming,” Kyla Randazzo said.
When Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all restaurants to close their dining rooms and only offer take-out or delivery meals in mid-March, the Randazzo’s relied on their experience from four years earlier. “We knew what worked last time and what didn’t,” she said.
Like Randazzo's, other businesses in the area are relying on survival instincts that got them through the 2016 flood, lessons learned about resiliency, teamwork and being open to quick changes. Measures being taken range from going to curbside pickup and delivery to expanding and diversifying product lines or services to meet the specific needs of customers in a mostly stay-at-home world, even teaching others how to cope through webinars. Still, some find a pandemic so different from the flood that it's been hard to adapt.
For Randazzo's, adapting has meant that along with selling trays of lasagna and chicken Parmesan, the business is also offering a variety of other items, including fresh produce, eggs, meat, paper products and cleaning supplies. These are all things the restaurant gets from its suppliers.
Randazzo said the thinking is it would be easier for older customers, concerned about being exposed to the coronavirus, to pick up basic grocery items while they were getting a meal and not make a separate trip to the store. And she’s purposely stocking things that have been hard to find in local stores, such as eggs, milk and toilet paper. “They pay online, we put this in their trunk and they leave,” she said.
The restaurant isn’t making a huge profit on the grocery items, but along with the carry-out business, it’s helping balance the books. Randazzo said sales are down “10% to 15%” from what they were before the pandemic. “We are hustling,” she said. “We are going after everything we can get.”
The couple didn’t have flood insurance on the restaurant back in 2016, so they had to take on much of the rebuilding on their own. They operated out of a small cement building that was serving as their catering kitchen, selling take-and-bake pasta dishes, while they gutted and repaired the main restaurant building.
The restaurant managed to reopen in 2017, and Randazzo said the experience taught her and her husband not to be anxious about the future.
“We felt like we lost everything, but looking back after four years, we see that we came together and things worked out,” she said. “Once you go through something like that, it gives you a new perspective on things.”
Over the past few years, Randazzo said they’ve gotten to a point of paying off the debts they incurred during the flood cleanup, only to face the impact of the coronavirus.
At Express OMV, the flood taught employees how to persevere and work together.
“It created a tighter company culture,” said Brooke Barnett, president and founder of the company, which serves as a tag agent for the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles. The company’s Denham Springs location was shut down for a couple of weeks in August 2016 when floodwater knocked out internet service.
That experience has proven useful now that Express OMV is open on a limited curbside basis at a time when workers are dealing with issues such as needing someone to look after their children, or dealing with a spouse who suddenly became unemployed.
“That’s impacted us greatly,” Barnett said.
John Cavalier, who co-owns Cavalier House Books in Denham Springs, has shared the lessons he learned from the 2016 flood with other independent bookstores and hosted webinars on how to cope with difficult times.
Some of the keys are to focus on solutions, not problems, try to protect the assets you have, utilize the tools and expertise you have at hand and rely on help from the community.
“In difficult circumstances, you have to employ different strategies,” he said.
For Cavalier, in the aftermath of the 2016 flood, that meant expanding the school book fairs that were a reliable part of his business outside of Livingston Parish and into markets such as Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the north shore.
“That cash flow got us through, and we realized very much the importance of having different revenue streams,” he said.
Now that the coronavirus has shut down Louisiana schools, he’s taking a different approach. Cavalier is looking at offering online versions of book fairs and finding ways to support teachers who are using Zoom and Google Classroom to reach students. He’s reconfiguring the bookstore’s website to promote distance learning and building out landing pages for school fundraisers.
Another thing he’s doing is tweaking the bookstore’s distribution business, which is heavily reliant on tourists buying coffee-table books about Louisiana. He’s trying to put his books in grocery stores, which traditionally don’t carry local titles.
“We’re focusing on our brand and messaging, making sure it’s more effective now than ever,” he said. “Getting through this time and building our voice will allow us to be more effective in the future.”
Amedisys, a national home health company based in Baton Rouge, said lessons it learned date back to Hurricane Katrina. Afterward, the company developed a robust emergency preparedness plan and team.
Amedisys engaged the response team to coordinate preparation for the coronavirus, ramping up efforts to assist employees working remotely, said Kendra Kimmons, an Amedisys spokeswoman. That’s allowed Amedisys to stay in touch with its more than 21,000 workers and coordinate services.
But other business owners said the difference between the flood impact and the coronavirus pandemic are so great, what was once something you could depend on is no longer reliable. After all, the pandemic is affecting the entire U.S. and world, not just a small area. And the steps needed to get back in business involve more than just ripping out water-damaged drywall and restocking inventory.
“We’re dead in the water, waiting on government officials to tell us what to do and what guidelines will be in place,” said Al Bye, who co-owns Theatre Antiques Mall in Denham Springs.
That’s a contrast from the August 2016 flood, when Bye said it was all up to him as to when he would be ready to reopen. He worked tirelessly for more than two months in 2016 and by Nov. 1 was back in business. “We had a plan,” he said. “When the flood shut us down, we went crazy and worked as fast as we could to get back. We paid all our debts off, and now we’re just in a holding pattern.”
Bye said he hopes his business will be allowed to reopen by May 1. He’s willing to comply with any restrictions to reduce the chances of transmitting the virus, such as limiting the number of customers in the store at one time, requiring all shoppers to wear masks and having sanitizer available. The one good thing is that he doesn’t have to deal with lost inventory or making repairs to his building, like he did when the flood happened.
“We’re anxious,” he said. He worries that bouncing back from another catastrophe so soon after the flood may be too much for some businesses.
Ozzie Fernandez, chief executive officer and founder of Go Eat Concepts, the Baton Rouge-based owner of Izzo’s Illegal Burrito, Lit Pizza and Rocca Pizzeria, said while there are a lot of differences between the flood and the pandemic, the key to handling both of them comes down to communication and preparation.
“You need to put action plans in place, while maintaining safety,” he said. “Constant contact with store management is the key.”