Viewpoint from a chef and restaurateur: ‘We don’t know what our future is’

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Chef Eric Cook

The following “Open Letter to NOLA” was posted on social media by Eric Cook, the owner and executive chef of Gris-Gris, a restaurant on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District. It was addressed to “our friends, neighbors and family” and is published here with permission.

As you know, we’ve been trying to fight the good fight through the past few months. Gris-Gris was one of the first restaurants to shut down when this whole thing began. We’ve been trying to keep everyone safe and do our best to keep our little corner of Magazine Street alive and well so we can keep doing what we love, and bring love to you guys every single day.

Unfortunately, the path laid out in front of us was a lose/lose situation. We recently reopened for dine-in service, and within a few days it came to our attention that we had a symptomatic employee. We immediately closed the restaurant to make sure everyone was safe and to do the right thing. That employee was tested, and it came back positive. For us to move forward after the situation we’ve already been through brings a rollercoaster of emotions, but the right thing to do is to close the restaurant again. We will quarantine our entire staff. We’re going to make sure that everyone inside of the house is safe.

We’ve done everything we were supposed to do. We followed every guideline. We’ve cleaned meticulously, sanitized, practiced social distancing, wore masks and did contact tracing. In an attempt to try to save our business, we followed every recommendation from national and local sources. In reality, all available programs and loans are geared toward the business reopening, and would not work if we remained closed in order to protect our people. We applied for assistance in every possible way, and adhered to all guidelines provided for us to “open safely.” Unfortunately those tools and guidance weren’t enough to protect everyone, so now we’re back to where we started four months ago.

(GrisGrisNola.com)

We don’t know what our future is. We are still waiting on clear communication from our leadership, both locally and on the national level. It would be really great to know that if this is really about saving human life and about protecting people and our community; then there would be some kind of plan to keep people safe, first and foremost, while also keeping our small businesses from shutting down permanently. Every option offered has been geared towards reopening our doors for the sake of the economy. No one has said, if you choose to stay closed for the safety of your employees, we’ll take care of you as well.

Even the PPP program, designed to provide employees income and pay businesses rent, is still flawed in that it just gave eight weeks worth of funding to spread out over 24 weeks. It still doesn’t provide for every expense. All businesses still have the costs of insurance, supplies, debt, and the reality that this will affect us for many more weeks than any business could stretch the funds. And guess what — no banks are currently writing any other types of loans or assistance to help businesses get through. It’s that or nothing. SBA is offering a very limited amount in their EIDL loans. Again, not nearly enough to really help.

So our only option was to reopen for business to generate some kind of income. Our employees had to make the tough decision to put themselves at risk. We all put ourselves at risk in order to save our business and our future. Hospitality workers are a very strong, loyal and close-knit community, especially in New Orleans. We all wanted to see our great city come back and we thought we were doing the right thing. We took every precaution. We bought protective gear. For nine days we cleaned and orientated our staff to make sure they were educated, prepared and protected. All of our employees have been healthy since March. Then within five days of opening, someone became symptomatic. We had to immediately close our doors again to protect our family.

To our guests who came out to support us in those five days, we thank you very much. We assure you we did everything in our power to protect you all as well.

Every single person in this community right now, with visitors, people socializing, going out of town, having gatherings… We’re not doing a good job. I think we did a great job in the beginning when everyone took it seriously. We were forced to shut down and it was an adjustment, but relatively easy for everyone. Then suddenly the seriousness about health went away and it became an economics thing. When it became economics, human life went to the side.

We as a country put humanity and economics on a scale, and we decided the economy was more important. Then places being open invites gatherings. And I get it — we are a social city, so our instinct is to gravitate to each other. We love being with each other. But consistently we are seeing that the result of that is for this virus to continue to spread. The more this virus spreads, the longer we are going to suffer economic consequences.

If we could be convinced to take this seriously, everyone could stay at home. WWOZ could crank up Jazz Fest in place for two weeks. We could get control over this, instead of it going the opposite direction. We could get through this crisis, reopen as healthy human beings, and then start to repair our economy.

I firmly believe we are in this predicament because we have no clear or consistent leadership or direction. The “spikes” we are having within the city and state, whether you believe it or not, are something that’s obviously affecting everyone in this entire community — physically, psychologically, financially and every way. We are forced to sit here and decide if we should go out of business or throw ourselves into the arena to try to scratch out some kind of living. We are the gladiators. As hard and well as we fight, we ultimately have no control over whether we stand a chance.

Chef Eric Cook (via Facebook)

The mandates we have now are saying that we — the business owners — are responsible for the fate of our economy, community, neighbors and families. We are forced to make tough decisions and the first ones to suffer any consequences. We are solely responsible for taking care of our people, making sure they quarantine, making sure they have income. We are responsible if we open our doors and too many people come in, or the customers do not want to follow restrictions. Our government is telling us we should open up, but if someone gets infected, they are not liable, we are. The businesses are responsible, morally and financially, to make sure we have cleaning supplies, protective gear, and safe practices for both our guests and employees. If we want some kind of income, we must pay the costs of reopening procedures and supplies — not knowing if it will just hurt us more in the long run.

Direction from our leaders needs to shift gears. As a city, as a state, as a nation. We are searching for your guidance, your direction, consistency, and accountability. So far we have heard so many times how it’s “our fault.” It’s not our fault. We are under your leadership.

I have been a leader many times in my life — in the military, in combat, in many restaurants – and the first rule of leadership is always this: you can delegate authority, but you can not delegate responsibility. Unfortunately in this situation the responsibility has been delegated to us. We have the burden of deciding whether we sit and hemorrhage money, or do everything we can to stay alive. Our employees put trust in us in the same way we should be able to trust our leadership.

So now we’re forced to close again. Moving forward I don’t know exactly what our course will be. As I write this, our mayor has just announced another set of restrictions on restaurants which would make it impossible for us to operate this week anyway. Hopefully, more legislation will come down the pipe to protect small businesses from failing and help them do the right thing. We hope that all of our small businesses and LGD community can stay alive through all of this. If you park your car on Magazine Street and your meter runs a few minutes over, you can bet your ass you’ll get a ticket because the city of New Orleans is open for business, but we, and our beloved restaurant, are not.

Eric Cook is an award-winning chef and combat veteran who worked in some of New Orleans’ top restaurants before opening Gris-Gris.

A relief fund for Gris-Gris employees can be found here.?

One thought on “Viewpoint from a chef and restaurateur: ‘We don’t know what our future is’

  1. This is such a heart breaking story being played out in every corner of our city, state and country. It moved me to tears. We desperately need leadership and financial support for small businesses starting at the federal level that we are not getting. And sadly will not get from the corrupt and misguided Trump administration. I think our governor and mayor are doing a decent job but we need more guidance, enforcement, and funding to save all the things, like our fine restaurants, that make this city a world class destination.

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