Thursday, May 22, 2008

New Orleans Through the Restaurant Business

Yesterday, I accompanied Robin Barnes, Seedco Director, to visit various restaurant owners in New Orleans to explore issues surrounding rebuilding the service industry – including issues regarding H2B visa workers and the spirit of the New Orleans people.

Palace CafĂ© – Dickie Brennan

Our first stop was with Dickie Brennan and his management staff. Mr. Brennan owns several large and established restaurants in New Orleans, and he has recently begun hiring staff on H2B visas. After the storm, 53 out of his 55 management staff chose to come back and rebuild the restaurants. However, he found the process to be very difficult because he did not have enough employees to staff all his restaurants (especially in the front of the house). He realized that the restaurant business is seasonal, with the high season being between September to June and the low season during the summer. Mr. Brennan realized that the length of the visa perfectly fits his restaurant business and decided to participate in the program. They hired 15 people the first year, 22 two the second year, and 50 this year. They project to hire about 60 workers this year. They have hosted workers from Croatia, South America, and the Philippines.

Mr. Brennan and his company are known for treating those on H2B visas especially well. They welcome them to the city by helping them find housing, giving care/ welcome packages, and providing meals. They are pleased with the “ripple effect” of the program because the American staff members are learning so much from the foreign workers. According to a staff survey, they found out that 99.9% of the workers want to return and continue to work for Mr. Brennan’s restaurants.

However, the visa program is not without flaws. Currently, there are concerns that the government will be cutting back on H2B visas. There is also concern about balancing issuing H2B visas and hiring domestic workers. New Orleans government leaders want to ensure that locals have jobs, but at the same time if there are not enough individuals to meet the demand, they also want to invite foreign workers to fill in the vacant jobs.

Loretta’s Pralines

Loretta has been making pralines for 28 years, and she got her recipe from her mother. She initially took sold the candy at LSU and then later at the Jazz Festival. She was located at her “warehouse store” for 15 years, and she has not been able to sell their pralines in the French Quarter since the storm. She initially had 15 employees before the storm, but now she only has 3 employees. Many employees decided not to come back.

After the storm, people were looking for places to eat since no restaurants were open. People were asking her about opening for breakfast and lunch, and she begun providing those meals. She learned to adjust and change according to the needs of the time. Later, the demand of the restaurant decreased and she decided to only host lunch on Fridays.

Dukey Chase

Our last stop was at Dukey Chase – a famed New Orleans African American eatery. It’s a place where you would take your date. I got to try my first gumbo made by Mrs. Chase. The restaurant was beautiful and decorated with African American artwork. It’s definitely one of those community places where you could feel the New Orleans spirit.

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