This is really all just a bad dream or some science fiction screenplay, right? I mean, who would’ve believed a few months ago we’d find ourselves swept up by a virus which was capable of shutting down the world? Every aspect of our lives we’ve become accustomed to was going to be altered. From work to home, socializing, shopping — everything was going to be altered, including our beloved passion for dining out. When the Shelter At Home order was issued on March 23, uncertainty abounded and any notion of fiction became fact.
What is going to happen to this industry’s workforce?
Usually, my column focuses on the experience I’ve encountered in one of our local eateries. I believe it would be grossly unfair to review any establishment during these trying times.
Today, I’d like to dedicate this page to the people who make things happen — those who are going to be the most impacted by the shutdown. I wanted to talk to people from different realms of the food service industry. From the server to the manager, to the owner to the chef. I would’ve loved to have done this face-to-face, but the quarantine complicated that possibility. So, I spent hours on the phone with a lot of amazing people. I wanted to hear their thoughts and feelings about where this was going and how it was going to affect them.
Cathy Meyers, Sonic, Iowa • Carhop Extraordinaire
My first interview is a definite favorite. It was with a well-respected woman who has earned her rank in Southwest Louisiana. This woman captured my attention as I just happened to watch her exit the kitchen area of Sonic during a typical hot and brutal day with the most positive energy and a beaming smile that showed the world nothing was going to take that away from her.
Cathy Meyers is a celebrity, and admired by every person who has ever had the pleasure of being served by her.
She’s a seasoned veteran in food service. In January, 1994, at the young age of 43, she was hired to be the Salad Bar person at Bonanza Steakhouse in Lake Charles. It was a seemingly straightforward task: just keep it clean and keep it stocked.
Within two weeks, her manager recognized something in Meyers and felt she needed to be with the people. Through motivation and counseling, she was able to enhance her purpose in life. What began with the mindset that she “was just a server” turned into one of the most lucrative and purposeful careers, which she claims is her purpose in life. She discovered this purpose through the guidance from her Life Design trainer, Michelle LeBlanc. She learned to value her self-worth, be a deserving woman, live with God. Her people skills were honed, and she was making great money with the quality level of service she provided.
Unfortunately, Bonanza was going to close its doors for good. As word got out, it made its way to the right people. A new Sonic was being built in Iowa. Before its completion in 2013, the owner called Meyers to ask if she’d come to work for him. As she was undergoing cancer treatment and radiation, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to take orders through the speaker as her voice was fragile. Cathy was reassured that all she had to do was go out and serve the food to the people, and she was hired on the spot.
She absolutely loves what she does. You can see it in her face, and her smile, and it’s such a joy to watch. She has a love for people and for kids. That is her passion, and her reward. Luckily, the coronavirus caused minimal interruption for the drive-in service. Little, if anything had to change for her. It was business as usual — maybe even a bit more. The next time you see her, make sure to wish Cathy Meyers a happy 70th birthday.
Linda Marie Hanks, Casa Mañana • Dedicated To Thriving
My next interview was with another amazing woman, Linda Hanks of Casa Mañana — a veteran of 17 years with the restaurant. She’s been there long enough to provide an insider’s perspective into what these Covid-19 restrictions can do. With first-hand experience from the damage of Hurricane Rita in ’05 and the housing crash of ’06, everything was a bit slow, and this was going to be another hurdle.
After speaking with her, I can say without hesitation that Linda is a strong and diverse woman. This is a woman who will be able to take whatever you throw at her; she will adapt and overcome. Having suffered a recent personal loss, she maintains herself better than most people could possibly imagine.
Unfortunately, with the events we’re facing, there just aren’t enough spots available for an entire staff in the restaurant. She’s a well-respected and revered server. During her regular lunch hour shift, her section is often requested by those who have had the pleasure of her service. With the loss of hours and income, she’s been able to find a spot with Jeanne’s Bourbon Street BBQ in Westlake, and has added her own pressure washing business, hitting every opportunity to enhance the income and stay afloat.
Paulina Evans Siebarth, Owner, Nina P’s Café • Belle Of The Ball
One particular owner who has her finger on the pulse of Southwest Louisiana is Paulina Siebarth. She has always been a comfort to converse with, either on the phone or in chat. She is straightforward and knowledgeable, and just a genuine person.
While the coronavirus was sweeping across the country, prompting shutdowns from state to state, a shutdown here was inevitable, especially with Louisiana being such a hot spot. Just as most people, Paulina was taking to various outlets to gather as much credible information as she could. She, with the guidance of the CDC and a family medical expert, decided the best path to take for the restaurant was to close, even before the governor’s mandate.
You could hear in her voice that this was not an easy decision to make. No genuine restaurant owner who is responsible for the work environment and the source of income for so many people, wants to take away that opportunity for their employees, many of whom are considered family.
Nina P’s has an amazing crew. I’ve always said she has that team which every owner and manager wishes they could duplicate. With a heavy heart, and days of crying, she thought it was best for the sake of her family, her staff and the customers not to take the risk to be a possible factor in spreading the virus to anyone. Had anyone contracted it at work, and exposed it to anyone inside or outside of that building, she would have felt devastated and responsible.
After contemplating the decision and toying with the possible idea of gathering a skeleton crew to fire up the take-out option, the original plan to stay out of the mix won. One thing about Siebarth is it’s not just her cafe she’s concerned about. There’s a genuine and deep concern and hope that everybody in the restaurant business is able to survive, to regain that ground; that the employees are able to return and do what they love. “It’s my wish, by us closing, that the other restaurants are able to pick up on that. I hope they get that business.”
Now that we are seemingly further away from the major threat, I can see that Siebarth and her amazing daughter Fallon are eager and excited to throw open the doors and serve the community with the smiles and blessings they’ve been bestowing for the past 20 years.
James English, Cici’s Pizza • Thinking Outside The Box
Once the mandate came down, it left a lot of restaurants scrambling to figure out ways to get their product out and still maintain some sort of profitability. Cici’s is known for its pizza buffet. When you take away the option for customers to dine, you’ve killed a large percentage of your product exposure. So, how do you continue to get your pizza out?
James English pioneered the idea of creating a pizza kit. This is not something that corporate was doing; this is an idea that he created, toyed with, perfected and launched.
This became a wild hit in the quarantine world. This was something that the household shopper could pick up and take home. Whatever ingredients Cici’s offered, they was going to be available in your pizza kit.
This not only was a meal, it was an activity for the family, and the end result was a hit. Anybody with an oven was able to make a pizza. The instructions were typed out; the toppings, sauce and dough each in their own container.
As the designated hunter gatherer for the family, I secured a kit for the quarantined and hungry family. Although my dough rolling skills are certainly not anywhere near the level of those at Cici’s, the overall fun, taste and experience was 10/10.
Its evident English created a way to keep his employees busy, to keep his product moving, and to create a fun way to pass the time and provide a meal for the community. When I talked to Engish, this was something that corporate had taken notice of. They certainly recognized the effort. I do believe English has his heart in his business and his employees and certainly came out a winner despite the mandate.
Chef Jacob Gillett, Chef, Instructor, • Caterer Excellence In Motion
Cheffy is my daughter’s culinary mentor, and we’ve become friends. I met him during the week of Pro-Start State Competitions, when each high school competes for scholarships and recognition in the culinary field as the students create their virtual restaurant, complete with management, menu, operating costs, and the execution of the food.
The kids had just checked into their New Orleans hotel when the news broke … Louisiana was shutting down. The competition was cancelled. All the practicing and preparation for what was guaranteed to be a stellar finish was crushed before it ever began.
Devastated and defeated, our kids packed up the next day to return to the beginning of what was going to wipe out the rest of their senior year. I asked Cheffy his thoughts as to not only how this event was affected, but his catering business as well.
“It took time to mentally settle with the fact that such significant events could be just canceled in an instant. Weddings that were on the books for almost a year were reduced from 350 guests to just the bride, groom, and those few they trusted who weren’t suspected to have Covid. We had school banquets of over 600 guests canceled. For those involved in these celebrations, the cost of missing out was, to them, as great as the large amount of income we lost.
“In the end, it has been worth all the time spent with my wife and sons while in quarantine. Weddings can be rescheduled and there is always next year’s banquets. But time with family has created memories that would not have happened if the events had. God is good.”
Here we are, two months later and in the beginning stages of Phase One. Before we went to print, I asked the women if they wanted to add anything since a bit of time had gone by. They had a resounding tone of excitement to be able to get back to work, with extreme gratefulness and gratitude for the opportunities given to them doing what they love, with and for the people they love.
I can only hope that my writing comes close to conveying the thoughts and feelings of those who spent time with me during these chats. One thing that was profoundly evident in all of this … nobody was worried about themselves. Each person was more concerned for the others throughout Lagniappe territory.