Local bars and restaurants have been particularly hard hit by pandemic restrictions. If Hurricanes Laura and Delta didn’t damage or destroy structures, the fallout was enough to push some restaurants to move out of town or call it quits. Some restaurant owners who were just kicking off a business when COVID hit, are pushing forward, gratefully acknowledging their appreciation of and dependence on employees and customers.
Robert and Cindy Callaway are retired from the U.S. Air Force and owners of the Firehouse Subs Franchise in Sulphur. They were unduly particular about the franchise they chose, as well as its location. They dutifully trained staff and generously donated food to the local Biker Church in preparation for a grand opening. But there was no way they could prepare for what was to come.
“We originally planned on opening in late April,” said Robert Callaway. “Once lockdown and phases were introduced, we took a step back to see what we needed to do to ensure the safety of our employees and guests.”
Callaway said the hardest part of the pandemic has been navigating not only local regulations, but also state regulations.
“The information hasn’t been streamlined, and at times, in my opinion, isn’t clear,” he said.
The Callaways did put cleaning, masking and social distancing protocols into place as the cost of personal protective gear skyrocketed.
“It’s hard to know how much impact COVID has had on our business due to the fact that we opened during the crisis,” Callaway said.
Firehouse Subs’ building was water damaged after the hurricanes. No electricity meant the food inventory had to be thrown out.
“It’s going to be a slow process getting back to where we were, and we are well aware that we may never get back to our pre-storm business sales,” Callaway said. “The hardest part has been getting folks outside of the area to really grasp how hard Laura hit this area. We went through a handful of hurricanes in North Carolina; however, the destruction that appeared here is unbelievable. Pictures do not show the true extent of what happened.”
After the first and second hurricane, the Callaways allowed themselves and their employees time to get their personal affairs together. Some of the employees had minor damage. Some lost everything. Like many home and business owners, they are “navigating the insurance gauntlet.” They finally had to hire a third-party adjuster after waiting for their insurance company to show.
There are some days Callaway wants to “kick himself” for opening a business, he said. But for the most part he’s trying to “keep the faith and hang in there because of a wonderful team of employees, guests and the community has been very supportive,” he said.
“The amount of aid that has been provided to small businesses has been sorely inadequate,” said Nick Villaume, owner of Boombox Frozen Pops and Ice Cream.
His company opened a store in Baton Rouge in June and a store in South Lake Charles in September. The downtown location is closed, but that was part of the business plan before the pandemic and hurricanes.
Villaume attempted to keep all the corporate staff on board during the first round of Payroll Protection Program, but said that money only lasted about six weeks.
“After Hurricane Laura, we had to lay off all of our corporate staff except for two of us,” Villaume said.
He has decided to move to Baton Rouge this spring in order oversee production operations.
“Our resolve is still very strong, and we are optimistic about the future, but we have had to change our plans dramatically,” he said.
Blake Gaspard opened the first restaurant of its kind in DeQuincy.
“It was smack in the middle of the pandemic,” Gaspard said. “But the fact that DeQuincy had never had Asian cuisine made it an investment worth making. The community was bored with its limited options and healthier, better tasting menu items were a good bet. We were maintaining, but then the hurricanes finished her off.”
His insurance has been cooperative. The building will be repaired soon, but he will not re-open. He’s putting the improved, turn-key location on the market.
The population inside the DeQuincy city limits is small, around 3,000, but restaurants draw many residents from outlying areas. Surrounding communities include Starks, Singer, Longville and Ragley.
Shane Nelson, a DeQuincy native, has always owned a restaurant or bar. He has a bar and grill in Sulphur that was destroyed by the hurricanes and will not reopen until May. After hurricanes damaged his bar in DeQuincy, Nelson decided to recreate it as a bar and grill.
“I had to go forward or go bankrupt,” he said. “This is my family’s only source of income.”
His family had been saving to build a home and workshop.
He took those savings, “stepped out there and took a chance,” he said.
He added a drive-thru window, which has kept fast food restaurants and drive-thru daiquiri businesses going strong through the pandemic. He’s working on a patio and he’ll soon have a boiling room. He’s painted the building lively, eye-catching colors and takes great care with choosing signage from a local company. He is hosting a sign contest for a second sign. It will read: Welcome to DeQuincy, Home of the Tigers and will not promote Coconuts Cajun Grill.
“Some people don’t realize that the restaurant business is a hard business,” Nelson said. “The food markup is only 40 to 50 percent, and food and labor are going up. It’s especially hard to find labor now with unemployment benefits being higher right now.”
So far, his crew consists of mainly family — his wife, son and mother-in-law — and some close friends.
“I’m making a living, but it’s a hard living,” he said.
He starts at 6 a.m. and often doesn’t get home until midnight.
“DeQuincy needed something,” he said, “and I’ve never been one to quit.”