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Economy & Business

New Orleans Restaurant Owner Shares Her Experience Of Getting Ready For Reopening

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To New Orleans now, where Kelly Fields owns the award-winning bakery and restaurant Willa Jean. When I spoke with her in early April, she had furloughed all 113 of her employees. Well, fast-forward a month, and this Wednesday, Willa Jean is officially reopening its doors to diners. Kelly Fields joins us now to talk about it. Hey there.

Welcome back.

KELLY FIELDS: Hey there. Thanks for having me again.

KELLY: So talk me through your plan. What is eating at Willa Jean going to look like starting this week?

FIELDS: Well, it's going to change a little bit. We're going to do all counter service. So my actual service staff isn't quite comfortable yet, so we're going to do counter service, where customers will place their order at the counter, and we'll bring their food to them and eliminate the risk of person-to-person contact that would normally happen.

KELLY: Yep. And you've got limited capacity, is that right?

FIELDS: Yes.

KELLY: You can't allow in the same number of diners you did before.

FIELDS: Correct. The mandate in New Orleans is 25% capacity, which puts us at about 28 seats.

KELLY: You said some of those people were - are feeling a little wary, not entirely comfortable yet. What has that conversation been like with your staff?

FIELDS: I mean, obviously, I'm in support of them coming back on their own time, when they feel comfortable, but I also know my responsibility as a business owner. And the challenge for this is going to do - it's going to be doing my part to ensure that we're practicing as safe as we - as we're able, providing protective gear for my team, holding the customers accountable to wear masks when they're out and about in the restaurant and just that everybody's smart and responsible and respectful in this process.

KELLY: Yeah. I was looking at your website site, and you've got a long, long list on there of everything you're doing to make everything safe for your staff and for diners. And it sounds like that's going to be a big part of the challenge, is convincing your customers it's OK, it's safe, come back.

FIELDS: Yeah, I think that's going to be the biggest challenge for all of us as business owners, is just restoring faith in the public to feel comfortable to be out.

KELLY: Yeah. With that level of capacity, you - I can't imagine - anticipate making anything like the revenue you would have made a few months ago. How does that work?

FIELDS: I'm curious to find out myself (laughter).

KELLY: Yeah.

FIELDS: But we're really lucky that we've got a really strong community. Like, New Orleans supports restaurants like no other city I know. So our delivery and takeout business has been really strong. And we opened the bakery counter this weekend, and people really showed up and supported what we're doing, which feels really good. But we're going to take the bigger picture one day at a time and figure it out.

KELLY: Yeah. I have to ask, is there a particular item on the menu that you are excited to serve on a plate to a customer you can see and watch them dig in with a smile on their face?

FIELDS: Yeah. Yeah. Our barbecue shrimp toast. I didn't realize how much I'd missed it until...

KELLY: (Laughter).

FIELDS: ...The first one came in the window and I smelled it, and it just - it felt like a normalcy that I didn't know I needed.

KELLY: I know the last time I talked - I mentioned I was eyeing the biscuit with Grandma's sausage gravy. Did that survive the pandemic closing?

FIELDS: Yes, it did. Of Course.

KELLY: Yes (laughter).

FIELDS: Of course it did, yes (laughter).

KELLY: I hope you hold one for me for next time I am in New Orleans.

FIELDS: Of course I will.

KELLY: And we will be thinking of you and wishing best of luck. Stay safe. Stay well. And thanks for talking with us.

FIELDS: Thank you so much. You, too.

KELLY: That is Kelly Fields, James Beard Award winner and owner of the bakery and restaurant Willa Jean in New Orleans, which is going to reopen this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.