The New Orleans institution is getting through the pandemic with a completely new style of business.
By Ti Martin and Lally Brennan as told to Chris Mohney
Ti Martin and Lally Brennan are co-proprietors of legendary New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace.
TI MARTIN: It’s funny, because today was the anniversary of the day that we locked down here. Several people, including guests while I was working last night, have said they were there a year ago on their birthday. And I said, “Don’t jinx me again.”
So back then we locked down, and we started trying to become experts on the subject. Then we started doing to-go food. At some point in there pretty quickly, the team got uncomfortable with that. We began having group meetings, all management, all spread out in the dining room. We continued to have employees come every day for employee meals. We learned how to do that socially distanced. Once a week we would do that and then have a meeting, and explain everything that we knew, and give them food for a couple of days. Somewhere in there the team got comfortable, so we brought up to-go again. That turned into its own little business.
LALLY BRENNAN: Yes, it did. It was hysterical—we took over the front of the accounting office. We just walked in to see Arlene Nesser, who is our CFO, and we said, “Arlene, we need this space. You need to find someplace else to go.” We took that spot and made it into Le Petit Bleu, a little pick-up and to-go place. It looks darling. We painted it with blue-and-white stripes on the inside like the awnings outside of Commander’s. We have turtle soup and gumbo. We have the Commander’s salad and we have the quail and shrimp. And you can order hot food from the restaurant and pick it up at Le Petit Bleu.
At Mardi Gras time, we didn’t know what to expect because Mardi Gras wasn’t really Mardi Gras this year. But people were still trying to celebrate. So we did punches to-go, and they just flew out of Le Petit Bleu. The spirit of Mardi Gras was alive and well. People were coming in for lunch dressed in the purple, green, and gold, and feathers in their hair, and crazy Mardi Gras stuff. We were open for the first time ever on Mardi Gras day. We’re never going to do that again!
We encouraged staff to wear costumes too, and they did. I was in a clown outfit. I had a full clown wig on and a clown suit. I was helping serve tables, and somebody said, “Is that Lally in there?” They must have heard my voice. So it was crazy fun. It was all socially distanced. Everybody had their masks on, everybody behaved, but they were carrying on and having a good time.
TI: Something happened that day that’s continued to happen—which is nobody left the restaurant. There was nowhere to go, and even when places are opening, customers may not feel safe, so they just wanted to stay here because it was so much fun. Some of our guests had to wait longer than we would like because we could not get people to leave. They were having too much fun. This is happening every single night. It’s translating into different things, like we sell more bottles of wine, because they’re like, “Well, we’re here for the long haul. Let’s just get another bottle.”
LALLY: You can’t buy liquor or be served liquor after 11 p.m., so they order two drinks at the end of the evening and just sit around and talk and sip their after-dinner drinks, as opposed to going to another location.
TI: At the beginning, we worked with Krewe of Red Beans on Feed the Front Line. That translated, a few months later, into working with Feed the Second Line, which included the musicians and culture bearers. We were preparing food for them and doing fundraisers, and we auctioned off a dinner for $20,000 in someone’s home. That turned into supporting the out-of-work Mardi Gras parade makers along with Krewe of Red Beans.
LALLY: In the whole city of New Orleans, locals were decorating their houses to look like Mardi Gras floats. They were called float houses. On St. Charles Avenue, the traffic was bumper to bumper because people would be driving down the avenue looking at everybody’s houses. That was helping keep the spirit of New Orleans really fun.
TI: Before COVID, we had been working on doing a very casual spot next door or nearby. It was nothing, just some plans on paper. We had been talking to Goldbelly and had tried a couple of things, but hadn’t gotten it straight. We got religion real quick after lockdown. We were mailing quails all over the country to our friends to see how that would work out. We got it going, and it’s a serious business for us now.
At Commander’s, we don’t freeze anything but ice cream. We get fresh food, we cook it, we serve it, and we get more fresh the next day. So we had to build this massive freezer and figure out what products would freeze well. We figured it out because we had to. It’s turned out to be a great thing.
The other thing that we in no way whatsoever anticipated or ever talked about was the “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” party.
LALLY: The Zoom that saved Wednesday. That’s what the locals are calling it now. Dan Davis, our wine guy, and a few key team members helped put all this together. Like everybody, we all learned how to Zoom early on. So you get wine and cheese …
TI: We deliver it to you.
LALLY: Or you can pick it up. Ti and I are on the Zoom, and we interact with Dan, but Dan also has the winemakers and the cheesemakers on. They can be from all over the world. In Croatia, it’s like four in the morning, and they’re on our show. Then it just turned into a costume party.
The first one we did was French wines. The flyer said something like “don your beret.” Next thing you know, everybody was dressed up. So now it’s become a costume party, and we pick a winner. At the end of the Zoom, the last 15 minutes turn into a dance party. We have musicians. We have local talent that will come play during the show.
And now we do a national show once a month. We were a little worried about it transferring to a national audience, but it didn’t miss a beat. We even had to get a new chef in the middle of all this!
TI: Well, Meg Bickford—the new executive chef—has been with us for 12 years.
LALLY: And the previous chef stayed for three months to help with the transition. I mean, it went pretty darn smooth for a transition like that.
TI: Overall we kind of reorganized the company. This is going to sound overly simplistic, but it’s the way we think about it—half of it is you come to us. You come to dinner. But the rest of it is we come to you. We’re shipping you Goldbelly, we’re shipping you wine and cheese.
We also have two new products that we put out in the middle of all this. One is a cocktail mixer—something I never thought I would want to do. I’m a real snob. Lally and I have a book on cocktails. We also developed our own French roast coffee. We ship those things to you, or you can buy them in groceries now—the coffee, anyway.
After the pandemic, Le Petit Bleu is definitely going to continue. Goldbelly—which we thought was going to crash after Christmas, but didn’t—that’s definitely going to continue too.
With the wine Zoom show, it’s probably going to be a once-a-month national show and maybe a once-a-month local show. It’s led us into the virtual conference business. Because we figured out how to make it fun, companies are coming to us and saying, “Look, we couldn’t have our conference, but we’ve got 1,000 people or 80 people or whatever, and we want to have this event, and we want it to be all about our company.” That is a very good business for us. It’s not inexpensive in terms of time and effort, but nobody has balked at the price, because they’re comparing it to what it would have cost them to have an in-person meeting.
LALLY: The other factor I think is going to stay is the desire to eat outside. Up at Commander’s, we’re lucky because we have the patio. We did get more heaters during the wintertime, and we’re getting some more umbrellas because of the oak tree that sits over the patio. It’s springtime, and all the pollen comes down. But people have really been wanting to dine outside, even more so than weather would usually permit. They’ll go even if it’s a little uncomfortable because they just want to be outside.
TI: You have to be very intentional with all these new experiences. You have to have the culture and the personality, but you have to have the systems to go with it. I was chatting with a young man sitting at the chess table the other night. He said, “I go to other restaurants, and they don’t even care about your birthday. They don’t do anything about it.” If somebody orders from Goldbelly and lets us know it’s a special occasion, we can put the ribbon and the hat in there. You try to do what you can so they can re-experience their memories.
LALLY: I’m looking forward to being able to have the musicians back in the dining room playing music again, because they haven’t been able to do it inside. I love music, and I want all of our musicians to get back to work.
TI: There was unrest in the country and in our industry. Some of that was overdue. It’s been a good time to rethink things, regardless of where your heart is, where your actions and your intentions are. Everybody who’s worked for us knows exactly what a good career pathway this is. We’re making sure that happens.
I hope our whole industry uses this opportunity to re-examine the whole tipping situation. It’s ridiculous, trying to work around laws that don’t make any sense. I think Americans learned that they ought to tip. But the laws have to change so that we can make that more equal for everyone. We’re excited about pursuing all of that.