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New Orleans Restaurant Owner Weathers Another Sort Of Storm


* It's been a month since the first person tested positive for coronavirus in New Orleans. Since then, everything has changed. The city known for celebrating en masse in streets and bars and clubs has shuttered in the name of social distancing. For Kelly Fields, that has spelled disaster for her acclaimed bakery and restaurant Willa Jean. And this is not the first time she's dealt with something like this. She also survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Kelly Fields joins us now. Hey, there.



FIELDS: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: We're glad to have you with us. So tell us a in a few words how the coronavirus has affected your restaurant.

FIELDS: Well, now my restaurant, once thriving and busy and, you know, full of life and people, is closed completely. And I've had to furlough all 113 people that work for me.

KELLY: I'm sorry. I saw you were posting saying they're furloughed, but they're keeping their health insurance, so far at least.

FIELDS: Yeah. Yes.

KELLY: And I know you've been working to help other restaurant owners through this. What advice have you had for your colleagues all over who've also had to close their doors?

FIELDS: I mean, I think, you know, New Orleans thrives in community. And the food industry at large thrives in that same community. So there's - you know, locally there's about 60 chef, restaurateurs that we talk almost on a daily basis, just words of encouragement and words of navigation for the legislation and the grants and the financial assistance becoming available. We're also all taking turns on how to feed hospitals, how to feed the staff that's out of work in our restaurants and just keep things moving forward.

KELLY: Yeah. I mentioned you also lived through Katrina. You were working as a pastry chef then. And I'm told afterwards, you hit the road. You were traveling all over working with different chefs. I mean, it's such a very different moment now. I wonder, you know, are there lessons from that first experience you carry over?

FIELDS: Surely. I think New Orleans as a whole, like, we are a city that thrives on community and thrives on being together, and especially around food. And with Katrina, the big difference was that there was a way out of it. And, you know, if you chose to leave, you could get away from it. And that's the biggest difference now, is there's nowhere to go.

So, you know, when Katrina hit, it hit, and we knew how bad it was when it was as bad as it was. And we could instantly have an idea of how long it would take to recover from that, which is the big component we're missing now. So we're all just, you know, trying to stay positive, do what we know how to do and hunker down and come out the other side in a slow, focused and steady way that keeps everybody safe.

KELLY: I mean, have you given thought yet to when eventually the worst is behind us what it will take to reopen, how long that might take?

FIELDS: Yeah. I mean, for me personally I think it'll take a couple weeks of, you know, getting everybody back in, getting payroll going again. And then it's really up to society and the community of how quickly people feel safe spending time and sharing space in a dining room. I think that's going to be a really deciding factor on how restaurants can move forward now.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, I'm just relieved to hear you are planning on coming back. I was looking at your menu online. There is so much good Southern comfort food there. There's a biscuit with grandma's sausage gravy, which has my name on it. Next time (laughter)...

FIELDS: Oh, good.

KELLY: Next time I'm in New Orleans we're all going to need all the comfort food we can get, so we wish you well, and please come back.

FIELDS: Yes. Thank you so much.

KELLY: Thank you for speaking with us. That's Kelly Fields. She is chef and owner of Willa Jean in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "SUNSET LOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.