Randy Daniel’s dream was realized in February; 3 weeks later, COVID-19 flipped the script

La Pizzeria owner Randy Daniel with General Manager Stacey Fillingim, left, and employee Matison Ross Photo by Travis Gauthier

Randy Daniel is always prepared. A former Marine, it’s in his DNA. He keeps his hair cropped short, his shirts buttoned up and pressed and he’s always on time. And in opening his first restaurant as a sole proprietor (he’s opened seven restaurants for other companies), no detail had gone unchecked. The newly installed wood grain vinyl floors were spotless, the centerpiece host stand and walls freshly painted a stylish indigo, pendant lights hanging over the refurbished bar and booth tables lent just the right touch of intimacy to an updated open floor plan in the dining room. 

The new look — fashioned over 17 days of renovations — was part of an overall reset for La Pizzeria on Ambassador Caffery Parkway. A staple of the southside dining scene for 25 years, the boutique restaurant had struggled of late under its prior owners, themselves service industry newcomers. By contrast, Daniel brought 26 years of restaurant experience, most recently serving as director of operations for Double R Restaurant Group (former owners of Romacelli, POUR and various Another Broken Egg locations). While finally realizing a lifetime dream of opening his own establishment, Daniel took a methodical approach with La Pizzeria. “To me it was a little jewel that just needed to be polished and modernized,” he says. “You don’t need to have an $8 million restaurant. You just need to have something customers love and will come back to and good people working for you.”

One month after a successful re-opening, prospects abruptly reversed. Daniel suddenly found himself laying off 22 of the 23 hourly employees he had just hired. He held one-on-one meetings with each member of the team, pledging to do his best to try to bring them back on as soon as he could. “Some of them, they had only worked for me five weeks,” he says, “and it’s personal and it’s hard. But I didn’t lay off 22 people so that I could make more money. I laid off 22 people so that I could have a restaurant a month from now when this turns around and they all know that.”

The devastating impact of coronavirus on the restaurant industry has been well documented over the past two weeks. In South Louisiana, where restaurants represent a vital pillar of culture and economy, it’s been particularly acute. Lafayette has seen dining institutions such as Don’s Seafood and Café Vermilionville temporarily close their doors. Others are scrambling to adapt to the altered landscape, which mandates the only business allowed is takeout (takeout orders normally account for just 5 to 15 percent of an average dine-in restaurant’s revenue). 

At La Pizzeria, Daniel and his managers work 10-hour shifts six days a week in an operation becoming standard for any restaurant still trying to make it work. The limited menu features pizza, naturally, but also low-cost family meal options, which feed four. In full survival mode, he’s abandoned any hope of trying to turn a profit (restaurant profits normally average just 3 to 6 cents on the dollar).

“We’re just trying to do enough to make payroll,” he says. Yard signs designate parking spots out front for curbside pickup. Inside the restaurant, a hand-sanitizer dispenser is mounted to the side of the host stand, and the working crew’s regimen includes regularly disinfecting all major touch points and contact surfaces. Cases of takeout boxes, paper towels and toilet paper populate the booth tables along the wall (to help with some of the supply chain shortages, Daniel has offered customers essential goods like toilet paper at cost). “Before the government order had even gone out, we started ordering up on takeout supplies and preparing,” Daniel says. “We had to completely change our business model over night.”

Daniel received an early warning on Friday, March 13, via a phone call from his sister, Peyton Robertson, in California. Robertson works at the public relations firm Bay Bird Inc., which lists more than 50 established West Coast bars and restaurants as past and present clients. Her message was clear: Prepare now for COVID-19; its impact on the hospitality industry could be devastating. 

That same day, President Trump declared a National Emergency.

As president of the local chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, Daniel is in regular contact with other struggling restaurateurs and managers, many of whom have been coming to grips with the trauma of massive staff layoffs. (The LRA and its officers have been providing regular informational updates and resources for restaurants impacted by coronavirus.) One such comrade in arms is Ruffin Rodrigue, proprietor of Ruffino’s on the River. Ruffino’s operation, which includes a sister restaurant in Baton Rouge and a catering company, has been forced to furlough more than 200 hourly employees. Ruffino’s on the River is also currently offering special takeout family meals. 

Rodrigue notes that regional and local operators are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn, while national chains are better equipped to absorb losses and fast food drive-thrus continue to thrive. “Our stockholders are the people in these neighborhoods,” he says. “If they want to have an active dining scene when all this is over, we need to support it now.”

In an industry where staff is considered family, the cuts are particularly painful.

“The one thing we never want to do as an industry is to lay off our employees,” Daniel adds. “They are our most valued asset.” 

Even with a majority of his own staff furloughed, the restaurateur is trying to stay positive. While his original plan for La Pizzeria called for a greater emphasis on table service and in-house dining, it wasn’t difficult for him to pivot from a pizzeria menu to take out. 

Daniel can also call on years of experience. He began his restaurant management career with Bloomin’ Brands, owners of the Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill chains, the company that pioneered and optimized curbside takeout in the industry in the 1990s. Another lesson for Daniel came following Hurricane Katrina, when business came back in record fashion after the disaster finally subsided. “It’s really a game of attrition,” he says, “making it until it happens.”

La Pizzeria’s business is down 60 to 75 percent since the state’s shelter in place order took effect, but Daniel knows other local restaurants are struggling even more. “I have days that I think are bad and I talk to some of them and they’re really, really hurting,” he says. “We’re all counting sales by the day to see if we can afford to keep the people we’re paying on salary.”

Daniel believes state and local authorities are doing the right thing in light of the coronavirus threat, but encourages the public to get out and support locally owned restaurants in dire need. “It’s about an industry right now, it’s not about a specific restaurant,” he says. “And this industry we always say it’s week to week; well now we’re down to day by day. And it just takes literally two or three bad days in a row and you’ll see more and more restaurants closing.”