Surviving coronavirus with grace and gravy

Madonna Broussard, right, and her cousin Lynn Faulk Hudson

It’s Friday. Fridays mean fried catfish at Laura’s II. In normal times, an elderly, Catholic crowd starts arriving early, setting the pace for a busy day. No meat, but the holy exemption of fried seafood is fair game. And Laura’s does it right: giant filets of well-seasoned, golden-fried catfish with plenty of rice and sides. But these aren’t normal times. Laura’s business is down approximately 40 percent during what is typically the busy season, and owner Madonna Broussard has been scrambling to adjust. She’s cut back the extended Friday service hours (lunch will end at 2:30 today). And last Friday, with elderly regulars noticeably absent, fried fish sales barely outpaced rice and gravy. It’s almost as if it’s not even Lent.

As coronavirus fears heighten, and quarantines become the new norm, no aspect of daily life seems to go uninterrupted. Even promoting her restaurant on social media can somehow seem inappropriate. “I feel so guilty,” Broussard says to me, “when everyone’s telling people to stay home and I’m posting, ‘we’re open’ and ‘come out.’”

Laura’s II on University Avenue is known for rib-sticking soul food. It’s also a social ritual. On Lenten Fridays and Sundays after church, the line snakes to the parking lot in front of the next-door laundromat. As the doors open, the procession makes its way in, bumping forward. While the menu stays fairly regular — house specialties include giant baked stuffed turkey wings and chicken fricassée perfected in a dangerously dark gravy — there’s no shortage of anticipation for the metal lids to come off the steam table behind the counter and unveil the daily lineup in its full glory. Important decisions need to be made promptly: Rice and gravy or rice dressing? Which two sides? 

Dressed in a black T-shirt and apron, a halo of corkscrew golden red hair overtaking her white headband, Broussard is one of the three smiling faces behind the counter greeting guests. Affable and disarming, she can be stern, and keeps the train moving on time. As head chef and face of the restaurant, she carries the torch as third generation owner-operator of what is considered Lafayette’s first — and longest running — creole plate lunch restaurant. Her dining room reflects her style and charm: old school with a bright spirit. The cafeteria-style line turns to burnt orange paneled walls with funky retro signage, square wood grain tables and a line of classic diner booths. Guests make themselves at home. 

That was in normal times. Today, the dining room and lunch line are closed. In the parking lot just outside the glass front door is a pop-up tent with two tables. Lines of tape designate where people who haven’t already called in can step up to place to-go orders. Broussard and a couple of family volunteers help run food in and out and take orders. A sign outside the front door reads: “We are taking extended safety measures to make a safe plate lunch.” Another sign encourages guests to keep a safe social distance from each other. 

But one thing hasn’t changed. Broussard is frying Guidry’s farm-raised catfish the same way her mother and grandmother did before her at Laura’s. The fish is served in a traditional compartmentalized to-go box atop a thin piece of wax paper, which covers warm sides of rice, potato salad and corn macque choux. For a moment, things seem normal again.

Laura’s fried catfish Photo by Nathan Stubbs

“I just want people to know that we are trying to keep you safe,” Broussard says adamantly. “We don’t want to have loads and loads of people here all piled up together like we’re not adhering to what’s going on and we’re not compassionate about what’s going on. Because we are.”

As a family business built on personal relationships, Laura’s II is taking its social standing seriously in these abnormal times. The situation is similar at Acadiana’s other venerable plate lunch houses, including Creole Lunch House, Gary’s, Acadian Superette, Champagne’s Grocery & Deli and The Lunch Box on Moss Street. All are riding out the coronavirus storm in similar fashion: keeping their doors open, their comfort food consistent, and hoping for the best. 

“We pray every day,” says Broussard, whose crew at Laura’s consists of herself, daughter Lacey and cousin Lynn Faulk Hudson. “Each day’s gonna just be what it is and make the best of it.”

At Gary’s, the Freetown neighborhood eatery that dates back to 1948, owner Troy Kling starts taking to-go orders at the front counter at 6:30 a.m. Delicious and simple, low-priced breakfast sandwiches (made with your choice of bacon, homemade boudin patty, sausage patty or hot link) and Gary’s signature breakfast burger feed a steady stream of customers, most regulars. “I probably know 90 percent of the people that walk in the door by name,” Kling tells me. “And I see probably 200 people a day.”

Here, the days of the week are synonymous with the specials on the board. Tuesday is chicken stew day. Wednesday brings hamburger steak. Fridays in spring yield homemade crawfish fettuccine and crawfish étouffée.

“[The farm] is where we learned how to to work. And that’s where you got your first doggone lesson not to touch your eyes and your face.”  

— Madonna Broussard

Gary’s has space to avoid any customer crowding, with guests in and out in short order (Kling also is walking out call-in orders to cars upon request). Kling has taken away the dozen chairs the store had for hosting in-house dining. “The good news for us is that 65-70 percent of our business was call-in, take-out to begin with,” Kling says. “So we haven’t felt the impact to the extent of a Don’s [Seafood] or a steakhouse.” In a shift that harkens back to Gary’s general store roots, Kling’s also stocked the store’s back shelves with household items like toilet paper and paper towels that have been in short supply at larger stores, and has offered some limited retail sales of his signature ground meat hamburger blend.

An avid sportsman, Kling proudly displays family fishing trip photos under the counter and plenty of “Who Dat” New Orleans Saints signage. Eight years ago, he left a demanding corporate job for the comforting confines of the lunch counter, buying the business from his brother-in-law Chad Peltier. Now representing the third generation at Gary’s, he feels at home at work.

Gary’s has been experiencing about a 20 percent decline in business of late, but Kling remains steadfast in keeping regular hours for both his small staff of three and blue-collar clientele. “We’ve got a good loyal customer base that’s keeping us going,” he says. “As I’m thanking them for keeping us in business, they’re saying, ‘No, thank you for being open and giving us a place to come get some good food.’” 

Back at Laura’s II, Broussard looks out over an empty dining room, unusually quiet on a Friday afternoon. Lunch service has just wrapped up, and she’s reflecting. The coronavirus pandemic has already hit close to home for Broussard. Her family was well acquainted with one of the virus’s first Acadiana victims, Roderick Martinez, whom she learned today died at the age of 41 after testing positive for COVID-19. Staring back at her are two wood-framed pictures of her ancestors displayed on the side wall. One photo is of Laura’s restaurant founders Laura and Louis Broussard, formally dressed and seated at a red-clothed banquet table. Laura Williams Broussard started her namesake family business out of the home kitchen back in 1968. The other photo is of Pappa Joe, Broussard’s grandfather on her mother’s side, who had a cayenne pepper farm in Parks. 

“That’s where we get our soul,” Broussard says of her grandmother. She turns to Pappa Joe, pictured in the field, holding up a small bundle of freshly picked peppers. “And that’s where we get our spice.” Memories of childhood time at the farm come rushing back — playing in the fields, gathering with family, picking peppers for her first paid gig after school. “Those were the good times,” she says. “[The farm] is where we learned how to to work. And that’s where you got your first doggone lesson not to touch your eyes and your face.”  

Grandma Laura had a relentless work ethic of her own. Broussard recalls how she handled business downturns at the restaurant — by looking up phone numbers and making direct sales calls. “She’d be up in the phone book,” Broussard says, “she wouldn’t let corona[virus] stop her.” 

Madonna Broussard feels that same drive. She’s trying to make the most of social media. She’s also trying to solicit large office lunch orders, to be delivered (Lauara’s II also delivers through WAITR). Having lost both her grandmother and mother, her two mentors and predecessors at the restaurant, Broussard is navigating these unusual times without their direct guidance. Fortunately, she has her own daughter by her side.

“I am blessed,” she says, “that we are still right here at Four Corners and still got people from all walks of life. That’s a lot. And that’s just to show how resilient we are.”

“I want to remain here,” she continues. “I want to remain here for generations. I have grandkids. I want to remain here like my grandmother remained here.”