The Long Debut — What’s it like to open a restaurant in a pandemic? Tales of delay, delirium and deliverance from Lafayette’s newest dining establishments. This is the first in a three-part series.
The front door of Grocery Tavern & Delicatessen is propped open, welcoming the stream of Saturday afternoon sunlight and Downtown foot traffic who settle in on electric-blue padded barstools. An obscure Neil Young track plays through hidden speakers while soft lighting, obscured by hanging plants, filters along the interior brick walls with wrought iron accents, giving the shotgun space the lazy morning glow of a New Orleans courtyard. In his signature black chef’s coat and New York Yankees hat, Robert Brankline checks in on late lunch customers.
“It’s been slammed all weekend,” Brankline says, nodding. “People have been waiting so long for us to open.”
Initially, Grocery Tavern was slated to open in December 2019; The Advocate ran a front-page story. But for the tavern and several other debut restaurants, getting open and establishing a normal flow of business has proven monumental during a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the service industry.
Located in a mammoth concrete building anchored by the Juliet Hotel and Carpe Diem, Grocery Tavern had its space under lease for more than 18 months in preparing to launch. The same is true farther up Jefferson Street at Vestal, a new Southern steak and seafood concept from Chef Ryan Trahan now re-scheduled to open this spring in the former Antler’s Restaurant location after pausing plans on a spring 2020 debut. Outside of Downtown, Tchoup’s MidCity Smokehouse opened in July, some two months off schedule, in-between waves of Covid infection scares and lockdown uncertainties.
“It’s been miserable,” says Trahan, who helped open two Brick and Spoon locations and the innovative farm-to-table concept Dark Roux. “I mean it’s gonna be great once it’s open, but this process was painstakingly hard. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I mean just to get wine glasses took four months.”
Shipping and backorder delays have become the new norm. In some ways, however, the pandemic, and its slowing of commerce, has served to reframe and refocus these young businesses, yet to be fully established.
Vestal was rushing to open in time for Festival International weekend last year when the country suddenly went into stay-home orders in March. Having not yet brought on staff, Vestal’s ownership group re-evaluated and doubled down on initial renovation plans — opting into a complete remodel of the historic Downtown space. In the time that passed, Trahan and his family relocated to Denver, in support of his wife’s career (Trahan now plans to commute back and forth as a frequent flyer).
Vestal’s concept required several specialists. The kitchen is built around a 14-foot wood-burning hearth system fabricated by industry pioneer Grill Works in Ann Arbor, Mich. Vestal’s custom range includes two 48-inch adjustable grill surfaces on crank wheel-controlled lift frames, replete with hangbars and fire baskets on either side. Centered in between is a two-tiered soapstone Blanka oven, perfect for both fire-roasting seafood and vegetables and baking crusty artisan breads. That degree of heat required the installation of a custom fire suppression system, with both specialized detection lines and water pump.
“Anything specialized in the time of Covid is no longer four to six weeks,” Trahan says, “it’s eight to 12 weeks.”
This month, Vestal finally received its custom-made oyster sink for its raw seafood bar, an item Trahan special ordered in December 2019.
Trahan is partnered with six other investors in the restaurant, including attorney Blake David, who has primary ownership of the building. With all the delays, Trahan acknowledges there’s been a “heavy financial impact.” Despite the added cost, they’ve used the lull to perfect the concept, which looks to reimagine the southern steakhouse by marrying rustic cooking with artful preparation.
“Everybody that is invested in the restaurant either has direct invested interest in that building or in some part of Downtown,” he says,“so it’s everybody’s intentions to do the project right. That was never an option.”
Taking advantage of delays to get things perfected has also been Ryan Pécot’s motto at Tchoup’s MidCity Smokehouse. Tchoup’s opened in July, on the heels of a daunting second wave of Covid infection spikes in the region. Pécot recalls huddling around his phone with staff listening to the governor’s press conference to see if they would even be allowed to go forward with their initial friends and family debut dinners. When they opened the following week, many were still fearful of dining out. Strictly abiding by protocol, Pécot’s first commitment was to keeping staff and customers safe. The mandated 50% capacity restrictions and social distancing measures dragged out service and wait times to get in.
“It definitely impacted us negatively,” Pécot says. “As a restaurant, it’s a hard enough business as is, you wanna get as much bang for your buck with that initial outlay when everybody is excited about it and wants to come out. You had a lot of people who were just simply scared to come out, which I can certainly respect. I mean, to this day, I still have conversations with people who say, ‘We can’t wait to go to a restaurant. We just really haven’t ventured out much.’”
Tchoup’s was already behind its initial opening schedule last summer due to its own construction setbacks, pinned up by Covid delays on a cast iron draught tower and other custom-made bar equipment being furnished from New York. Located in a 1950s residence on South College Road that most recently housed a spa, Tchoup’s features a unique layout, with roomy dining space that flows into a bar and lounge area that then spills onto a spacious back deck and pet-friendly yard area (Pécot and his wife also own the neighboring dog care business, Paws MidCity). A real estate executive with Stirling Properties, Pécot has an eye for décor, and also took on some of the carpentry work at the restaurant himself.
“We really couldn’t wait any longer [to open],” Pécot says. “You’re paying rent. You’re paying insurance. You hire people. You’re paying salaries. At a certain point, you just have to take the dive.”
The slower rollout has meant a prolonged push for Tchoup’s, which is still actively drawing in new customers with its refined southern charm — an at-home, neighborhood atmosphere with elevated barbecue plates and a complementary bar program featuring twists on classics such as the smoked margarita and Kentucky mule. Pécot says the limited hours the restaurant opened with allowed more time for reflection and analyses, helping it to improve overall service at a faster rate.
“There’s certainly proof in concept of what we’ve done,” Pécot says. “So, when things do get better, I just can’t imagine that we’re going to have to weather anything a whole lot worse than this.”
At Grocery Tavern, owner Josh Wells has withstood his own barrage of Covid-related setbacks. A New Orleans native who came up working in the Crescent City bar scene, Wells spent nearly a decade on tour as bassist with the band Royal Teeth. He came to Lafayette as manager and then partner in The Wurst Biergarten and also consulted with local live music venue The Pearl. Wells parted ways with The Wurst as he lined up plans and two new business partners for Grocery Tavern.
Wells notes that his buildout slowed because of pandemic protocols limiting work with contractors, as well as wrestling with design and layout issues and obtaining a litany of new business permits from state and local government.
“It was just one thing after another,” Wells says. “You feel kind of bummed out. I was getting to a point there where I was like, oh this is ridiculous, like I’m in the wrong business. The service industry got slaughtered by this.”
Wells witnessed first hand the suffocating freeze Covid put on some businesses. He had considered becoming a partner at the Downtown nightclub The Pearl, before watching the pandemic ultimately take the business out completely.
“I watched [Pearl owner James Lapuyade] hold onto hope for a long time,” Wells says. “At the end of the day, that place was a really cool spot for Lafayette for sure, and now we’re not gonna have it anymore.”
Wells is banking on a post-pandemic rebirth Downtown. And finally, his vision is coming to life. The creative high-low pairing of craft cocktails and classic deli fare may seem more natural in an arts district of Chicago or San Francisco, but Wells is intent on introducing something new to Downtown Lafayette. He drew inspiration both from the New Orleans Marigny district — where dimly-lit haunts like Mimi’s and Three Muses perfected the upscale dive bar with vintage drinks and lavish small plates — and the celebrated neighborhood delicatessens around the country he would frequent as a touring musician.
It’s also distinct in its position adjoining The Juliet. Wells intends to provide menus to all hotel guests, and Grocery will serve as the boutique inn’s defacto lobby bar. Led by Manny Silver and Allister Schexneider, the bar program is delving deep into classic pre-prohibition era libations, and upping the ante by block freezing and hand carving its own giant ice cubes for cocktails.
As the pandemic hopefully phases out and business picks up to allow for full capacity service, Wells plans to expand his hours and the deli menu to offer a grocery selection of cured meats, cheeses and breads. At Tchoup’s, Pécot is equally optimistic about a strong pandemic recovery in 2021 — and an extended welcome reception.
“I’m certainly excited about the day when we can load up the back deck and have yard games and really have a bar scene where people can stand behind each other and sit in the lounge,” he says. “I try not to get too far ahead and think about it too much. But I certainly expect that when the world says, ‘Hey we’re back to normal,’ that we’re gonna do something to celebrate in a big way.”