The pandemic has certainly changed restaurant operations world-wide. And as daily work begins at 5004 Prytania on a chilly winter morning, the evidence of change is all around the St. James Uptown shop. Like many restaurants, St. James has had to make some major adjustments to ensure employee and customer safety in such a small work space. Dining has moved outdoors, with heat lamps and umbrellas provided to loyal patrons who dare to brave the elements. An extra pick up spot has been added off the front balcony to reduce overcrowding within the shop.
But perhaps the biggest shift has been in cheese sales. With more folks at home experimenting in the kitchen, St. James saw its best retail year since 2008 which has helped to offset significant pandemic-related losses from our wholesale and restaurant operations.
St. James has had to make significant changes to its structure to meet demands, including a more robust online cheese retail selection and an expanded mail order system. New mongers have been brought on to the team, including Betsy Mullaly, who after eight years in the food industry decided to make the leap from back of house to specialty cheese. The switch means hours of studying cheese origins, flavor profiles, and seasonal patterns.
“I mean its crazy how much there is to learn,” says Betsy. “Like I’m pulling out maps! The other day I was talking to a customer about the Basque Region and I had to look it up to make sure.”
The learning doesn’t stop for veteran mongers like Graham Carroll, who has over a decade of cheese knowledge under his belt. He says he’s ready to guide customers experimenting with new recipes and gourmet cheese for the first time. And that includes continued study.
“Its why I chose to work at the uptown shop,” says Graham. “It’s my background. I’m more focused on mongering. Personally I want to keep beefing up my cheese knowledge this year.”
The expanded bump in cheese interest is encouraging, but the year hasn’t been easy. New Orleans restaurants have had to weather everything from COVID restrictions to hurricane closures. Its daunting for a town with a culinary backbone.
“I think at the beginning it was extremely scary,” says Betsy. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. And then once we got through that phase and realized it was going to be a long time it just kinda became normal.”
And while the staff strives to provide the best customer care possible, it sometimes takes an extra effort to get folks to cooperate with masking and spacing requirements.
“With the pandemic, it puts people in uncomfortable situations. Its forced confrontation.” Says Graham. “I don’t mind confronting people, but I just wish folks would comply.”
Nevertheless, St. James Cheese company is looking into 2021 with optimism. The Downtown Tchoupitoulas location was able to reopen in late January to help meet customer demand, and online cheese classes are still going strong. St. James will continue to provide cheesy delights to the curd nerds of New Orleans for the foreseeable future.
“Honestly I think we’ve adapted really well and we’ve been really lucky.” Says Betsy. “I know a lot of people who are out of work in a lot of other places in the industry. We were lucky that the way our restaurant works transitioned so quickly. We were able to do it in an efficient way to sell our food.”