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Even before COVID-19, Commander’s Palace could see the writing on the aqua blue wall. To-go food was coming strong, even at a fine-dining icon with roots dating back to 1893. Shipping products through Goldbelly was a logical next step, too. But hosting a 1,000-plus virtual party known as “The Zoom That Saved Wednesday?”
“That was not a twinkle in anybody’s eye,” co-proprietor Ti Adelaide Martin says.
These past six-plus months have tested one of the country’s oldest and most-beloved restaurants. Yet Commander’s Palace is no stranger to fighting out of the foxhole. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina shuttered the restaurant for 13 months—a stretch that cost it $6.5 million.
On September 11, Commander’s Palace reopened for the first time since closing March 16 due to COVID-19. After three stellar days, it boarded up again in preparation of Hurricane Sally. The restaurant reopened once more this past Wednesday, and hopes the whirlwind has calmed, at least to some extent.
“You just can’t make it up,” says Lally Brennan, Ti Martin’s first cousin and Commander Palace’s other co-proprietor.
Like it has for thousands of restaurants, independents, chains, big, small, upstart and historic, coronavirus crammed the innovation cycle. In some cases, it didn’t so much create a new reality as much as it accelerated what was already happening. For Commander Palace’s, it meant placing stock in an off-premises strategy that would have felt like asking a shark to walk upright years ago. However, it’s where the customer was headed, category or not, as younger generations started to age into the marketplace and more people—of all demographics—began to embrace modern ecommerce, like mobile payments.
Take it to the coronavirus arena and Commander’s Palace just debuted “Le Petit Bleu” last week along with its reopening. Ti Martin says the restaurant brainstormed to-go models as background chatter about two years ago. That’s about when it opened Picnic Provisions & Whiskey as well, a corner restaurant that focuses on Southern picnic fare (think Crawfish Boil Hot Fried Chicken Sandwich) and targets a large chunk of revenue from takeout and delivery. A “fast-fine” concept that meets changing demand.