Editor’s Note: Louisiana Pizza Kitchen Uptown Owner Rob Gerhart was recently interviewed by George in the third episode of the Ambush Radio Podcast. You can listen to the interview here: https://www.ambushmag.com/podcast/
New Orleans is known worldwide for its unique cuisine. It boasts over 1,216 restaurants. That is 605 full-service restaurants, 476 quick-service restaurants, and 135 bars with kitchens. It’s nearly impossible to travel a block in most neighborhoods without coming across one of these restaurants or a corner convenience store serving someone’s world-famous fried chicken.
This holds true at the foot of Carrollton Avenue near St. Charles where there is a cluster of eateries including Louisiana Pizza Kitchen. Rob Gerhart has operated this location of Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, known to locals as LPK Uptown, since 1992. It has survived several hurricanes including Katrina, being one of the first restaurants to return to the area. Almost fifteen years later, the struggle is back, but not in the way of a disaster like Katrina.
“Totally different than Katrina,” said Gerhart. “We lost probably 75 percent of our staff who had moved away and evacuated to somewhere else. We were literally dealing with friends coming into work who had never waited tables, but they were willing to help.”
Now, things are much different.
“We don’t have the customer base that we had after Katrina; we were flooded with customers then,” said Gerhart with no pun intended.
On any given Wednesday, you can usually find the restaurant filled with familiar faces in the LGTBQ community. Wednesdays at LPK Uptown are colloquially called “Gay Wednesdays.” But for the last month, the usual Wednesday crowd has been absent. The chatter of friends spilling the proverbial tea, the clanking of plates and flatware, the boisterous laughter from a table in the corner have fallen hush.
Gerhart had to change the way he operates his restaurant after Mayor Latoya Cantrell and subsequently Governor John Bel Edwards, ordered bars shut down and limited restaurants to take-out orders only.
“Obviously for us, we depend on the interaction between customers the most, and that’s the strangest part, having no such interaction. Definitely not from my perspective being in the kitchen. It’s slower, but luckily for us we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of the locals in the neighborhood, plus a lot of new customers that have never been here before, who are just kind of stumbling across us,” said Gerhart. “It’s a different face of the restaurant for us, but the restaurant business is all about adapting.”
Gerhart’s restaurant was lucky to be able to accommodate the change in operations. Many other restaurants, particularly the kitchens that operate out of bars, were unable to offer take-out options due to liquor license requirements of the bars they are located in.
“The beginning was rough,” said Gerhart. “The first two weeks were quite scary, literally we were off by a thousand dollars a day.”
Just because Gerhart has still been able to toss pizzas doesn’t mean that the pace of business has kept up with pre-outbreak numbers. Gerhart and his staff are finding ways to get by.
“Now we’re off by a little bit, but we’ve made enough adjustments to what we were doing that it’s not quite as big of a drop – there’s less cost involved,” said Gerhart.
“We did apply for the Payroll Protection Program. We were lucky enough to make it into the first round, so we’re safe in that respect, and it’s allowed me to keep pretty much my whole staff without cutting their hours dramatically. We’re pushing through it.”
But pushing through things is not always easy. Some sacrifices had to be made. Gerhart did his best, however, as a business owner to keep things as normal as he could given the circumstances.
“We’re pretty much rolling with 14 employees, it’s just fewer people working per shift. So, everyone has to be a little more willing to do more than they were before,” explained Gerhart. “A server is not just a server; some of them are now delivery drivers. Luckily, everybody here has been quite good about it. Nobody’s complained about it and they know they’re all fighting for a common cause of just staying open and keeping everyone employed.”
Despite the struggles, Gerhart has always given back to the community, and LPK continues to do that even in the face of adversity.
“We started a month ago with something I was doing for a couple of friends who are doctors. I just sent them a message, ‘Hey, by the way, I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be open, y’all want us to make y’all some food? I’ll just feed your hospital departments.’ It became this thing where people were calling me, but not asking for food but offering financial assistance.”
“The whole pay it forward aspect has just kept ongoing. I know these hospital people are exhausted, way more than we can ever be here.”
Gerhart looks forward to being able to get back to some semblance of business before the outbreak. He was excited about the prospect of opening up his outdoor seating for customers to dine in.
“I got the message yesterday and I’m out in the parking lot trying to reconfigure the seating out there, and then all of a sudden, I got the word today that it was not going to happen. We just have to be a little more patient,” said Gerhart.
In the meantime, for those who have missed out on the beloved “Gay Wednesdays,” Gerhart says pies are still available even though the social aspect of sitting down with friends is not.
“As much as I love the delivery services, if you want to support your local restaurant, go pick up your food. It’s been helpful that they’re doing the deliveries, but if you’re in the neighborhood, drive by and pick it up. We’d all love to see y’all more than a delivery driver.”
Louisiana Pizza Kitchen Uptown is located on South Carrollton Ave near the intersection of St. Charles. They are open for take-out 11 am to 9 pm seven days a week. You can find their menu online at louisianapizzakitchenuptown.com.