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Louisiana was hit early and hard by the coronavirus, reporting 21,951 cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,100 deaths as of Wednesday.
While restaurants in Louisiana were ordered to close their dining rooms on March 16, grocery stores and their workers have been considered essential.
One family-owned grocery store chain, headquartered in the state, has been going above and beyond to extend a helping hand to their community.
Rouses Markets started out in Houma, La., in 1960. Anthony J Rouse Sr. opened with a single store in Cajun country, which eventually grew to now 64 stores across Louisiana, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Lower Alabama.
Rouses’ current CEO, Donny Rouse, is the third generation of the family to run the company, which employs more than 7,000 team members. Rouse, 37, spoke with Fox News about leading his company through the coronavirus crisis and several initiatives to support current employees, new hires and the community.
The CEO said that he grew up in the grocery business, visiting the office before and after school, and taking in the wisdom of his grandfather and father. “It’s in our blood, we’ve been doing this our whole lives,” Rouse explained. “We’ve invested everything we have into the grocery business, our team members and our customers.”
When the coronavirus started to become a reality in the U.S., Rouse said that sales in the Markets started to rise around March 9, and by March 13 it had the largest day of sales in company history, up 250 percent.
The stores started making changes right away to prevent the spread of the virus. The self-service salad bars were replaced with grab-and-go options, and those products were carefully assembled by a small team of associates preparing, packing and sanitizing the containers.
The company announced bonuses for frontline grocery workers, created an additional paid holiday on Easter Sunday, and continues to offer meals to staff during their breaks. Cashiers have been offered a re-usable mask to wear, they are sanitizing between each customer, and plexiglass partitions have been installed to keep both the workers and customers safe.
Rouse said he feels fortunate that the company is in a position to be able to help others. “People are obviously cooking more, now that they are at home,” and items like rice, dried beans, canned soup, boxed macaroni, ground meat and chicken are flying off the shelves. He said he is grateful for his suppliers who keep the stores stocked and the customer’s needs met.
“Our team members doing a tremendous job, they get all the credit being in the stores every day, putting product on the shelves,” he said. “They are really out there saving the communities.”
Right away, Rouses Markets needed to hire more staff to keep up with the demand. Corporate leadership immediately reached out to local restaurant groups, chefs and restauranteurs to offer positions and training to those who found themselves temporarily out of work.
Of the 700 new hires so far, 260 previously worked at local restaurants.
“We’ve always had great partnerships with our local restaurants, and the chefs shop with Rouses,” Rouse said. “Everyone in the restaurant industry loves food, and we love food. It’s a great fit and our customers can see that.”
Other companies are stepping up too. Albertsons, the second-largest supermarket chain in the U.S., has partnered with 30 different businesses to hire workers who had been furloughed. Thirty thousand employees from companies like Marriott, Hyatt and Regal Cinemas were successfully hired by Albertsons, which operates grocery stores like Safeway, Jewel-Osco and Shaw’s in 34 states across the country.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Rouses launched another initiative on March 19, offering ready-made meals from local restaurants. All of the profits from these partnerships go back to the restaurants and bakeries that produced the food. As of Wednesday, sales had reached $122,146.40.
Turtle soup from Commander’s Palace.
New Orleans institution Commander’s Palace offers turtle soup or grits and grillades. Shoppers can find hummus and pita from Saba or try prepared meatballs and spaghetti or lasagna from Tony Mandina’s.
Rouses also has continued to work with former team members who have ventured out and started their own businesses, supporting grocery alums like Keyala Marshall, who now operates Keyala’s Pralines, by offering space on the shelves for her best-selling items. Her praline bread pudding is available in several Rouses Markets, and all the profits go back to Keyala’s business.
Johnny Blancher, the chef and owner of Ye Olde College Inn in New Orleans, told Fox News, “Rouses has supported a lot of us in the restaurant community for many years.” The relationship started 15 years ago, when Blanchard partnered with Rouses Markets for a campaign called Where the Chefs Shop. He said that when local restaurants were instructed to close dining rooms to stop the spread of the coronavirus back in March, most of the staff had to be let go.
Then, Rouses reached out with an idea.The leadership team at Rouses offered to sell some of Ye Olde College Inn’s most beloved dishes, packaged and prepared, with all the profits going back to the restaurant. They quickly agreed on two New Orleans staples: crawfish mac and cheese and shrimp and grits.
“The crawfish mac and cheese is exactly how we do it in the restaurant, but instead of serving it on a beautiful plate, it’s in a pint container,” Blancher explained. “There’s still the panko breadcrumb on top, and a little truffle oil on it,” he added. Next, he is working on bottling the remoulade sauce for sales in Rouses Markets.
Ye Olde College Inn’s crawfish mac and cheese.
“Not only is it sales, but it keeps our brand relevant and expands our brand into a new market,” said Blancher. “What Rouses has done for us has been a win on so many levels.”
“We hope to re-hire everyone as soon as possible, and some were immediately hired back because of this,” Blancher said. Ye Olde College Inn still has had a few people employed and they’ve stayed busy cooking up packaged meals for Rouses, preparing take-out orders and feeding the national guard in New Orleans.
Staying optimistic, Blancher said, “hopefully things open up again soon and we can get back to hiring everybody. One day we will be better than ever, but right now it’s hard to see that path.”
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Melvin Rodrigue, the president of the James Beard award-winning Bourbon Street institution Galatoires, spoke with Fox News about partnering with Rouses for the first time.
Rodrigue explained that the white-tablecloth restaurant specializes in high-end celebrations and private dining, so when the Louisiana governor closed restaurant dining rooms in March, “it drastically affected us.”
“We knew we had to lay off employees, about 130 people, and so we met with them by department,” Rodrigue said. “We thought that they deserved to hear it from us, face to face. Some of them have been with us for decades,” which is especially meaningful for an institution that prides itself on loyal career servers, hospitality, and high quality since 1905.
“We are currently at about 8 to 10 percent of our weekly revenue,” Rodrigue shared. “Uncertainty is one of the scariest parts, even when we re-open, what will we be able to reopen as?”
The opportunity to partner with Rouses allowed Galatoire’s to use some of the staffers retained not only to offer curbside pickup, which proved to be a very hard pivot from elegant fine dining. Now, they have been able to offer some catering and prepare classics in grab-and-go form, like shrimp remoulade and shrimp creole for Rouses Markets, with the profits returning to Galatoires.
Galatoire’s shrimp remoulade, served in the restaurant.
“We’ll get through this together, and this partnership is a prime example of that. We are a strong and resilient community, our hospitality is a very united and strong community and we will certainly need that to get through the next steps,” Rodrigue said. “But, I believe that as a people, New Orleans and Louisiana, we are all strong and we have been through some big ones before.”
Rouses’ fastest-growing item from this initiative is queso from New Orleans’ Mexican restaurant Johnny Sanchez. Chef Miles Landrem told Fox News that just two weeks after the queso started selling in Rouses Markets, they were able to hire back two employees who had been let go due to the social distancing shut-downs in Louisiana. Now represented in 12 Rouses stores, Landrem said they will start working on a way to produce their salsas, but only if they can get the quality right.
He said that they keep in touch with all of the Johnny Sanchez employees who have temporarily lost their jobs and are doing everything they can to support them through this difficult time.
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“We’ve applied for the PPP grant,” he said. “We’ve still been doing staff meals, sending staff tips from takeout, and offering regular family meals for staff to pick up,” Landrem added. “A few of them just come in and say hi and check in on us, and we send them home with a sandwich or tacos.”
“We’re very hopefully and optimistic to bring them all back.”