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New Orleans Chef On How New Coronavirus Surge Is Affecting Her Business

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Brainstorm ideas for a business startup, and winter outdoor dining in Alaska might not top your list.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MATT TOMTER: Never in my life would I think we'd be serving food in a tent in Alaska in November, December.

KELLY: That is Matt Tomter, owner of four brewpubs in and around Anchorage. We had him on the show yesterday to hear how business is faring eight months into the pandemic. He told us it is a mixed bag. This week, we are catching up with several small business owners who we have met over the course of this strange year. And today we head to New Orleans, which is where we find chef Kelly Fields.

Kelly Fields, hello again.

KELLY FIELDS: Hello.

KELLY: So you and I talked a couple of times over the spring. I remember the first time was April. You had just had to shut down your bakery and restaurant, Willa Jean. And then we talked again in May on the day that you reopened, and I remember you were so happy. You were going to get to serve people barbecue shrimp toast again (laughter). How has that gone? How are things looking now for you?

FIELDS: I mean, like the guy in Alaska said yesterday, it's a really - it's a mixed bag. I feel very lucky to be in New Orleans, where we are at 50% capacity and people are showing up and, you know, playing by the rules and trying to mitigate risk as much as - as little as possible.

KELLY: I was going to ask. You've been as full as you're allowed to be?

FIELDS: Yeah, yeah. Most - I mean, we built into it. Every day has been a little bit busier. Every week's been a little bit busier. And I feel really lucky that we're - you know, our numbers are at 50%.

KELLY: Yeah. You'll have seen there are a lot of cities that, with this big surge, are looking to shut down indoor dining completely again. We don't know if it'll come to that in New Orleans. Can you imagine going through all this again?

FIELDS: Absolutely not - the governor announced that we are stepping back into phase 2, which mostly affects bar business here in New Orleans. And their plan is to limit bars being open based on positive percentage of testing.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, what is it that gives you the most pause - just the uncertainty of it, the trying to take care of your staff, the trying to figure out the financial (laughter)...

FIELDS: Yeah, I mean...

KELLY: ...Bottom line of this, which must be terrifying?

FIELDS: The thing that guides me most is being able to take care of my staff and thinking about how we're doing everything that we're able to keep everybody safe and act with - in accordance to the mandates by the CDC and our city. And then I think about all these people who have made a personal choice to travel this weekend despite the risk who will then come to the restaurant and, you know, reunite with people and spend a couple hours unmasked in the space. And it is slightly terrifying.

KELLY: Yeah. It must feel simultaneously great to see your restaurant as full as you're able to get it and serving people...

FIELDS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Good food but also really terrifying wondering...

FIELDS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Where have you come from, and who were you with?

FIELDS: Exactly. Exactly.

KELLY: Have any of your staff gotten sick? I have to ask.

FIELDS: We've had a couple staff members test positive over the past eight months. We've closed the restaurant three times because of positive scares. And just any time that anybody comes into exposure or shows symptoms, we shut down immediately and do what we need to do to ensure that everybody remains safe.

KELLY: Yeah. We just have 30 seconds or so left, but do you have a plan? Or are you just trying to get through this day by day by day?

FIELDS: I mean, we are putting one foot in front of the other and showing up and just trying to cook food that we're excited to cook that people are excited to eat.

KELLY: Thanksgiving specials?

FIELDS: Oh, tons of them, yeah - pies galore.

KELLY: All right. That is chef Kelly Fields, who owns the award-winning bakery and restaurant Willa Jean in New Orleans.

Thank you. Great to speak to you.

FIELDS: Great to speak to you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF A.M.E.'S "POSITIVLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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