There are still more pigeons than people in Jackson Square, the norm for the French Quarter since the corornavirus shutdown began. But as a steamy Friday morning got underway, just across Decatur Street the smell of chicory coffee and beignets once again wafted from Café du Monde.
The landmark New Orleans coffee and beignet parlor in the French Market reopened for the first time since March.
One of the first people in line was Stacie Ancar. A Belle Chasse native, she lives in Atlanta now and is back in town for a weekend visit. Café du Monde was her first stop.
“There is no New Orleans without Café du Monde,” said Ancar, her shirt adorned with a café au lait pin and the inevitable dusting of powdered sugar from the first bite of her beignets. "It’s where I always go when I come home."
Between the awnings and arches of Café du Monde’s covered patio, Ancar had plenty of room around her.
To get underway, the café is serving takeout orders only from a makeshift counter set up by the front door. Though it can normally seat 400 people at once, Cafe du Monde now has about 20 outdoor tables for people to tuck into with their takeout bags.
“We’re not going to have the crowds we normally would, but that’s not important right now,” said Jay Roman, one of the family owners of Café du Monde.
“What’s important is showing the city is open again. We want people to know that New Orleans is back.”
Restaurants have been returning to business in one form or another all across New Orleans since the governor and mayor announced Phase 1 of the reopening process last week. As an iconic New Orleans restaurant, Cafe du Monde's decision to return could resonate beyond the city.
People don’t just eat beignets at Cafe du Monde. If they’re tourists, they tell stories about them when they get home. If they’re locals, they argue the particular merits of Café du Monde versus Morning Call or any of the new beignets makers on the block.
Hours are curtailed from the normal 24/7 schedule now, operating 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, though Roman expects to extend those hours when the city gets to Phase 2 of its reopening.
“Our business plan is written on a white board with erasable marker, because it changes every day,” he said. “Every time you think you have a plan, you read something else, you watch another webinar, you learn about something different that you have to do.”
Café du Monde has been reopening its suburban locations, starting with drive through service. On May 1 it reopened the takeout window at its location in New Orleans City Park. Business has been encouraging at those cafes, and Roman said Mother’s Day weekend was a big boost, showing that many customers were ready to venture out again.
The original Café du Monde location, however, is experiencing a different dynamic. The French Quarter is still very quiet. But from the dead calm that had settled over the streets, little gusts of activity have more recently been turning up.
Roman has been around the French Market almost daily since the shutdowns and noticed the change. He credits street artist and recent graduates.
“After people started painting art on the plywood over all the boarded up windows around here, that drew people down to check it out,” Roman said. “Then with graduations, it was the tour of caps and gowns, parents taking their pictures in front of landmarks without a lot of tourists around them.”
On opening day, there were some signs that tourism is not completely gone. The office phone kept ringing with calls from out of towners looking for updates.
For Rob McCloskey and Meg Helf, the order they picked up on opening day was their first taste of beignets. They live in eastern Pennsylvania, near Scranton, and have been traveling to escape the depressing mood back home. They couldn’t do many of the usual tourist activities but they did find their way to Café du Monde and hopped in line.
“This was on our list of things to do anyway,” said McCloskey
Kim Hoffman was thrilled to see them. She has worked at the French Market location of Café du Monde for 43 years, starting here not long after she emigrated from Vietnam. She’s been mostly staying home since the shutdowns, taking care of her husband. She leapt at the chance to get back to work.
“When they called, I felt like I’d won a million dollars,” she said, between sanitizing tabletops and waving playfully at little kids covered in powdered sugar.
“You see everyone here, famous people at one table, grandfathers, fathers and sons at another,” Hoffman said. “I love it. I missed the people.”