The crowds that normally pack Frankie & Johnny’s Restaurant for po-boys and beer between parades were missing this Carnival season. The winter holidays, usually a busy time for low-key gatherings at this vintage Uptown joint, were subdued too.
But there’s still crawfish season, and that means Frankie & Johnny’s proprietor David McCelvey has hope.
“We can’t do normal business but we can still do this,” McCelvey said from the boil room one cold day last week, with steam gushing through the screened windows. “New Orleans people are going to be getting their crawfish, somehow, some way.”
The start of Lent always signals prime time for crawfish in Louisiana, as the annual harvest intersects deep-seated cultural traditions and social rhythms around the region.
The pandemic arrived last year when that season was just beginning, and crawfish quickly emerged as a rare bright spot. Restaurants reduced to takeout only in the early days found the voracious local appetite for crawfish remained strong. Curbside crawfish and DIY drive-thru operations proliferated.
The Lenten fish fry is a tradition robustly upheld around the New Orleans area, and that continues in 2021 with some modifications and more dr…
As this season begins, many are looking to crawfish to work that magic again. The stakes are even higher for small businesses that have been battered by a year of changing restrictions and low tourism numbers.
Much like the annual bonanza of king cakes for local bakeries, the seasonal demand for crawfish brings in sales that seafood restaurants and markets rely on during the long, lean months of summer.
That’s why Carl Jackson has been doing all he can to get an early start on the season at J & J Seafood in Gretna, working with fishermen to maintain a steady supply.
“It’s the most important part of the year for us, without a doubt,” said Jackson, who has run J & J with his three brothers for thirty years. “You got to make it when you can, because it doesn’t last long.”
A small market built in an old cottage near the Crescent City Connection, J & J draws a clientele from across the city. Even when temperatures were frigid last week and early season crawfish remained pricey, the phone kept ringing with regulars checking on availability.
“After people come off that long wait for them, they want their mud bugs,” Jackson said.
Preparing for the unpredictable
Prognosticators have been watching the industry for signs of how price and production will flow this year. The impact of the hard freeze on the crawfish heartland of southwest Louisiana has blurred earlier predictions.
It’s just the latest twist in a time of compounding uncertainties. Everywhere, old pros in the crawfish game have been adapting to new ways of doing business.
“It’s still a learning process, even a year later,” said Kent Bondi, owner of Castnet Seafood in Little Woods. “We just keep swinging and swinging, trying to get a hit. But I don’t think there’s any rule of thumb anymore.”
This market and restaurant has been a standby out by the Lake Pontchartrain levee since the 1980s, but in the past year it has changed up its approach constantly to meet coronavirus safety protocols.
Bondi’s crew moved all the indoor seating outside. They set up an intercom system to announce ready orders to people waiting in their cars. They even installed separate adjacent entrances, one for people seeking takeout po-boys and hot plates, the other for boiled seafood and fresh fish.
The first person that customers now see is Rosa Rico, who serves as Castnet’s “greeter,” directing traffic and monitoring social distancing in the busy, low-slung market.
“We have to be careful and keep everyone safe. We have multiple generation customers here – kids, parents, grandparents all from the same family,” said Rico, who knows many of them after 16 years on the job. “You just have to remind people that it’s different now, but we’re still doing our best to take care of them.”
Cold days, hot crawfish
Compared to the scramble to keep their businesses open last spring, some are feeling better prepared for this season and have new systems in place.
Frankie & Johnny’s, for instance, is adding curbside and local delivery service for crawfish, and McCelvey said he’ll soon start selling sacks of live crawfish for home boiling.
In Harahan, Jason Seither moved much of the operation for his Seither’s Seafood outside, turning his parking lot into an ersatz patio.
“I didn’t think people would want to eat in an oyster shell parking lot, but you bring the crawfish outside and add some music and it’s just a natural fit,” said Seither, who’s added tiki torches, thatch umbrellas and even a small stage for live music.
The trailer-mounted boiling rig he once used for big catered events and parties is now deployed six days a week outside Zuppardo’s Family Market, where Seither slings hundreds of pounds of crawfish each day thanks to an agreement with the Metairie supermarket.
Seither has already seen one promising sign for the season ahead. With Mardi Gras parades canceled this year, he opened his restaurant on Fat Tuesday for the first time. People turn up bundled for the cold weather and ready to start peeling hot crawfish.
“People still wanted to come out, so just imagine what it’s going to be like a month from now,” he said. “People are going to figure out a way to get their crawfish, believe me.”
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