The restaurant industry has always been a part of Andy Principe’s story. It was his first job as a teenager, and he continued through college, serving tables and working as a chef to pay for his hospitality degree at Cornell University. When the dot-com boom took hold, he pivoted to a tech job in Boston.
Around 2018, two of his friends – Chefs Amarys and Jordan Herndon – asked for his help. They had just secured an investment to move forward on a restaurant concept in New Orleans’ French Quarter, but they wanted a fresh set of eyes to look at the contracts and business plan. Fast forward to 2019 and their restaurant, Palm & Pine, opened and Principe found himself back in the industry, serving as a partner.
“I saw immediate areas where we could make some improvements, particularly around the contracts. They had a lease that was a little unscrupulous and I thought we could strengthen some things with some tweaks,” Principe said in a recent interview. “That was the point where I basically asked if they’d be willing to work with me and that’s the genesis of how I got back into the industry. I’m not too involved in the restaurant stuff, but I am in the back-office stuff, IT, insurance, accounting, and I think restaurant owners – especially those who are chefs and focused on the food – need that guidance.”
That’s not to say it’s been a smooth ride for the group, however. In fact, it’s been anything but. Prior to opening, for instance, the restaurant came in about $90,000 over budget on its sprinkler systems because of the unique requirements of opening in a historic district. The day after opening day, there was a flash flood that impacted the restaurant. Miraculously, Principe said, there were only some equipment losses.
Then Palm & Pine fully moved into its first full summer in business. It was a hard lesson on the ebbs and flows of New Orleans tourism, which slows significantly from June through Labor Day. The restaurant didn’t yet have the name recognition to thrive, but the trio stayed the course because they believed in the menu and the business plan, and they knew that visitors tend to return in the fall. And that’s exactly what happened. As Principe noted, by Oct. 1, “we were up and booming, selling out and doing great.”
However, less than two weeks later, the Hard Rock Hotel – which was under construction 0.3 miles away – collapsed, killing three workers. The site has since been cleaned up but the space itself has yet to be filled and the streetcar line has yet to be restored. Principe said the “gnarly corner” completely cuts the restaurant off from the Mardi Gras parade route and takes the concept out of the walking equation to and from Saints games.
“Those were two priority areas in our original business plan, and we thought we were going to capitalize on them. Instead, we’re still dealing with the ramifications four years later,” Principe said. He expects this space to remain unfilled for several more years as lawsuits linger. “I wish there was a visible plan on what to do with that space. It would be a game changer. It was a treacherous situation that we were navigating without help and It’s been a huge blow to the business. In many ways, this situation was harder on us than Covid.”
That said, Covid hit just five months later, forcing shutdowns across the country, and presenting even more hurdles for the Palm & Pine team. Like every other concept, they had to figure out how to add carryout and delivery channels and they had to shift their focus from dinner and late-night to lunch. The trio also took advantage of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program to keep its staff in place, and they helped the community as much as they could, including feeding those in the service industry who had been displaced. That latter piece is important because it embraces one of Palm & Pine’s initial priorities – targeting the New Orleans service industry workers.
“Our philosophy started that if bartenders, servers, strippers, whoever, likes your place and knows about your place, then the people who come to town and talk to them are then going to learn about your place and want to eat at your place,” Principe said. “We wanted to create a self-propagating relationship with the city’s service industry. Few can survive on locals alone, but we saw it as an important bridge.”
Now that most of the Covid-related challenges are in the rearview mirror, Palm & Pine is going to shift its attention back to the city’s service workers, hosting events like late-night burlesques, bar collabs, wine pairing dinners, crawfish boils, and more. This prioritization includes the restaurant’s own service workers through its recent introduction of a profit-sharing plan. Principe said sharing profits with employees “who have their hands on the levers” will drive profitability month-over-month.
“And if we’re consistently profitable, we can improve our benefits and increase that profit sharing,” he said.
Though the Hard Rock vacancy remains a pain point, Principe believes the worst is behind the restaurant and he’s somewhat optimistic about what’s ahead. What he’s most excited about is executing against that original business plan, which has been derailed time and time again.
“This is a first venture for each of us and if you had a team of first timers who managed the restaurant through the Hard Rock crisis, a flood and Covid, you’d probably bet we wouldn’t be here,” Principe said. “And here we are. It’s been hard, but it’s been the most rewarding challenge of my life.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]