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Feeding Our Soul

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meet the people who made coming home easier

When Dorignac’s Grocery reopened September 21, less than a month after Katrina, there was a traffic jam. It wasn’t due to cars lining up to get in the parking lot. The crowding was pedestrian, and, as Scott Miller, director of business operations for Dorignac’s explains, the pile up was caused by simple and profound gratitude.

“People were walking into the store and just standing at the front entrance,” says Miller. “They wanted to savor the moment. More than one person came up to me and said, ‘As long as we know you’re here, we know we’re going to be okay.’”

It’s a sentiment that’s been repeated throughout the metro area. When people saw their favorite shops, restaurants, and other public places open for business, they were relieved. Some sense of normalcy had returned, and it’s been a critical ingredient in the emotional recovery from the devastating effects of Katrina. For many, the initial glimpse, that parting of the clouds of despondency, began with their first steps into their neighborhood grocery store.

These stores worked diligently to return as soon as possible. Management and employees demonstrated a loyalty to their customers and neighborhoods that is usually regarded as a thing of the past. Not in New Orleans. Mike Lanaux, general manager of Langenstein’s Uptown location, remembers that day in late September when he was finally able to get to his store. He spotted an Entergy truck in the area, and soon power was restored. Almost as quickly, his first employee returned.

“It was my grandfather’s first cousin, Buddy Hodgkins, who is 83 years old, and he started here when he was 9 years old,” recalls Lanaux. “He pulled up in his pickup truck and he’s been working—five days a week as a butcher—ever since.”

As for Dorignac’s, part of the reason it was able to reopen so quickly was because they had formed a hurricane plan the year before. Miller and Fred Little, store manager, constructed a phone list according to the store’s chain of command and lined up vendors to restock the supermarket. After getting into the store, Little led a team of Dorignac’s employees that cleaned the building before restocking the shelves. Miller feels the plan succeeded, considering Dorignac’s opened only two weeks after first being allowed back into the area.

You can’t open a grocery store without employees, and Dorignac’s took measures to ensure their workers could return. Miller temporarily moved employee records to Baton Rouge and began making phone calls. They were able reach many of their staff. Discovering some of them had lost homes, Joseph Dorignac III, owner of Dorignac’s reacted by arranging for employee housing—the store provided seven trailers and six apartments with more than 30 people living there temporarily—adjusting wage scales and giving others financial assistance.

The Whole Foods store in New Orleans decided to wait until February 1 to return. They didn’t want a partial reopening, so they took the time to remodel their Arabella Station location on Magazine Street. When they did reopen, a King Cake–cutting ceremony, a second line through the store lead by the Tremè Brass Band, a new store layout for easier access and an improved international food section greeted customers. Most important, the grand reopening featured a homecoming for 108 returning Whole team members.

Kristina Bradford, spokesperson for Whole Foods, attributes this high number to the corporation’s commitment to helping their evacuated team members. Displaced employees were given a month’s pay regardless of whether they worked or not; they were offered transfers to other Whole Foods stores; and team members throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom gave benefits and donations for those fellow members affected by the storm.

Winn-Dixie Stores, with 54 locations in the Gulf Coast area and thousands of employees, faced a logistical nightmare in locating store associates. Terry Derreberry, director of communications, says they set up a toll-free hotline for employees to call, report their status and find out about benefits, paychecks and needed assistance.

The hotline was a success, and Winn-Dixie lent a hand to their associates by renting trailers for housing, allowing associates to take extended leave and setting up a donation program, so staff throughout the country could pitch in during this crisis. Due to their efforts, Winn-Dixie has managed to reopen 43 stores impacted by Katrina.

All area supermarkets are relying on smaller staffs. Before Katrina, Dorignac’s employed 250 people; now they have 170 workers. Whole Foods has been reduced from a pre-Katrina workforce of 230 to the present level of 160 team members. Langenstein’s has gone from 60 employees to 25 dedicated workers. Still, the shelves are stocked; the lights are on; and customers can find just about everything they need. And, as Lanaux discovered, if something hasn’t been restored, no apology is necessary.

“When at first we couldn’t give our customers everything they were accustomed to, we tried to apologize. They told us there was no need—they were just grateful we were back and open for business.”