Hey. It’s Michael. This week, we’re revisiting people we met in the early weeks of the pandemic, listening back and hearing what’s happened to them since our original conversations.
Today: Jasmine Lombrage, a restaurant owner in Baton Rouge.
It’s Thursday, July 16.
From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”
When Louisiana’s stay at home order expires today, restaurants across the state can begin allowing customers back inside at their own discretion. That decision now lies with restaurant owners, like Jasmine Lombrage.
It’s Friday, May 15.
Hi, how are you?
Oh, good. You sound great right now.
Wonderful, wonderful. Hi. I’m Jasmine Lombrage.
Hi, Jasmine. I’m Michael Barbaro.
Hi, nice — nice to meet you this way.
Very nice to meet you this way. Where exactly am I reaching you?
I am at the Bullfish Bar Plus Kitchen here in Baton Rouge, La.
That’s your restaurant?
So how long have you lived in Baton Rouge?
Me, personally, about 17 years. My husband has been here over 20 years. And we have two girls, two beautiful girls, Gaby — she’s turning 11 next month — and we have our gorgeous Angelle. She’s nine.
How did you and your husband meet?
[LAUGHS] It’s an old love story. We met at school. I was in dental hygiene school, and he was in culinary school. And he was working at that cafeteria. My friends said that they have good food over there, and they wanted to go. And so we went over there, and he was a quiet guy in the corner doing his own thing. I said, excuse me, what do you have here that is good and healthy that I can eat? And he looks up, and he said, Nothing is good enough for you.
And then I turned to walk away, and he said, But if you come back tomorrow, I’ll make something for you.
And I just kind of smiled and said, No, thank you. And I had a few friends who are like, Yes, we’re coming back tomorrow. So the next day, he made something for me. He made stir fry, and my friends — I had one of my crazy friends. She said — I said, I’m not going to eat. I don’t know if this guy is some kind of psycho or crazy and he’s going to put something in my food. She’s like, “Well, I’m going to eat. If nothing happens to me in a few minutes, then you — you can try it.” So that’s what happened. And he came back and asked, how was everything? I said, it was good. And then we started talking. Then — no then he said I’m going to be his wife, and I said, I’m sorry. That’s not going to happen. You know, and he said, well, he’s a praying man. He always gets his heart desire.
Yes, 10 years later, we ended up married.
So when you — when you two met, you were a dental hygienist student. He was training to be a chef.
And so how did you end up in the food industry?
Well, growing up, my mom always cooked, you know, for many people. So it was always a passion. I grew up cooking also with mom and just family and aunts. We just — that was just something we did.
And then Angel, my husband, Chef Angel, my husband, you know, we — he was the executive corporate chef that started Voodoo BBQ & Grill, which is a restaurant here in the South. And he was known as the Pitmaster. And so what we did, we started Jazz City then, Jazz City was a catering company. And we were — he was like, well, this is what I love to do. And we wanted to do something — we have two young kids. We know that, you know, you can work hard for anyone and everyone, but really, if you want to leave that — create something for your family, you need to create something so that it can stay down and passed down for generations and generations and possibly grow. And that is our goal is to have it grow and flourish.
And we ended up here at the Bullfish, and Bullfish was already — it was a restaurant previously owned by someone else. And when we came here, we made it our own by bringing new menu items. And this is the only place you can come in Louisiana and find an authentic Caribbean and Southern fusion cuisine. What he’s done, what Chef has mastered, he’s taken the fresh herbs that we have in the Caribbean, and then he’s merged it with the wonderful spices that we have here in Louisiana. And he — there’s a fusion of jerk, fish, and Southern barbecue shrimp.
Yes. And the paella — you know, Chef makes a paella with — you know, he uses scallops. And the crawfish, which is from Louisiana, he infuses that with the andouille sausage, and then he puts the shrimp in there and the crab meat. And so it’s just the different twist that he puts on all of the dishes. It’s just magic in your mouth.
And I don’t know if you heard the music in the background a little. We kind of use a lot of Caribbean kind of music from different parts of the Caribbean, and we play different music from here. The vibe is just so, I don’t need a passport, but I can get away here. Does that makes sense?
Mm-hmm. It’s funny you keep calling your husband “chef.” Is that how you refer to him?
At work, we keep it professional. At home, well, when we get in a car, it’s “honey.” But when we’re at work, we refer to each other — I refer to him as Chef, and he would just say whatever he had to say to me or, OK, yes, ma’am, and that would be it.
And when did you take over the restaurant?
That was last year, 2019, May 22, 2019.
OK. So just about — just about a year ago.
Yes. And this restaurant, the Bullfish, it is personal for us, because our home is connected to the Bullfish.
Yes. So that’s why this pandemic — I personally have spent many nights not sleeping, because I know our home is connected to it. It’s not like we have 5, 6, 7, 20 locations. This is all we have. In our home, we have two kids. My daughter, my oldest, Gaby, she’s autistic. I don’t know — I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but for now, she’s depending on us to care for her. So as she grows, the home is — before we committed our home to the Bullfish — was part of the security blanket that we had. In the event something happened, she would have that.
Tell me what you mean when you say that your home is connected to Bullfish. You mean physically or emotionally or what?
Well, whenever you get a loan, you have to give some kind of guarantee, like a personal guarantee. And that’s what we did, you know. We took that leap of faith and decided that we were going to put 100 percent in here to make it work. So we have to make the Bullfish work.
So if something were to happen to the restaurant, it would mean potentially losing your home?
And it sounds like that house is something you plan on passing on to your daughter, who’s autistic.
Yes, well, both of our girls, but we know her, at least, we can have somewhere for her in case she needed somewhere to be, and then we can have that there for her. That is something that always gets me emotional talking about, because —
[CRYING] I’m sorry.
It’s — you know, and she’s standing in front of me looking at me now. And we want to do whatever it takes to make it work.
You know, we just have to make it work. So when this pandemic started, it really gave us a scare, because if we’re not able to pay for everything, and we default on our loan, well, we understood the consequences, you know.
Was there a moment when you felt that you had really kind of made it with this place, having bought it and started to make it your own?
Yes. About a month before the pandemic, we were like, yeah, this was a good choice. My husband and I, we usually go to early morning service for church, and afterwards, we came here for brunch. And then before we were open, we had people waiting outside for us.
It was wonderful. And we were like, OK, wow, this is really going to work. This is really working. And wow, honey, this is our baby, and we’re going to grow it, and we’re going to be able to pay up the loan, and we’re going to be able to just blow this thing out of the park. And then the pandemic started. And yes.
When did you first start to notice that the pandemic was impacting the restaurant?
OK, early March — early March, because it was February was good with Valentine’s Day. Early March is when everything started changing, and as March went on, the governor shut down the state. This is when, you know, you started losing staff members saying they’re not coming out. I mean, you cannot blame them. We also started doing curbside delivery, and we were doing social media posts and putting up signs, handwritten signs offering discounts, letting people know that curbside pickup is available, just getting different yard signs made.
So you have to put up signs in the windows or outside telling people, we’re still around, you just need to call in.
Yes, yes, yes. And then about maybe the second week after the state was closed, we would be lucky if we got two people that would call for curbside pickup. And we would just be sitting here the entire day, 11 to 8, and there’s no one that would come by or no one that would call. So then I started calling the restaurant phone a couple of times to make sure the phone was working, because it never rang. We were there for hours.
So you called the restaurant’s main number with your cell phone just to see if it was working.
And, you know, I started reaching out to third party — third party delivery providers to see if I can sign up with them, like Uber Eats and Waitr and DoorDash and ChowNow. And they’re charging — some of them are charging from 25 percent to 35 percent.
Yeah, that’s your food costs. Yes. You know, in addition to that, we’re not able to buy in bulk anymore, because we’ve wasted so much food. We’ve thrown away so much stuff, so now we’re having to go ourselves, Chef and I, to different mom and pop stores that are open, and we’re having to purchase items. Of course, now you’re paying more money for them, because you’re not buying the same quantity anymore, and you’re buying from a local retailer. So, you know, and then we have a bar here, and we weren’t — no one was coming out to drink anymore, so that went away. So yeah, the pandemic, you know, it’s been hard on us.
Mm-hm. I’m so sorry.
So with these delivery apps, these new sources of orders, how much money do you make off of any individual customer percentage-wise?
Right now, you don’t, because the fact that we’re buying things from not just local distributors but smaller volume — we’re buying things in smaller volume, so our profit margin is smaller. So we’re basically not making anything. You’re keeping the doors open, but you’re not making anything from it.
Can you give us a sense of where your daughters have been throughout this period? At what point was their schooling interrupted?
Maybe March. Angelle, when did school close? March or April?
[FAINT] It closed in March.
OK, school closed in March.
I used to bring my — I still do bring my two girls, so I can homeschool them, because school — they are out of school. So I use a corner of the restaurant, and I do schooling there for my girls. But it was a challenge. The change was not welcomed and open for the girls, especially my oldest, Gaby.
What do you mean?
You know, with autism, everything has to be — you need to have something — everything scheduled and everything has a plan you need to follow through. And this whole pandemic kind of just went haywire for her in the beginning. She was not sleeping. She was more agitated. And my youngest, Angelle, she kept saying she wanted to go back to school, so I had to find other ways to help them. So —
And Jasmine, I think I hear your daughters in the background. Is that right?
Yes, you do.
Do you think there was a point where your daughters picked up on what has been happening for you and your husband, but beyond the stresses that they’re experiencing, you know, from not being at school and social distancing, that they understood that you and your husband are struggling with this business and struggling financially?
I think so. There is one incident. My daughter, my youngest, she — you know, she gets allowance, and someone gives her money or whatever. And she saved the money, and one day, she wrote a note. And then she left a note on the bed, on my bed. I was taking a bath, and I came out, and she had a note saying that, Mom, I know you and Dad are working really hard, and things are really tough. I have some money saved. I hope this helps for you to pay for stuff.
Yes. That was hard. That was hard.
How old is this daughter who left you —
Angelle was 8 when she did that. She just turned 9 in April. So she had a pandemic birthday.
Can I ask how much she gave you?
I think it was like $57 she had.
And what did you do with it?
I still have it saved.
I still have it there. I try not to use it. It was just such a touching moment, and just to see, you know, that they realize, kids realize more than you let them know. And knowing that they’re here like almost every single day with me, and —
They see everything.
How bad are things, financially speaking, right now?
Not close at all to where we want to be. Not good at all. Not good at all. We have applied for a lot of, you know, small business loans, and we’re just waiting to hear back.
Have you been able to cover all the payments that you owe to the bank?
I haven’t. I think finance is one of the things people don’t like to talk about, but I haven’t been able to meet a lot of — I had to ask for abatements. So we’ll see what happens.
I mean, do you think there is a situation that you could imagine using that money from your youngest daughter, that $57?
I don’t want to — I don’t want to, because it’s hers. Even though she gave it to me, it’s hers. I do not want — I don’t want to.
I’m just afraid to — I’m just afraid to even think about a situation like that.
We’ll be right back.
Jasmine, for listeners who don’t know what the rules are in Louisiana, what was announced earlier this week?
Well, restaurants — commencing Friday, you can, restaurants can be open for 25 percent of the capacity.
So you can seat up to 25 percent of what would normally fit inside the restaurant. So how many people do you think that is?
Well, we can seat about 90 people comfortably in here. And so about 25 percent of that now is what we’re allowed to do.
So if you can only put, you know, 20 or so people inside, can you make money?
I don’t see how that’s going to happen, to be honest with you, because 20 percent — having 20 percent of people inside the business is not enough to sustain, and I don’t know how long that’s going to go on for.
So [SIGHS] it’s hard. It’s a hard thing to digest right now.
But you have decided that you’re going to let people back inside?
Honestly, me, personally, no. So it is still an open debate. We — actually, after I’m done with this interview, we’re going to sit down and weigh our options, the pros and the cons, and see if it’s something that we want to do.
Can I ask you what you see as the cons and the pros?
Yeah, the pros — that, you know, we’ll have 25 percent more revenue than what we’re seeing now. And then the cons is knowing that someone will — I’m afraid that, oh, my god, somebody’s going to come out, and they’re a carrier of Covid-19, and they infect somebody else. So I have no way of controlling that.
Have you heard from customers about their opinions on whether it’s time to go back inside the restaurant?
Yes, I have. I’ve had mixed reviews. We tend to ask customers, whenever they’re picking up or, are they ready for everything to open back up. That’s normally the question we would ask. And I feel that I’m getting more nos than yes, though, in my opinion.
Those who have told you, Jasmine, that they do want to come out, what did they say is their reason for wanting to come out, to come back and eat in a restaurant?
They want to get out of the house. You know, sometimes it’s just the fact that you cannot do something makes you want to do it.
[LAUGHS] Yes. Yes, the forbidden fruit. Yes.
Yes. My point, that’s exactly. Like, oh, you tell me I cannot eat this? OK, I’m going to. So yes, that’s what I feel I’m getting.
I wonder, for you, if you didn’t run a restaurant, would you go out and eat right now? Would you walk into a restaurant, sit down, order food?
I would probably go out on a weekday, because weekdays are usually less busy, because I have a child that has a compromised immune system. So I’m usually very careful to go out. I don’t want to take something home to her, so that would be another reason that I personally will not go out. And if I did go out, minus my daughter’s situation, I would have definitely found the seat — ask to be seated in the area that is far away from everybody else.
I mean it’s interesting to hear you say that, that you wouldn’t want to go to a restaurant unless it was specifically at a slow time because of the health of your daughter, because you’re talking about yourself reopening a restaurant. So it’s quite a weird conundrum.
Yes, but it’s honest.
I just want to make sure I understand which of your daughters is immunocompromised.
Is that the daughter who is autistic?
Yes, because she was a former premature baby. I ruptured at 14 weeks when I was pregnant with her, and she had a lot of health challenges. They said, you know, that Gaby would never walk, talk, see, or hear. She was not via — she does not have any viability of life, and that she would never make it out of the hospital alive, you know. We were told that we were making a mistake for her. She coded, and it was even pronounced, and she came back. And she had a trach before, and she was on a ventilator before. She was on oxygen for the first — almost the first four years of her life.
You know, she started talking late, walking late, and she had to do therapy, and, you know, she had a walker. So she had a lot of challenges to see where she is now and where she came from. So I’m always careful, you know. A typical cold for you and I is just a cold, but for her, it can lead to pneumonia, or we’ve lost her. We’ve had her stop breathing a couple times, and nothing —
I don’t even know how to explain that.
Mm. Given your daughter’s health, are you worried that you’re going to basically be in the kind of situation it sounds like you’re afraid of kind of all the time, because people are going to be coming into your restaurant, and they could potentially get you sick, and you could potentially get your daughter sick?
Yes. You know, I don’t know what I would do if I find myself bringing something to my child. So I find myself in a very difficult position as a business owner.
That would be very hard to live with. I understand.
That would — yes. You know —
I mean, it sounds — it sounds like that —
— that has to — that has to be weighing on you as you’re making this decision.
Yes, it is. It is. It is. This is personal. This is not like, oh, OK, well, I’m just going to open and make the money. It’s not that situation for me. I have to be careful for it. I am responsible for her, and I’m also responsible for my customers, making sure they have the best experience. And I’m also responsible for my team that are coming to work. So —
And you’re also responsible for that house —
— that is connected to this —
So my hands are tied. Like, yes. It — yes, I’m just — I’m just in a bind.
Yeah, I’m just in a bind right now. And say hi, Gaby.
Say hi. It’s OK.
Oh, I want to see you on the video. Nice to meet you, Gaby.
Can you see her? I don’t know how this works.
Mm-hmm. I can see her. Yeah, she’s got a great — she’s got a leopard patterned sweater on.
Yes. Are you going to talk?
Hi. Gaby is waving.
How are you doing?
I’m doing well. Your mom was just telling us about you.
She — she loves you.
Yes. [LAUGHS] Yes.
She loves you — she loves you very much.
I do. I love you, Gab.
I love you, too.
Well, that was — that was a nice gift.
Yes, she walked up, so. [SIGH] I’m sorry.
Yeah, just give me a sec. Oof.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that —
No, I —
Hence the reason why I’m torn up. For someone that was 1 pound, 3 ounces when she was born, she is like — she’s like — I mean she’s beautiful. She’s doing so well. And then this is so scary.
This is so scary, you know. And then it’s a hard decision. I — we don’t open up, then to get customers to come in, we’re putting our house more at risk. We open up, and then something happens, then I’m putting my child’s life at risk. I don’t want — I don’t even want to be me right now.
I’m going to be really eager — we’re all going to be very eager to understand what decision you make. And I want you to know that we really enjoyed getting to know you and talking to you, and we’re rooting for you and for your family.
Thank you. Thank you so very much. Thank you.
Thank you, and please give our best to your husband and to the rest of your family.
Gaby says bye.
OK, thank you, guys.
Hours after we spoke with Jasmine, she, her husband and their staff decided that they would reopen the restaurant for indoor dining. They then quickly changed their mind, delaying that service because of health concerns. Since then, infections have surged across Louisiana, more than doubling. As a result, the state has required that everyone over eight years old wear a mask or face covering when in public, closed all bars and capped indoor dining at 50 percent capacity. The Bullfish Bar and Kitchen, however, is still not open for indoor dining, but has continued outdoor service and takeout.
After the episode aired, “Daily” listeners began reaching out to Jasmine with offers of financial support, with prayers and with food orders.
(CRYING) I mean, the amount of calls. I would never forget the people that called from all over the world just to let us know that they’re praying for us, they’re with us and they’re supporting us. And I’m just so happy that mankind is — just so many good people in this world. I’m just thankful.
And I pray that the numbers decrease if we do our part as human beings to protect ourselves and protect each other so we can nip this virus in the bud, really. And bad things are happening. And I have no control over that. You have no control over that. But we have control of what we do, each person individually. And just showing me and my family and others that difficult does not mean impossible. You can’t imagine how grateful and thankful I am. I’m just — oh, my god. My family, we’re so thankful.
Jasmine’s daughter Gaby turned 11 a few weeks ago, an event that the family celebrated with a socially distant party using Zoom.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today. The Times reports that coronavirus infections are now increasing in 41 different states and that conditions nationwide are beginning to resemble the darkest days of the pandemic back in March. On Tuesday, California and Texas set new daily records with more than 10,000 new infections each. In both Texas and Florida, more than 130 people died, a record for both. And in Oklahoma on Wednesday —
- kevin stitt
It just kind of feels achy, like maybe the start of a little cold is what it feels like right now. But really, I feel fine.
The governor, Kevin Stitt, said that he had tested positive for the virus, becoming the nation’s first governor to disclose an infection.
- kevin stitt
So you just never know where it is. It’s a virus that’s in the United States. It’s in Oklahoma. And that’s why it’s the new normal.
Stitt said he was unsure how he contracted the virus. But he has attended multiple public events, often without a mask, including at an indoor rally for President Trump held a few weeks ago in Tulsa.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.