Whann: Leidenheimer, New Orleans stronger 10 years after storm

by Josh Sosland
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Jay Nix, Parkway owner, Sandy Whann, president of Leidenheimer, and Justin Kennedy, general manager of Parkway, stand outside the Parkway Bakery and Tavern 10 years after Katrina flooded it.

NEW ORLEANS — As a supplier of po-boys, pistolets, muffuletta and other local specialties to food service customers, Leidenheimer Baking Co. has been strongly connected to the New Orleans restaurant scene for longer than a century.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina wrought devastation upon the city, Leidenheimer’s president said the bond between the multi-generational family business, New Orleans and the city’s restaurants is more powerful than ever.

Desperation, determination, inspiration, appreciation and plenty of New Orleans perspiration stand out among the powerful recollections shared by Robert J. (Sandy) Whann IV in his recollection of the final months of 2005 and what has transpired since. He spoke about his baking business and his hometown in a recent interview with Milling & Baking News.

Damage from the storm was unprecedented. Deaths attributed to Katrina in the Gulf states totaled 1,833 with Louisiana accounting for more than 1,500 of the victims. The storm displaced more than 1 million Gulf state residents and caused more than $125 billion of damage. When levees protecting New Orleans were breached on Aug. 29, 2005, more than 80% of the city was flooded and 70% of its housing was damaged. Among those who had not evacuated, 10,000 survivors took refuge in the Superdome, located less than 1 mile from the Leidenheimer bakery.

Recalling the fear that pervaded the city, Mr. Whann said it was not a foregone conclusion in late 2005 that his baking business or the city had any future at all.

“In those months after the hurricane came the first opportunity I have ever had to gaze into the abyss,” Mr. Whann said. “There was a question at the congressional level as to whether or not the city should be rebuilt. We certainly think our culture is worthy of preservation.”

Challenges facing Leidenheimer in the immediate aftermath of the storm were a lack of power, potable water and an available workforce. While the baking plant was not severely damaged, the roof needed repairs and a large cleanup effort was required.

Mr. Whann said today he has a greater appreciation of the degree to which Leidenheimer was not alone in its difficulties.

“What happened in the business community of New Orleans was very inspiring to me,” he said. “Ours was one of hundreds of small businesses that faced real challenges.”

Memories of the days following the hurricane are indelibly etched in Mr. Whann’s memory.

“I remember walking into the plant for the first time escorted by the National Guard in early September, and I was greeted by the smell of 5,000 lbs of compressed yeast melted onto the floor in 98-degree heat. I also remember throwing away those shoes.”

New Orleans largely was evacuated prior to the storm, and Mr. Whann and his colleagues at the company had implemented the company’s emergency evacuation plan, securing the plant.

Even with all the advance work done, he said the disruption caused by the storm forced him to think about aspects of running a business that he hadn’t previously.

“It was eye opening to learn that business interruption insurance does not cover you when you don’t have power,” he said. “Or potable water.”

Dealing with insurance companies was very time consuming following the storm, he said. September 2005 was mostly devoted to a massive cleanup operation inside the baking plant. This work was done almost entirely using generators and portable lights since the company waited for weeks for power to be restored.

While not nearly at full capacity, Leidenheimer resumed production in October “with the help of some key managers and employees,” Mr. Whann said.

“We were operating again faster than we expected,” he said. “What we could produce on any given day was dependent on how many employees we could line up.”

Staffing disruptions remained a challenge for Leidenheimer for months, and the company still to this day feels effects from the human dislocations caused by the hurricane.

“We were contracting with various transportation services to go pick up employees from shelters where our employees were staying because they had no other way to get back to work,” he said. “We began getting portable housing in the form of trailers and bringing those to the bakery. That had its own challenges in terms of power and septic treatment. Cable turned out to be very important because there was nothing else to do. At one point we had 20 people living on the property.

“Employees needed to check on their own homes. We constantly were balancing our burning desire to get the business up and running with the human reality — that in some cases these people had lost everything they owned. I’m asking them to show up for their 7 p.m. shift. But they maybe had to repair their roof. It was a balancing act — keeping the bakery moving forward and satisfying our customer base while being sensitive to needs of the employees.”

Hurricane Katrina flooded the Parkway Bakery and Tavern when it struck in 2005.

Because of damage from the storm, the city’s population plunged from 485,000 pre-Katrina to 230,000 in July 2006. As of last year, the population of New Orleans had risen to 384,000.

Leidenheimer was not operating at capacity until late 2006 or early 2007, Mr. Whann said. Ultimately, Leidenheimer lost 50% of its employees as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

“Thankfully, no one died,” Mr. Whann said. “In most cases, they just did not return to New Orleans. Ten years later, I would say we’re still coming back from that. We face workforce challenges that certainly are consistent with our industry as a whole. We have difficulties finding machine operators and maintenance engineers. Our issues have been exacerbated by workforce changes that came about because of Katrina.”

While tourism is the life blood of the New Orleans restaurant scene served by Leidenheimer, Mr. Whann said it was the local population that helped bring the eating establishments back to life.

“The restaurant business has always been such an important part of our culture and heritage,” he said. “It has a wonderful reputation nationally and internationally. Rightly so.

“Those first couple of years after Katrina, as people began trickling back to New Orleans, there was an incredible excitement as the restaurants reopened. One at a time. They became gathering places and rallying points for neighbors and friends who hadn’t seen one another for many months. We served a number of them, in many cases for decades. We felt a sense of urgency because we knew how important it was for these restaurants to get back up and running. There was a financial need for revival, but without sounding corny, there was almost a greater need. New Orleans needed victories, and every restaurant that reopened was a victory. It was a matter of pride for us that in a small way Leidenheimer assisted them in returning to normalcy. That helped drive us to ramp up production.”

Ten years later, Mr. Whann said the restaurant business of New Orleans is healthier than ever and more varied. He cited many other measures of progress as well.

“It’s an exciting time to be in New Orleans,” he said. “The changes in the city are really amazing. They’ve exceeded my expectations. It’s my birthplace and has been my family’s home for generations. Natives of New Orleans had been aware of the city’s problems before Katrina. The idea of fixing them was a completely different matter.

“When you see New Orleans today, our unemployment rate is pretty enviable. Part of that relates to the massive construction under way here. We’ve had billions of dollars pour in. Road repairs, flood control projects. A number of other things. We have a new medical center that may become the pride of the South. Charter schools in New Orleans make up the largest system in the country by percentage of students. We’re a real laboratory for charter school education. I think all these things will bear great fruit.

Leidenheimer Baking Co. supplies po-boys, pistolets, muffuletta and other local specialties to food service customers.

“There is a New Orleans saying, ‘the past is never past.’ We do enjoy our history and reveling in it. There is a palpable sense we are ready to move forward and deal with issues that have plagued us for many years. For someone who lives here it is very uplifting.”

A self-described city booster, Mr. Whann acknowledged a number of significant problems in the city that are still to be resolved. Several neighborhoods devastated by Katrina have yet to be rebuilt, and many people in the city face housing problems (though that figure has been coming down).

“For many people, there has not been an improvement in their circumstances,” Mr. Whann said. “Crime has been a problem, too. Violence is the No. 1 issue for the city, without a doubt.”

Discussing business conditions at Leidenheimer 10 years after the storm, Mr. Whann was positive and grateful but perhaps more guarded in his choice of descriptors.

“Our business is okay,” he said. “I am pleased with how far we have come since Katrina.”

While horrified by the devastation wrought by Katrina, Mr. Whann was appreciative of the life lessons he learned during and after the storm.

“When put in the situation we were put in, one should never underestimate the efforts one will make to return to normalcy,” he said. “It’s hard to describe how important it is and what a driving force it is to get back to what you define as normal after an event like this. Those of us who lived through it will certainly never forget it. For most of us, it will represent a seminal event in our careers and the history of our companies. I think, whereas it is nothing I’d ever want to live through again and it wasn’t worth the toll it took in life, I do think it is gratifying to see the positives that have emerged. Again, that isn’t to say we don’t have more issues to address. But New Orleanians in general are happy about the direction the city is taking.”

Leidenheimer has benefited from the city’s restaurant renaissance, Mr. Whann said. While largely making the same line of products that were the company’s mainstay in 2005, additional items have been added. As was the case before the storm, Leidenheimer’s business remains heavily weighted toward supplying food service customers.

“There are new young chefs, concepts that have moved to town,” he said. “They’ve certainly given us opportunities to make different products we were not making before. We are making more brioche, ciabatta and products like those for local restaurants.

“In thinking about it, it’s actually nice today to be dealing with the challenges the other bakers in the country are dealing with and not the added problems Katrina brought.”

A very positive and powerful memory from 10 years ago for Mr. Whann relates to the baking industry.

“The amount of outreach we experienced from bakers across the country was extraordinary,” he said. “It was as simple as checking on us and a personal call to, in the case of Turano Baking Co., actually allowing us to produce products in their plants to satisfy food service orders. It was one of the most incredible gestures of generosity that occurred in the entire ordeal. Truly, there is incredible kindness and generosity that exists in our industry. What they did was just amazing.”

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