Atlanta Firm's New Orleans Unit Trying To Recover

NEW ORLEANS | Thursday, February 09, 2006

Sleeping on the job, but it's OK

Since Hurricane Katrina struck here six months ago, Felton Jones has lived, breathed and slept coffee. After much of his family fled this devastated city, with its tarp-covered houses and its uncharacteristically music-less streets, Jones set up home in a 19,000-square-foot warehouse. His choice of residence - just northeast of the French Quarter and behind a 10-foot wall blocking the Mississippi River - isn't a relief shelter, however. Jones is vice president of wholesale operations at PJ's Coffee, owned by Atlanta-based Raving Brands. And his new residence is the java chain's roasting plant. "I'm literally living at work," the tall, slender New Orleans native says, surveying the building filled with bags of coffee beans, large barrels to hold them while they cool, and a monstrous deluxe metal roaster that dominates the floor. "I smell it when I'm awake, I smell it when I'm asleep," he says. Jones' living arrangement comes as a necessity for him and his employer. Jones, 34, lost his home in New Orleans East, one of the hardest hit areas of the city. He rode out the storm in Jackson, Miss., and then relocated his wife and two children to Pensacola, Fla. The roasting facility held up better. It suffered minor roof damage and minimal water intrusion from the relentless rain. The water reached and ruined just a few bags of beans. PJ's problem has been operating a business post-Katrina. Every day presents a new challenge, from problems with suppliers and coffee distributors to employment headaches. Recovery comes in baby steps. The coffee company, which had several stores destroyed or heavily damaged, needed to reconnect with everyone from milk suppliers to the telephone company. A few stores still are filled with mud. Ones that are open often can't process credit card transactions. Few have enough employees. PJ's managers still haven't heard from some of the people who worked for them before the storm hit in late August. Before Katrina, the chain's New Orleans stores employed about 300, says spokeswoman Jessica Riley. It's tough to get an accurate count today, with the workers in so much flux. "Both personally and for the company, the thing that terrified me is that I would lose touch with so many people," company founder Phyllis Jordan, the "PJ" in the brand name, says as workers put the finishing touches on display cases, flooring and walls inside one of the damaged stores on the campus of Tulane University. "Just trying to say in contact with people was very troubling." Atlanta connection Jordan, a former social worker, started PJ's in 1978 after giving up her 9-to-5 because, she says, she was unfulfilled. She began with one location near Tulane but quickly expanded. The coffee, like that of its competitor - Community Coffee, based up the road in Baton Rouge, La. - became a staple for many south Louisianans, known for favoring local businesses. Raving Brands, owner of the Moe's Southwest Grill, Mama Fu's and Planet Smoothie concepts, bought PJ's in 2002. Since taking over, Raving has updated the chain's look, added wine bars at some locations and expanded beyond its Crescent City roots. Forty-four PJ's stores operate in eight states. Five stores are in metro Atlanta, home to Raving Brands. That Atlanta connection helped PJ's in the initial weeks after the storm. The roasting facility, while only marginally damaged, was inaccessible to the company because the area around it was being used as a National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency command center, Jones says. The building also did not have natural gas, which the company uses to operate the roaster. PJ's turned to Atlanta-based Coffee AM, whose roaster was compatible with its roasting process. Jones traveled to Atlanta a few days after the storm to begin cooking about half of PJ's 24 flavors in Georgia's capital. Six weeks later, when Jones and his colleague, Brian Beck - who also lost his Chalmette area home - finally got into the New Orleans roasting facility, they had to go about getting power and gas to begin making coffee. It took time for distributors to reach them and for suppliers to deliver everything from beans to coffee bags. The pair moved into the roasting plant. They sleep on inflatable mattresses set up on boxes. A small TV, flanked by boxes, sits nearby. A grill backs up to a wall made dingy by its purpose. Jones and Beck are never without flashlights, imperative when electricity wasn't a given 24 hours a day. "The biggest challenge for us [right after moving into the warehouse] was meals," Jones says. "During the day it wasn't so bad because the American Red Cross was in the neighborhood. But at night, we had to go out and travel to find something to eat or put on the barbecue." Fighting back At the same time, franchisees were surveying damage to their PJ's stores. The problems ran the gamut, from spoiled food and mold to total destruction. Of the chain's 21 New Orleans stores, two will not reopen, says Randy Hollingsworth, vice president of operations for PJ's. Brett Pearson, who owns three stores - two of them near Tulane - says one of his locations reopened relatively quickly. But the other was a total loss. "The refrigerators were bursting at the seems," he says of the destroyed store. "An inch of mold was on the pastry case." Pearson's life right after the storm was a juggling act: Gutting one Tulane area store while operating the other with reduced hours and a skeleton crew of five employees. At the same time, he oversaw repairs to his store in a New Orleans suburb. There the roof was damaged, the Sheetrock soaked and the drive-through menu board ruined. "When it's your livelihood, you do what you've got to do," he says. His struggle to staff the Tulane store was eased when students returned to classes recently. The store is near full employment, but Pearson says he is paying 25 percent more per hour than he was before Katrina. Some New Orleans employers are even giving signing bonuses to attract workers in the city, whichhas lost more than half its former residents. The upside: Establishments that are open have few competitors and do a brisk business. PJ's same-store sales in New Orleans jumped 25 percent in November 2005 over the same period a year earlier. "That's a good feeling having money coming in," Pearson says. Back at the roasting facility, Jones sits in a small office that shields him from the rumbling of the roaster. He says the company has made amazing progress since November. Production is nearing pre-Katrina levels. He is roasting all 24 flavors and operates the roaster on a regular four-day-a-week schedule, down from the seven-day routine needed to make up for lost production time. As he relaxes in what has truly become a home office, Jones has time to think about his future. It includes rebuilding in New Orleans, hopefully on the site of his former home. Last week, FEMA delivered a trailer to the lot. Jones will move in as soon as he gets power. "One of the things that has helped me is being very determined to come back here. I don't think we'll see another storm like that," he says, his expression signaling that he hopes he's right and not foolish. "I believe New Orleans will be back, and I'm going to be back with it."

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P.J.'s Coffee of New Orleans
180 New Camellia Blvd., #100
Covington,, LA

Phone: (985) 718-1404

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