The hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina include many restaurant employees, evacuees from a region as famous for its food as for its music. A new web site aims to help these chefs, waiters and kitchen workers find other jobs - at least for the time being - at restaurants elsewhere in the United States.
The web site is called www.cirajobs.com, and it was launched by Don Luria, who owns Terra Cotta, a southwestern-style restaurant in Tucson, Arizona. Mr. Luria is also the head of CIRA, short for the Council of Independent Restaurants of America.
He says the restaurant industry has a long history of hosting fund-raisers to help disaster victims and other people in need. But after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, he realized his group could offer a special kind of aid. "Almost all restaurants are in a position of needing qualified people," Mr. Luria says. "And from what I understand there are about 55,000 restaurant employees in the Gulf Coast, New Orleans in particular, who are going to be out of work."
Mr. Luria spent most of his Labor Day weekend working with computer specialists in Houston, Texas, to create the site. "The first day we had 7 job postings," he recalls. "I was getting very nervous. And the next day we had 10, and the next day 155 and then 192 and then 250."
The site now has more than 2,000 job listings, representing restaurants in more than 30 states - from an Italian restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts, in the Northeast to a crab and barbecue grill in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Doug Levy posted openings for his restaurant Feast, also located in Tucson. He believes restaurant workers coming from the Gulf Coast area have a lot to offer cities like Tucson. "I can't think of a better restaurant town, a more food-oriented culture than New Orleans in the United States," Mr. Levy says. "The tourist industry is such a substantial part of what they do, that to bring that knowledge to another tourist-based economy, I just see that as a tremendous asset."
Mr. Levy says the desert city of Tucson will have a special need for extra restaurant workers in the winter months ahead, as milder temperatures there bring more vacationers and part-time residents. And he believes the web site gives restaurant owners a chance to do what so many other people have been trying to do since Hurricane Katrina struck - provide some form of aid.
"I have a business here that 30 people rely on for their own income, and so I can't pick up and go help people off of rooftops. So it's nice to feel like way over here we can do something that's going to be helpful to the people who are suffering the repercussions of the hurricane."
So far, the number of job offerings posted on the web site greatly exceeds the number of people looking for work. Don Luria says he planned it that way, wanting to line up plenty of work opportunities before he started actively seeking displaced workers. "I thought it would be very disheartening if I had a lot of applicants and no jobs. I've also been working with airlines and the Red Cross and hotel chains to get them from where they are to where the jobs are located."
For those displaced workers who lack Internet access, Don Luria is relying on job placement groups that visit convention centers and other temporary shelters. He has already hired Katrina evacuee Lucius Wesson to work at Terra Cotta. Mr. Wesson spent 13 years studying culinary arts and working in New Orleans, most recently at House of Blues in the French Quarter. A Tucson native, he fled the hurricane with his girl friend, brother and dog.
Now Mr. Wesson is busy making a transition he could not have imagined a few weeks ago, but one that is working out well so far. "This is very much a family restaurant," he says, "and that feels very comfortable to me. I've been working in so many family restaurants in New Orleans. The food of course has a southwestern flair, but it's incredibly fresh and very good. And you know from New Orleans we have high standards."
Lucius Wesson says the web site is one of many acts of generosity he has experienced since arriving in Tucson. He even received $150 in gift certificates from children in his parents' neighborhood, who set up a "Lemonade for Katrina" stand.
He has no plans to return to New Orleans, although he's sorry for what he's lost. "The most upsetting thing to me was the loss of community. It was like every day you see the same people on the streets, the same people you know in the neighborhood -- that sense of community has been shattered. But New Orleans will come back strong. I'm positive of that."
But Mr. Wesson will not be there to see it. "I'm perfectly happy in Tucson, Arizona. We're nice and high above sea level," he says.
While other displaced restaurant workers may choose to stay on in their new jobs, Don Luria says the web site is aimed at providing them with a temporary solution. "This is not any sort of attempt to bleed the talent out of New Orleans," he says. "Any one who takes a position needs to know that if they want to go back, I think we'll try to find the means to help them get back." But he imagines that some may prefer the dry heat of Tucson to the humid New Orleans climate and choose to stay. "But the objective is to help them find temporary work, provide an income stream and make their life more comfortable."
Gulf Area restaurant workers who have signed up for jobs on the web site seem to be open to new opportunities. Asked to list a geographical preference for their new jobs, the responses range from Maryland on the East Coast to Oregon on the West, to "Any Place."