Cash Confessional: How Cajun Queen pivoted to overcome a ‘very, very scary’ closure
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A Charlotte favorite for 35 years, Cajun Queen is known as much for its dining experience — live music in a century-old house — as it is for its étouffée and jambalaya.
Owner Tim Freer, a New York native who moved down to Charlotte for college in the late 1980s, became a Cajun Queen co-owner in 1992. The other two owners are chef William Wessling and Robert Gottfried, the founder’s son.
During the pandemic, Freer and his partners had to close the restaurant for 10 weeks. His team discontinued the live music downstairs, and they had to learn how to make takeout work.
(The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
What’s your background in the restaurant industry?
I started at the Cajun Queen at the bottom of the rung, part time as a bartender slash waiter slash anything else they wanted me to do. I just worked my way up over the years until finally they gave me some equity into the business.
When you became a part-owner at Cajun Queen, what was that process like? Did you have to invest in it?
I didn’t. The owners wanted to reward their employees and protect their investment by making us investment partners.
What have been some of the changes you made to Cajun Queen over the years as an owner?
A lot of it has stayed the same. If you looked at our menu from 1985 you would see a lot of the same items. Prices have changed a little tiny bit but the items are very, very similar. The building was built in 1918, and the original structure is pretty much the same as it’s always been. We’ve done some renovations, we’ve made improvements in the kitchen, and we’ve added restrooms and patios on both levels.
How has the pandemic weighed on the business?
Starting in mid-March, we closed for 10 weeks. We weren’t set up at all to do any to-gos, and we certainly didn’t see a viable model in keeping anybody employed to do just to go. Normally, we only close three days a year: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Super Bowl Sunday.
It was, it was very, very scary, I guess is the best word to use, you know? I thought, how was I going to keep my employees paid? How am I going to keep my family fed? How am I going to keep the restaurant alive after 35 years? There was a lot of fear and a lot of unknown. I hope everybody survives this. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I think Charlotte’s gonna have a lot fewer restaurants the end of this, unfortunately.
Did you have to let go of any employees?
When we closed, we furloughed every single person, including ourselves.
What would you say the impact on revenue has been?
When we reopened in June, we were able to get to a point where the numbers say we returned to two-thirds of our sales with half capacity, which I consider extremely fortunate. We started doing to-go, which made up for a little bit of that loss. We also extended our hours so we could get more turns on fewer tables.
Have you sought specific pandemic-related relief like a PPP or a grant from the city, state, or county for the business?
Yes. Our PPP was $103,000, and we’ve used that for payroll, rent, and utilities. We also got an emergency loan of $50,000 from Truist to pay our vendors.
What sort of lessons have you learned throughout all of this?
You have to be flexible. Cajun Queen is not known for pivoting. Our menu hasn’t changed much in 35 years, nor has our establishment.
If you could give one piece of advice to 22-year-old Tim, what would it be?
I mean, there are lot of a lot of mistakes I made along the way that I would try to correct but in the long run, sitting here right now, I’m pretty happy with what I have.
What is your No. 1 piece of financial advice?
Don’t overextend yourself. I live in a nice small neighborhood. We do not go overboard and try to do more than we can.
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