After the storm, there simply wasn’t anything to do, said Damian LeCompte, 36, of Bridge City, La., a small town on the outskirts of New Orleans hit by Hurricane Katrina late August.
He and his girlfriend, Brittany Jones, 19, arrived in Ashburn a week and a half ago to start a new life. All they had between them was $500 cash and a few changes of clothes.
When Terry and Isabella Caugh, owners of the 321 Ashland Bistro and Wine Bar in Ashburn, saw the aftermath of the storm’s destruction they knew they had to help in some way.
"I had restaurant jobs available. And I wished I could get in touch with the victims affected by Hurricane Katrina," Terry Caugh said.
Fortunately, he knew someone who could.
He called his publicist, Heidi Koontz, owner of Intuitive Fair, a grassroots marketing and public-relations firm, and told her what he wanted to do.
Two days after the storm touched down, Koontz had a new Web site — www.restaurantjobsforyou.org — up and running.
"I thought if Terry wants to do it, why not get all the restaurants in the area to do it," she said. "I don’t have a lot of money to help and I just asked the Lord to show me what I could do to help and it hit me that I could use my resources to put a Web site together and my contacts to reach out."
The Web site currently lists more than 40 restaurants offering food-service-related jobs in states nationwide, including Rhode Island, California, Arizona, Florida, Alabama, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
WHEN LECOMPTE heard about the Web site during a Red Cross commercial on the radio, he decided to bite.
Even though his severely wind damaged home was still livable, he said, there was no point in staying.
"We didn’t have any work down there, because nothing was open. There was nothing to do," he said.
LeCompte said he’d heard a lot of different types of job offers over the radio but the one in Ashburn caught his attention because it wasn’t for a chain restaurant.
"I always did want to cook and Terry’s restaurant is still family owned and that’s what I wanted to work for, so I could bring my Cajun influence into the restaurant," he said. "With a chain I wasn’t going to be able to do that."
After returning to the area to assist family members and to inspect the damage to their home, the couple decided to take the risk and move to where a more promising livelihood waited.
Without much more than a dream to follow, they packed up what was left and made their way north.
Caugh and LeCompte agreed that the move was a risky undertaking. Caugh hired LeCompte as a cook sight unseen without knowing the extent of his abilities in the kitchen and LeCompte had to trust that there actually was a job waiting for him.
"I was scared at first but now I feel comfortable," LeCompte said. "I feel like family, you know."
It’s unlikely that Caugh has anything to worry about though. LeCompte said he’s been cooking for 20 years both at home and for various formal and informal catering companies. He’s even written his own cookbook.
And working in a restaurant like Caugh’s, he said, is a dream come true.
"I always wanted to sky dive. I did that. I always wanted to write my own cook book. I did that. I always wanted to own my own restaurant and now I’m on my way," he said. "I need to learn the business and this is the way to do it."
WEB SITE PATRONS are encouraged to contact the restaurants directly for placement to find out what sort of help is needed and at what skill levels, ranging from dishwashers to executive management, Koontz said.
For that reason, she is unable to keep up with how many people are actually being placed. But she said there probably haven’t been many up to this point.
"People are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. So I don’t think anything is going to happen for a few weeks until the realization hits that they need a temporary job and housing," she said.
Not to mention, it’s a big step to move to another part of the country.
"It takes a lot of trust," she said.
One of the stipulations for getting posted on the Web site is a commitment to at least two-months living assistance for the person or persons the restaurants decide to hire, whether by hotel donation, a local resident or customer lending a room or by fund-raiser, Koontz said.
On Oct. 8, 321 Ashland Bistro and Wine Bar will hold a New Orleans-style barn dance fund-raiser for LeCompte and Jones that will feature Cajun foods like gumbo, red beans and rice and blackened chicken.
The proceeds will go toward housing and living expenses to help the couple get on their feet, Koontz said.