Dining With a Few Reservations

Troy Gilbert & Stacey Meyer

An heroic battle is fought every day in New Orleans by the city's top chefs, restaurateurs and their staffs for economic survival, and it is especially pronounced in the French Quarter. Faced not only with the standard Katrina impacts, these businesses are still straddled with continuing -- although moderating -- staff shortages and the ensuing wage wars. Restaurants also contend with skyrocketing costs for foodstuffs, supplies and insurance, all while doing business amid a slowly recovering tourism and convention market.

Rick Blount, the CEO of Antoine's, explains, "First our labor costs went up by leaps and bounds, then insurance went up about 1,000 percent. Our food costs have been steadily rising because of the higher price of fuel, and this has also translated into higher energy bills. We've never faced bigger cost structures, and they're coming at a time when we can't pass that on to our customers. We are all figuring out how to do more with less."

Tom Wolfe, chef and proprietor of Peristyle says, "Just because it's not business as usual for the restaurateurs, doesn't mean that it's that way for our diners. Their expectations have gotten back to normal. They want what they experienced at our restaurants before, and that keeps all of us on our toes to provide that for them."

French Quarter restaurateurs are anxious as the summer's traditionally slow tourist season approaches. There is, however, a new added wrinkle: Residents are starting to practice an enhanced localism when choosing where to dine. Many locals are still actively supporting restaurants, but primarily those in their neighborhood or district. This disproportionately affects the Quarter restaurants as the neighborhood's residential population has declined and it is only further exacerbated by a perception of higher crime.

Jim Conte, co-owner and manager of the MeauxBar Bistro, sees it first hand. "MeauxBar's diners were always primarily people who lived in the French Quarter and not tourists. But a lot of our neighbors are gone now because their jobs have taken them elsewhere and the tourists were always that extra business that we were counting on." He continues, "We definitely started getting new local business as word was getting out about the food we're doing here. So our business is different, not down so much. Unfortunately though, it really seems as if the people from Uptown and Metairie are coming down to the Quarter less and less. It has not been easy, but we're going to keep going until we can't go any more."

Concerned mainly about the number of diners coming to Peristyle during the week, Wolfe says, "It's not much to write home about mid-week. It just seems that whenever there's a murder in the city, people seem to equate it to the French Quarter. It's odd because the Quarter is covered by security. I think a lot of the misconception of the national and local media really plays a big part as to why the overall numbers in the Quarter are down, even amongst locals."

Nearly everyone Gambit Weekly spoke to had nothing but high praise for the successful efforts of Steve Perry and the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau in attracting several large conventions back to the city, but they all lament the schizophrenic nature of today's convention climate. With big holes in the convention schedule, the market at best brings only manic swings between packed houses and doldrums. The pitched rise of large conventions and their diners carry increased difficulties, forcing managers to be creative strategic planners with regard to staffing.

Tom Weatherly, the senior vice president for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, is all too familiar with what difficulties they face on a daily basis. He says, "There are these big peaks and valleys that the Quarter restaurants are dealing with. They are forced to build up their staffs for these major conventions or events, but then the next week, their numbers are right back to where they were before. During Mardi Gras, we had a restaurant that hosted several large annual krewe dinners in order to keep the traditions alive, but those nights actually ended up costing the restaurant money. They were forced to bring in much more expensive temporary staffing for certain positions. But they knew they had to host these parties. They couldn't disappoint the locals."

The issue becomes even graver with regard to the true tourist restaurants, many of which have never enjoyed a healthy local following. It is not uncommon to hear managers describe how they are struggling to approach 50 percent of the numbers they produced before the storm and how they are still operating at half their normal staff. Several explained that it is really only the large volunteer church or school groups in town gutting houses that are keeping them afloat.

Deanie's Seafood, which has always held a heavy and loyal following among New Orleanians, recently reopened in the French Quarter. Owner Barbara Chifici feels for the restaurants that are unable to draw the locals. She says, "I'm optimistic, but with tourism where it's at in New Orleans, you need that local business to survive, especially with all the higher costs to operate. Our flood insurance rates in the French Quarter have gone through the roof and are hugely more expensive than in Bucktown, where we actually flooded."

In a business that didn't have very large profit margins to begin with, the upscale restaurants that have not sacrificed their levels of quality and service or raised prices excessively have been able to return to around 85 percent of their pre-Katrina numbers. However, these numbers, coupled with added operating expenses, place many of these restaurants in dangerous straits. The effect is much more telling on the upscale independents where owners are forced to be very creative and conscious of how they conduct business.

Richard Hughes, owner of the Pelican Club, has found himself holding back on new large purchases. "Luckily my wife is big on efficiencies and details. She has really helped us strive to be more efficient. Everybody has also learned to be much more handy. We're now taking care of more of our minor maintenance issues, things that we would have outsourced before."

Several smaller upscale restaurants have started to host private parties, something which they rarely did in the past. Nearly all admit that things they took for granted before the storm are now gone out of necessity, including certain fringe benefits for the staff.

Chef Wolfe adds, "We may not be enjoying how we've learned to be more efficient, but they are habits for us now and hopefully it will only make my restaurant stronger for the future."

Rick Blount of Antoine's goes even further in describing the current state, "Antoine's had gotten a little old. Before, we had the luxury to get a little lazy. We didn't have to be efficient. You can't be that way anymore; there's no room for it at all. It's either get efficient or die. And it's not only Antoine's. This goes for the whole city. We'll all get through this, but it's mighty painful while you're in the middle of it."

The need to stimulate tourism is a major priority, but the Louisiana Restaurant Association adds other staffing issues to the list, like the need for affordable housing and a lack of RTA buses running during the hours when most restaurant employees get off work. Several chefs directly cited the need to get the Municipal Auditorium and the Saenger back up and operating as critical draws for potential diners. They all called on people from the region to make it a point to support the French Quarter restaurants and businesses.

All of this comes at a time when the Quarter businesses are thrilled about some developments in the neighborhood. All respond very positively to the cleanliness of the French Quarter.

Katy Casbarian, the vice president of Arnaud's says, "For us to do our best, the French Quarter needs to be thriving, and the cleanliness certainly helps. We're doing better than last year, but the summer will arrive sooner this year. We need the locals to take part and enjoy what they have in the French Quarter. To appreciate the traditions and food that we have here."

On the other side of the Quarter, Scott Boswell, chef and proprietor of two restaurants, Stella! and Stanley, battles through his own contradictions. Stella! has had four consecutive record-breaking months, while Stanley remains shuttered because of staffing issues and for future renovations. He says, "We're fighting for this city along with everybody else. No one knows what the new normal will be. But this is a new city and I'm getting on by the skin of my teeth, but I will absolutely be a stronger businessman through all of this. We all get impatient, but I think there is a realization out there that this is a long road. We're still going through the suffering part, but it's all going to pay off in the end."

Regarding the large and elite corps of the city's culinary world, Chef Greg Picolo, who plans to reopen his Bistro at Maison deVille but is now only working a few limited functions, says, "We're all going to hold on until there is no hope."

While the city's recovery is left to the fiscal whims of market forces, where luxuries may be sacrificed in order to recover, people of this city and region should ask themselves whether the culinary talents of New Orleans, and especially the French Quarter, are one of the luxuries that they're willing to forfeit.

"It's very hard sometimes to get people in Metairie and elsewhere to cross that line into the Quarter, but where's the first place they take out-of town-visitors to eat?" Picolo asks. "What if that wasn't here anymore?"

French Quarter restaurants like Antoine's are battling rising - costs for food, supplies and insurance as well as staff - shortages and a tourism market that hasn't recovered since - Katrina. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • French Quarter restaurants like Antoine's are battling rising costs for food, supplies and insurance as well as staff shortages and a tourism market that hasn't recovered since Katrina.
Jim Conte (right), co-owner of MeauxBar Bistro (pictured - here with Chef Matthew Guidry), says his kitchen has - always depended on local diners and people who work in - the French Quarter for business, but now fewer locals - come to the Quarter from Uptown and Metairie. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Jim Conte (right), co-owner of MeauxBar Bistro (pictured here with Chef Matthew Guidry), says his kitchen has always depended on local diners and people who work in the French Quarter for business, but now fewer locals come to the Quarter from Uptown and Metairie.

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