The small office building adjacent to the Dry Dock Caf collapsed during Hurricane Katrina, ripping through siding and damaging equipment at the Algiers Point tavern on its way down. The news on the home front was even worse for Dry Dock Caf owner Maureen Pignona: her house on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was wiped out by the storm, along with two other properties she owned there. Even yet, she counts herself and her business as "blessed."
"My customers here are OK, the contractors eat lunch here every day and then come back for happy hour at night," says Pignona. "We're doing as well as we were last year, and some days we're just slammed."
In the test tube of relativity that is post-Katrina New Orleans, damage that might have been considered ruinous under different circumstance can now seem unremarkable. That dynamic is on vivid display in Algiers Point, which took its lumps from wind damage but was spared from major flooding. It was the first area of Orleans Parish officially opened to returning residents. While there weren't many restaurants in Algiers Point before the storm, the neighborhood can now make the extraordinary claim that 100 percent of them are back in business -- plus a new addition on the way as well.
The restaurants there are neighborhood places that reopened soon after the storm to an area more altered by a population shift than wind and water. Today, the tight-knit neighborhood is still awash with displaced people from other parts of the city and out-of-town workers staying near the area temporarily.
Before the storm, Toute de Suite was first and foremost a coffee shop that also served food. In the months since, it has been the local diner, the surrogate office for countless professionals and even -- on some weekend nights -- the neighborhood's most exotic restaurant. It earns that last appellation when Pete Vazquez, a neighbor and the former chef-owner of the now-shuttered Marisol Restaurant, takes over the cooking and replaces the normal menu of soups and sandwiches with his trademark globe-trotting cuisine. Though his guest appearances are less frequent now than the standing weekend engagements he held last fall, Toute de Suite owner Jill Marshall says Vazquez can still be goaded into the occasional encore.
"He comes in here for coffee and if enough people bug him sometimes he says 'alright, alright, I'll cook on Friday,'" she says.
A more dependable fixture at the Verret Street caf is the people clicking and tapping away on laptop computers. Marshall says many of her new regulars are people who still haven't found permanent workspaces or have yet to get utilities restored at their offices. One customer is essentially running her nonprofit organization from the caf, going so far as to bring her own printer in.
While there's no lack of customers coming through the doors, keeping shifts filled is a different story. A conundrum for restaurateurs across the New Orleans area now, staffing problems recently forced Marshall to close on Sunday afternoons -- though she hopes to resume full service soon.
The same staffing problems did in the breakfast shift at Sortez Caf, the gourmet-to-go shop and bakery near the Algiers ferry landing. Co-owners Angela Wilson and Carlos Barona are running the small cafe by themselves now, with the occasional assist from a family member. Before the storm, Wilson had divided her time between her new business, which had opened in June, and her position as executive pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency. The downtown hotel near the Louisiana Superdome is contending with serious storm damage and has yet to reopen, but it seems just as well that Wilson can devote all her time now to her suddenly booming Sortez Cafe.
"The storm has enabled us to jump ahead. Where we thought we'd be in a year, a year and a half, we're there now," she says.
It's been no easy ride, however. With the help of family in law enforcement, Wilson was able to get back to Algiers Point just two days after the storm on Aug. 31, a point when most people were struggling to find a way out of the city. She managed to clean out her cafe to prevent spoilage, but it took six weeks to get power restored to her building. By Oct. 7, Sortez Caf was back open offering an initial menu of half as many items to three times as many customers as the owners had ever seen.
"We would run out of food at 8 p.m., every bit of it," Wilson says. "I really couldn't go on like that, though; by the end of the night there would be tears coming out of my eyes."
Things have reached the new relative norm of about twice as much business today as prior to the storm at Sortez Caf. Wilson suspects the continued boom may be tied to the unorthodox post-storm living arrangements of many of her customers staying in temporary trailers or bunked up in the homes of friends and relatives.
"If you're living in a FEMA trailer, you might not be doing that much cooking for yourself, and for other people they don't have time to get groceries and plan meals," she says.
Tapping into the same market, at least in part, is a new restaurant and market scheduled to open in late February called Aunt Leni's. The name is pronounced "lee-nee's" and is a tribute to co-owner Becky Giunta's grandmother, a well-known Algiers Point resident who was universally addressed as "aunt" by her neighbors. Aunt Leni's will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner with both prepared foods available and meals served in the dining room or sunny rear patio of its newly renovated Verret Street building.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Sortez Caf co-owners and pastry chefs Angela Wilson and Carlos Barona are running the business virtually by themselves to give Algiers Point its just desserts.