Imagine closing down your office on Friday afternoon and then not being able to return for another month. Not just one office, but every business in a major American city.
This scenario played itself out in the full glare of the national media during September 2005 after the levees surrounding New Orleans failed following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. To the citizens of New Orleans, the devastation the hurricane left in its wake was more than a news story and far worse than anything they had ever imagined. The impact of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans went beyond any singular natural event in American history.
Through all of these challenges, New Orleans restaurateurs have shown resilience and resourcefulness. They have overcome tremendous obstacles in order to open their businesses and serve the public. They are the key to renewal. But to understand the sometimes-arduous process that preceded their reopening, one must take a step back to see the ruins from which they have risen.
From food to garbage
New Orleans has always been one of America’s most unique cities. Founded by the French, then ruled by Spain, New Orleans thrived in the delta of America’s largest waterway, the Mississippi River. Through its port flowed the commerce of the central United States. In its back rooms and bordellos, America’s unique art form was born – jazz. As much as anything else though, New Orleans was known for its distinctive food.
Prior to Katrina, there were 3,414 restaurants throughout the metropolitan area that employed 54,000 people. New Orleans had a wide and eclectic blend of eating places that ranged from large centuries old Creole restaurants in the historic French Quarter to its numerous diverse and sometimes funky neighborhood eateries.
During the last week of August 2005, these restaurants were preparing for the upcoming Labor Day weekend. Many of them were already fully stocked for the holiday. On Friday, Katrina entered the Gulf of Mexico and proceeded to strengthen at an unprecedented rate.
Friday evening, sales at New Orleans eateries were already affected as hurricane sensitive citizens began making advanced preparations.
Many restaurants did not re-open on Saturday because of the growing threat. By Sunday morning, the city was under mandatory evacuation for the first time in its long history. Katrina filled practically the whole Gulf and grew more menacing with every moment as it bore down on the rapidly emptying city. Only a slight turn eastward spared the city the brunt of the monster-storm’s fury, but the surge of water that Katrina brought ashore proved to be the undoing of America’s largest below-sea level city.
What followed during the next month was a most harrowing time for the citizens of New Orleans and for business owners in particular. It was a time during which the owners of the city’s world famous restaurants were denied access to their property; a time of confusion and uncertainty.
Only about 10 percent of the restaurants in New Orleans experienced any looting during those first few weeks while most people were absent from the city. However, for those that did, liquor stocks were the first to be looted. Some restaurants lost tens of thousands in alcohol inventory. But the greatest monetary losses immediately following Katrina were the wine inventories of the New Orleans fine dining restaurants.
The wine “cellar” at Brennan’s Restaurant in the French Quarter contained more than 35,000 bottles. Wines in New Orleans restaurants are stored in specially built areas of attics and storerooms. A city below sea level does not have cellars. At Brennan’s, the wine was stored in the old carriage house and kept cool by its own climate control system. After the electricity failed, the meticulously crafted vintages began to cook in the late summer heat. At temperatures in excess of 120 degrees indoors, the wines at Brennan’s that were insured for over $1 million quickly became merely items to salvage and dispose.
Another great loss came because, for the most part, owners and staff were not allowed or were unable to clean out their commercial coolers and freezers. Designed to be airtight, most of these units maintained their integrity during the first week. However, by week number two, the insides of these essential pieces of restaurant equipment were becoming toxic.
At world-famous Antoine’s Restaurant in the Quarter, owners and staff were able to gain access after one week and found the food in the coolers to still be at safe temperatures. They donated most of the food inside to a friendly and helpful National Guard unit. At the equally venerable Galatoire’s, when staff arrived a day or so later and tried to clean out their failing freezers, they were prevented from doing so by law enforcement personnel. There was simply no place to dispose of the refuse. Instead, they had to load the food back into the coolers and were forced to evacuate yet again. As with the thousands of other coolers and freezers throughout the city, those at Galatoire’s had to be completely replaced when the final assessment of damages could be made weeks later.
Many of New Orleans most famous restaurants are in older homes. The custom fitted coolers and freezers for these restaurants took long months to replace. The effluent that oozed from this equipment soaked into century-old wooden floors, necessitating that in many cases these floors also be ripped up and replaced. The disposal of rotted food and ruined equi ment would set back the reopening of the city’s restaurants for a painfully long time.
Displacement: biggest problem
But the final, biggest problem that has proven to be the most significant over time for the restaurant industry in New Orleans has been the continued displacement of its citizens. Without a sufficient workforce, many eateries continue to sit idle more than nine months later. Even after that length of time, only 41 percent of the restaurants have reopened to the metropolitan area – 31 percent to the heart of the city. Many chain restaurants have not returned and even independents with multiple locations have not opened up all of their locations. Within the devastated sections of the city that still lie in ruin, it may take years to reopen neighborhood eateries. It’s hard to have a neighborhood restaurant when there is no neighborhood surrounding it any longer.
Most restaurants are still extremely short staffed. Housing within the metropolitan area is very limited. With more than 80 percent of the inner city flooded by the breaks in the levee, the housing stock that was spared is completely filled. Delays in repairing the levees and setbacks in relief funding have slowed the return of the general populace and hindered reconstruction efforts. With the devastation and lack of housing, more than half of the population of Orleans Parish has not yet returned, including many restaurant workers.
To cope with the lack of workers, typically still more than half of their pre-Katrina workforce, restaurateurs have shortened hours, increased overtime and even brought back retired family members. Labor costs have gone up, averaging more than 30 percent more for hourly workers following the storm. Restaurant owners have had to go to extraordinary efforts to recruit their old workers back home and to keep them there once they have returned.
Because of the shortage of experienced personnel, Glen Armantrout, the CEO of Acme Oyster House, allowed an oyster shucker to sleep on his couch for more than two months. Workers shared homes and apartments. Restaurants utilized vital parking areas for FEMA trailers as soon as they became available.
Indeed, the challenges have been many. Restaurateur Tommy Cvitanovich and his family that operates Drago’s Seafood restaurant served over 70,000 free meals in the months that followed Katrina. Chefs John Besh and Horst Pfeifer both emptied out their kitchens in the first week, serving police officers and other first responders. Chef Paul Prudhomme, when he could
not gain access to his world famous restaurant, K-Paul’s in the French Quarter, opened up his spice business in Jefferson Parish and served firefighters and law enforcement officers.
These same men and women that gave so much back to their communities in the weeks that followed the storm are now part of the 30,000-plus that are operating the city’s eating places during the period of reconstruction. They are the entrepreneurs leading the effort to rebuild this most unique of American cities.
They are forcefully demonstrating how much restaurants are a natural part of the fabric of an American city, especially in New Orleans.Here, jazz is beginning to play again. Indeed, for those that call it home, the music that lured them back has never been silenced. The wonderful and distinctive food of the city is once again being served. Soon, tourists by the thousands will once again return to see the charm and character that is New Orleans. The rest of America will one day remember Hurricane Katrina and the devastation she wrought as a distant memory. To those that endured it, and who continue to struggle with its aftermath, Katrina will always be remembered for the harsh and enduring lessons she has taught.
Tom Weatherly is Vice President of Communications
and Research for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, a 60-year old association that represents over 7,000 restaurant locations throughout the state. Visit: www.LRA.org.