New Orleans restaurant scene surges back

New Orleans restaurant scene surges back

NEW ORLEANS —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

In fact, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau said more restaurants are open now than before the fatal storm. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“Our observations are that despite our drop in population from pre-Katrina numbers, the city reports 1,031 restaurants open today,” said Mary Beth Romig, director of communications and public relations for the CVB. “This is more than ever in our city’s history, not just since August 2005.” Romig cites the educated count of restaurants by Tom Fitzmorris of the nomenu.com website. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Hurricane Katrina plowed ashore east of New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, killing 1,836 people along the Gulf Coast through the storm surge itself and ensuing weeks of flooding after levees protecting New Orleans were breached. Damages were in excess of $100 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

But like boxers shaking off standing eight counts, existing restaurateurs are expanding with additional eateries, and newcomers are entering the market. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Donald Link, chef-owner of Herbsaint [3], has opened the highly touted Cochon [4] and attached Butcher [5]. John Besh, chef-owner of Restaurant August, has opened several restaurants, including Luke in the business district, and plans in the first full week of September to open Domenica with chef-partner Alon Shaya in the 504-room Hotel Roosevelt. The hotel underwent a $145 million renovation and was re-opened in July by the Hilton Hotel Corp.’s upscale Waldorf-Astoria portfolio. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Frank and Marna Brigtsen bought and reopened the neighborhood staple Charlie’s Seafood Co. in suburban Harahan, La. Also, chef Scott Boswell, whose Stella! [6] just received the top-rated fifth bean from the New Orleans Times-Picayune restaurant reviewer, has enjoyed steady business at his breakfast-and-sandwich restaurant, Stanley, located in the French Quarter’s historic Jackson Square. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“This is the best summer we’ve ever had, and it’s not even the busy season,” said Boswell, chef-owner of Stella! and Stanley. “It’s a combination of both locals and tourists.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Tourism, a large source of customers for New Orleans’ restaurants, has been building, but it has yet to reach the 10.1 million visitors hosted in the city in 2004. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

In 2008, according to New Orleans CVB statistics, the city welcomed 7.6 million visitors, up from 7.1 million in 2007. In 2006, in the year immediately after the devastation, the city hosted 3.7 million visitors. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“New Orleans restaurants are holding their own and have not felt the sting of the recession as other U.S. cities,” said Wendy Waren, vice president of communications for the Louisiana Restaurant Association. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“There are still jobs at all levels available in the restaurant industry, as the unemployment rate remains significantly lower than the national average,” she said. “Restaurateurs’ goals during these times are to make payroll and keep up on paying the bills. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“One of our members, Steve Pettus, partner in the Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group, said it best: ‘Flat is the new up,’” Waren said. “That couldn’t be more true. If you are breaking even, you’re doing well.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

The LRA’s figures on foodservice establishments in the entire Orleans Parish, culled from permits issued by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, is 1,463, about 77 percent of the 1,882 permits issued before Katrina. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“Since the storm, we have seen more support and pride by the locals to dine out and keep our culinary history alive and active,” Waren said. “We have more choices of cuisine than pre-Katrina. Sushi, Mexican, Vietnamese and Italian restaurants are more plentiful than pre-storm. We have more dessert and gelato shops as well. IHOP [7] opened a location on Canal Street recently.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

The IHOP location has been a popular addition to Canal, which four years ago was the scene of looting and vandalism as well as National Guard vehicles sloshing through the floodwaters. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“IHOP is pleased to be part of the revitalization that has taken place in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina tried its best to steal the city’s spirit,” said Dan Ischy, spokesman for DineEquity, parent company to the Applebee’s [8] and IHOP chains. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“Our Canal Street location, owned and operated by franchisee Nadia Esmail, opened this past May and attracts both locals and tourists alike,” Ischy said. “The Canal District is at the very heart of New Orleans, and we are honored to be a part of the fabric that makes this unique city what it is.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Frank Brigtsen, chef-owner of Brigtsen’s [9], has purchased, renovated and reopened the 75-seat Charlie’s Seafood Co. in Harahan, La. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“We never planned to open a second restaurant,” Brigtsen said. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities through the years, but we’ve turned them all down. But this is a very special place to me and my family. It’s the restaurant I grew up with, and it’s still my neighborhood place. It was closed for a while, and we kept passing by it. Finally, we looked into it. It seemed to make sense to us.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Originally named Charles Sea Foods, the restaurant was opened in 1951 by Charles and Ruth Pet-rossi and has been a local favorite for more than 50 years. The Brigtsen family moved to River Ridge in 1955, when Frank Brigtsen was 2 weeks old, and he has been dining at “Charlie’s” ever since. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“After 23 years at Brigtsen’s, we’re blessed with a wonderful staff that is capable of giving us the freedom to do another project,” he said. “We wanted a little bit of growth, and we hope Charlie’s can provide us with that.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Recovery from Katrina has been slow but steady, Brigtsen said. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“Brigtsen’s has been slowly coming back,” he said. “We’re not doing great, but we’re doing OK. The first half of the year was profitable for the first time in four years—not much, but some. It gives us hope and encouragement. We all have mentally and fiscally adjusted to the ‘new’ New Orleans that will allow us to continue to do what we love, because no one here wants to give up.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Marna Brigtsen added, “We had already been through our economic recession here.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Frank Brigtsen agreed. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“When the national troubles began last year in September, we didn’t panic, because we’d been in a recession since the storm,” he said. “We’d started from ground zero in a way. We haven’t felt the huge drop in business that some others cities have felt. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“We don’t have a big corporate presence in New Orleans, but it has hurt the town in the size of the groups that come,” he continued. “National corporations have scaled back their conferences and plans to a smaller footprint. That affects us all.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Frank Brigtsen said that taking over Charlie’s made sense because of its lower price point. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“It can weather the storm, so to speak,” Brigtsen said. “It’s a casual neighborhood joint with a rich history.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Boswell of Stella said restaurants still have struggles in post-Katrina New Orleans, but they continue to strive for improvement. His Stella, which originally opened in April 2001, just received the top “five-bean” ranking from the Times-Picayune. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Boswell admits the hurricane was a setback for his fine-dining restaurant. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“I had done a full demolition on Stella one week before the storm, because we had been going into a renovation, and then we got hit,” he said. “We did lose some stuff, but not a great deal.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Boswell, who had evacuated to Atlanta, returned to New Orleans and opened what would come to be known as Stanley almost immediately following the hurricane in an abandoned space nearby on Jackson Square to serve cheeseburgers, pickles and chips to rescue workers and others in the evacuated city. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“Doing 500 people a day at $5 a burger, it adds up real fast,” said Boswell. “It saved us. We were just trying to stay alive.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Boswell reopened the 72-seat Stella eight months after Katrina in April 2006, and several months after 77-seat Stanley, which serves breakfasts and sandwiches, was brought up to city code and reopened. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“We took on a lot of debt, so we’ve struggled,” Boswell said. “But I said that if I was going to stay here, I wanted to create a dream restaurant, and that costs money.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

The biggest challenge is still staffing, Boswell said. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“We have tons of people coming down here and tons of customers, but we don’t have the skilled labor to pull from,” he said. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Boswell said he depends on his alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America, for some of his staffing. He donated a computer terminal and a webcam to the placement office at the CIA so he and any other restaurateurs around the nation could do live interviews with students via Skype. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“We want to keep that pool going,” he said. “We’ve had to learn to play the game in a different arena.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

The recession has put a dent in New Orleans’ hopes for the recovery of its convention business. Romig of the CVB said hotel occupancy from January through June was down 11.7 percent, compared to the same period in 2008. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“Bookings in the short term are hampered by what appears to be low confidence in the economy in the next 10 months,” she said. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

However, the city’s restaurants remain a strong attraction, Romig noted. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“Our culinary heritage remains strong, and it is fair to say that our chefs are some of our most valuable and generous local residents,” Romig said, citing Boswell, Brigtsen, Besh and Link as well as Emeril Lagasse, Susan Spicer and Leah Chase. She said they are “are great ambassadors for the city and who are so generous with their time and talent.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Meanwhile, operators have been pleased with an increase in business from local residents. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Charlee Williamson, executive vice president at the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, which operates Bacco, Red Fish Grill and Ralph’s on the Park in the city, said: “Last week I was visiting a table at Ralph’s on the Park, and a guest told me that in other parts of the country during hard times, dining out is the first thing people cut, but in New Orleans we’d just as soon cut off our right arm. This is true mainly because we know we could still manage to eat with our left.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Williamson added: “We learned during Katrina that restaurants are the foundation of social interaction in our city. It was here where our citizens met to commiserate, reunite, celebrate, renew and revive. Restaurants continue to serve as such, and that is why I remain optimistic that despite the stiffest of headwinds, our great industry and the talented people who sustain it will continue to thrive.” —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

Brigtsen echoes that optimism. —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.

“We’re mostly family-owned businesses, and there’s a commitment to hold us together,” he said. “There is a power in food to restore peoples’ spirits and to keep them going. That’s the thing that most identifies us as New Orleanians. It’s the glue that holds our culture together and lets us realize that we are in it together.”— [email protected] [10] —Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated this historic city, its chefs and restaurant owners have shaken off the sucker punch and are swinging back stronger than ever.