A year after one Katrina wreaked havoc in New Orleans and the Gulf, success is divided among foodservice dealers and operators.
It's been a year since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf states, and recovery is still slow, but steady. In the foodservice industry, progress is divided among dealers and operators.
With major damage to city infrastructure, looming housing and staffing shortages, and lagging insurance payments, restaurants have been slow to reopen, with only 34 percent of restaurants in Orleans Parish back in business and 46 percent in the metro area. Louisiana's Jefferson Parish has had the most success, with 66 percent of the restaurants in that area having reopened. Dealers, on the other hand, are faring a bit better than operators. As their customers rebuild, dealers are busier than ever with total renovations and replacement orders.
Despite the well-documented ongoing challenges in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, residents have maintained an unwavering sense of optimism about the future. The storm may have damaged virtually everything in sight, but it hasn't damaged their spirit. New Orleans and the Gulf states will come back strong, residents say, it's just a matter of time, hard work, and helping out your neighbor.
FE&S spoke with dealers and operators affected by the storm in October and November, and again in February and March. Some weren't faring too well—warehouses became offices without phone lines, restaurants suffered major flood damage and spoilage, and some people saw their homes almost completely ravaged. Now, all seem to be back on their feet and doing well. Here are their new stories, one year later.
Christine Briede, Loubat Equipment Co., New Orleans When FE&S spoke with Briede back in February, Loubat was back in action, but phone lines were down, and she expected having to rely on cell phones for another six months. Thankfully, the phone company got the landlines back up and running only a little later that month. Now, a year after the storm, “Things are a lot better,” Briede said. “In the beginning I couldn't have guessed that we'd be this far along.” The city itself, in Briede's opinion, is far worse off. New Orleans continues to struggle with housing issues—many families still live in trailers or are displaced from the community entirely.
Others seem to wait endlessly for contractors, plumbers and electricians for even the most minor of repairs. Briede was lucky to only have been displaced from her home for two months after the storm due to minor damage. Her children, however, had to attend another school during renovations, and just recently transferred back to their old one.
At the Loubat headquarters, workers ripped out the soiled carpet and sheet rock, painted the walls, and performed other renovations. For a while, Briede and her staff worked on folding tables set up in the adjoining warehouse, but are now back in the offices. “You don't realize what you have until it all goes away,” she said.
In between staying busy with “quite a few” projects, Briede attended the Louisiana Restaurant Show, which she felt provided a good opportunity to connect with others in the industry and talk about each others' progress. For the last three years, Loubat has been an exhibitor at the show as a sponsor of the Louisiana Seafood Board's seafood cook-off featuring 20 chefs from across the country. Each year, the Food Network covers the event, and this year, that kind of publicity is even more valuable as the state continues to rebuild.
“There are a lot of questions as to which restaurants are coming back, and which ones aren't,” Briede said. “Maybe restaurant owners will be there and we can ask them directly.” Briede's curiosity stems from having some customers leave the state indefinitely. But, even if restaurants don't come back, she said, someone else will go in their place. “We'll need to hire more employees as we get busier,” Briede added. Quite a few of her staff moved out of state after the storm. Still, she remains hopeful. “The next five to 10 years will be very good,” she said. The dealership plans to have an open house in the fall.
Peter Caire, Caire Hotel & Restaurant Supply, New Orleans Back in February, about a half year after Katrina, Caire said his dealership went from being a major smallwares distributor to a local provider of heavy-duty equipment. Severely damaged restaurants and hotels needed total renovations, not just plates for upcoming conventions—which, at the time, were on hold. “That part of our business (total renovation) is equal to what it was, if not outpaced it,” he said.
In the wake of the storm, Caire also helped out with supplying temporary field kitchens in the area. Now that those kitchens have moved out and federal government contracts have tapered, more employees are coming back from those temporary assignments, ready to work. “I had all my employees come back,” Caire said. “I really thank them for being so conscious of us.” In addition to his regular staff, Caire hired three additional employees. Not only have employees returned, but customers, too. Caire says he is very busy, working mainly with independent restaurants and hotels on both total renovations and replacements. Many of those hotels bucked their contracts with national supply chain businesses to help the local ones, Caire's included.
Perhaps even needier than the hotels and restaurants are the schools. “School business is tremendous right now,” he said. “At this point in August, school boards are still running behind, and we're getting emergency orders daily.” With the school year fast-approaching, schools need to have their equipment now.
Only two Caire employees lost their homes to Katrina, and one of those people was Peter Caire. After the storm, Caire moved his family from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, commuting to work 160 miles roundtrip each day while construction workers gutted his flooded Lakeview neighborhood home. Meanwhile, his children were sent to South Dakota for school, but will be able to return to their old school soon. Caire expects to return to his old house in October.
Now that it's been a year since Katrina, Caire believes the city's coming back strong. “This year's hurricane season obviously is a lot lighter than it was last year,” Caire said. “People feel more at ease, opening businesses and following through with their dreams.”
Walne Donald, Mobile Fixture & Equipment Co., Mobile, Ala. A year after Katrina and many months of work on infrastructure, people in Alabama are just starting the rebuilding process now, Donald said. While there have been widespread labor shortages along the Gulf Coast, luckily, no one from Donald's group left. Also luckily, Donald continues to remain busy, even busier than when FE&S last spoke with him in February. To manage the increased loads, Mobile Fixture opened up its second location, a 22,000-square-foot facility with a showroom and test kitchen in Nashville. “We've tried to diversify our customer base,” he said.
As far as the short-term and long-term outlook, Donald said he believes business will continue to boom, if no additional major hurricanes come ashore any time soon. At the moment, Donald works mainly with chain and independent restaurants on both replacement orders and total renovations. “There's just no way to prepare for a natural disaster,” he said. “You just have to hope they don't come your way.”
Dickie Brennan, owner, Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, Bourbon House, Palace Café Since February, when FE&S caught up with Dickie Brennan, Brennan's steakhouse was still being renovated after suffering extensive damage from the storm. The restaurant re-opened on April 28.
“I never knew how much the hospitality and cuisine we offer meant until returning to this city and reopening our restaurants,” Brennan said in a statement. “We've learned that sharing a meal together with family and friends is part of the healing process. We hope that Aug. 29 is a date that also reminds you of that old saying, â€˜It's amazing when faced with adversity what you can do.'”
Back in February, Brennan had to close certain days and cut down on shifts to deal with staff shortages at his restaurants. Now, hours have been expanded at Bourbon House to 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Friday, and 5 to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Palace Café will expand hours this fall.