Every restaurant in New Orleans closed during Katrina and the subsequent floods. As the flood waters receded, restaurants cleaned up and re-opened, each one a sign that life was returning to the city. In fact, the return of food-related businesses (including grocery and convenience stores, gas stations, drug stores, as well as restaurants) became a kind of index that could be used to measure the city’s progress toward recovery.
But what exactly did that measure? The question of what constituted a sign of recovery became the object of a brief, but telling controversy. In August 2006, a year after the floods, the Louisiana Restaurant Association published a survey indicating that only 46% of the businesses in the area had been certified for reopening by state health officials. Only 34% of food businesses in New Orleans proper were certified at that point. This suggested that progress toward recovery was very slow.
One of the more prominent local restaurant critics, radio personality Tom Fitzmorris, wrote an open letter disputing the LRA’s numbers. Fitzmorris argued that a meaningful measure of recovery would focus only on the restaurants that “mattered,” in determining the health of the local economy and culinary culture. High-end restaurants in the French Quarter, he asserted, were “real” because they shaped the image of the city for both locals and tourists, while the neighborhood Chevron, selling doughnuts and hot dogs, or even Starbuck’s, did not. The core criterion, he wrote, is that a restaurant be of “real interest to people who like to eat.” Fitzmorris had been tracking the re-opening of the restaurants he thought mattered and, at that point in late 2006, by his measure, over 80% of the city’s restaurants had reopened. That suggested a more vigorous recovery was underway.
It seems that Fitzmorris won that argument. At least in New Orleans, it is unlikely that anyone would dispute that the restaurant scene is quite lively. He continues to measure the number of restaurants open and, interestingly, he claims as of July 23, 2010 that there are 1,106 restaurants (that matter) open in the area, which is a few hundred more than were open before the 2005 disaster. This is quite remarkable, given that a recent study, published in Nation’s Restaurant News, points out that there are actually fewer restaurants nationally now than a year ago. We can probably assume that the NRN counts restaurants that Fitzmorris would not include, so the divide between New Orleans, with its interestingly vigorous dining scene, and the rest of the country, is probably even greater than the mere numbers show.
In fact, the national numbers suggest that independent restaurants are declining the most, while chains are doing somewhat better. In New Orleans, it would seem—and I do not have numbers to back this up, just a sense from reading local critics and wandering around town—that the opposite is true. We seem to have fewer chains and more local independents. This leads me to the Great Divide in our Mid-City research area that inspired this set of observations. There are a few dozen restaurants in the vicinity. Most of them are independently owned and local establishments, although a couple (Juan’s, Theo’s, Fiesta Latina) are the second or third restaurant in a locally-owned group. However, there are also a few representatives of national chains in the area, mostly at the northern edge of our study area. These include a Subway, a Papa John’s, a Wow Café, a Domino’s Pizza and a Quiznos. (Just for the record, Fitzmorris includes the locals with multiple shops, including those I note in this paragraph, but he does not count any of the national fast food chains mentioned here.)
We are trying to include them in our research. After all, they do serve food and they are quite visible. It is unclear at this point how much we can learn. The restaurant owners of the local establishments have been almost universally eager to join in the project. Of course, they want to be in our planned museum exhibit and they no doubt want the publicity, but I think that they are also clearly engaged as members of the neighborhood and of the city. This is where they live, after all. We have had a very hard time making contact with the fast food owners and franchisees. First, we have to track them down. When we speak to the local shop managers, we are often (quite brusquely) informed that they cannot speak with us and that we will have to contact corporate headquarters. Following up usually results in a parade of voice-mail menus, emails that never receive replies and, generally speaking…a vast void. There are, of course, public records and a great deal of data we can incorporate. We have photographic evidence they exist, as you can clearly see. We do not know yet whether or not these establishments want to be seen as part of the community. We have not (yet) included them in the web site list on the right of this page, precisely because they do not have local sites that we can find, only national ones.
The divide between the local and the national chain seems, in this case, to be rather sharp. Yet these shops clearly employ local residents and serve local customers. They are right there, in the community. We are not ready to count them out. In fact, we are still determined to include them in our research. Any advice on how to do that would be welcome!