One of the objectives of our Restaurant Row Recovery Project is to try to better understand how restaurants have played a role, if any, in the relationships with, and within, the neighborhood and the Greater New Orleans area.
Obviously, as businesses, they compete to provide a service in exchange for an established price. From the other side, the consumer provides the restaurant owner and his employees a means of financial support. Bottom line is that these are businesses, and profitability is fundamental to their survival. But these local establishments seem almost as dependent upon their relationships as their bottom line. After interviewing some of the owners, employees, and customers of the Row it quickly became apparent that there was much more to this story.
For starters, most of the restaurant owners interviewed by my colleagues and I have described a type of local connection fundamental to their supply chain. Some, like the owner of EcoCafe, actively engage in more grass roots community networking, by striving to buy from local farmer’s markets as much as is absolutely possible. Others like, Paul Ballard, founder and CEO of WOW Café and Wingery, as well as PJ’s Coffee, are supplied by larger firms, but are nonetheless local. Frank, owner of Rinconcito, went so far as to express a sense of loss when he mentioned decreasing his seafood order from local supplier Vincent Piazza, Jr. & Sons Seafood Incorporated due to the BP oil spew plunging the demand for seafood. These all serve as examples of restaurants playing the role of consumer and local patron, but also express how each strives to maintain a connection to place.
The bartender and daughter of Delmy Cruz, owner of Fiesta Latina, echoed what Paul had said about being there not just to make money, but to serve a community in need. This got me thinking about what we, as consumers, need to have in a restaurant relationship. What is it we expect to get out of a restaurant beyond a quality meal? How are those expectations met? I know I enjoy going to the places where I know the staff. Making a connection to the people who work in my favorite haunts is fundamental to it actually becoming one of my favorites.
Paul talked about his amazement with the response to first opening after the storm. He said he had never heard so many heartfelt thank you’s in his life. He recalls seeing people piling their MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat distributed by the military in the wake of Katrina) on the table while they ordered their first familiar meal in weeks. Paul says he will always remember how happy people were to be in one place eating wings of all things. To them, the folks at WOW were heroes. They brought back something familiar. They brought back a little bit of normality and Americana: beer, wings, and college football.
Above all, these examples go to show how restaurants can often play a much larger role in the neighborhood beyond providing substance to an already nourished population base. They can serve as counselors, organizers, entertainers, neighbors, and sometimes friends. Of course, for our study group it doesn’t hurt to have a tasty baseline from which one can operate.