New Orleans Restaurant Owners Weigh Closing When people think of New Orleans, they often think of food. Before Katrina, the restaurant industry was one of the city's largest employers. But two months after the hurricane, only about one in six of the city's restaurants have reopened.
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New Orleans Restaurant Owners Weigh Closing

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New Orleans Restaurant Owners Weigh Closing

New Orleans Restaurant Owners Weigh Closing

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Wednesdays, our business news focuses on the workplace. Today, restarting a restaurant in New Orleans. Before Katrina, the food industry was one of New Orleans' biggest attractions and largest employers. Two months after the hurricane, only about one in six of the city's restaurants has reopened. The state's restaurant association says that up to 1,000 restaurants in the area are closed for good. Recently, NPR's Frank Langfitt followed a family of restaurant owners as they traveled the city pondering their future in the food business.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

The Doody family is only in town for 24 hours. Brothers Rick and Chris own Bravo!, a national chain of 50 mid-priced Italian restaurants. They've returned here with their father, Alton, who grew up in New Orleans and fled the city before the storm. They want to see if reopening their restaurant in the affluent uptown section is worth it. Rick Doody explains.

Mr. RICK DOODY (Co-owner, Bravo! Restaurants): This is my first trip back since Hurricane Katrina. We came down to kind of get a lay of the land, if you will, you know. We came down to figure out what's really going on. We've heard so many different stories, a lot of which have been conflicting. You never know until you really show up and see it for yourself really what the true potential is to reopen.

LANGFITT: The family is cruising the city in dad's BMW to see how other restaurants are doing. They want to find out if there are enough customers to justify the high cost of starting up again. The first stop is a trendy new place called Table One in the well-to-do Garden District. It's all polished wood and white tablecloths and it's packed.

(Soundbite from crowd at Table One)

Mr. R. DOODY: Oh, there's a nice crowd in here. I mean, this is, you know, Tuesday night and this is pretty good.

LANGFITT: Rick makes his way past a long bar and upstairs to meet the owner, Tarek Tay.

(Soundbite of stairs being climbed)

Mr. TAREK TAY (Owner, Table One): How are you?

Mr. R. DOODY: I'm Rick Doody. I'm the owner of Bravo! around the corner.

Mr. TAY: No kidding?

Mr. R. DOODY: And I'm just checking in and sort of asking people how they're doing and how business is.

Mr. TAY: We're doing great. We bought the restaurant right before the hurricane and we came back. There was no damage. It was completely clean and ready to go. First restaurant in the whole area.

LANGFITT: Rick, the more entrepreneurial brother, likes what he sees. But Chris, the numbers guy, is more skeptical. Later this evening, the brothers will hash out their differences in a private conversation on the sidewalk.

In the meantime, Tarek, the owner of Table One, tells them to check out his Mediterranean place nearby. It's called Byblos. Rick and his father, Alton, who is also one of the Bravo!'s directors, go inside and scan the room.

(Soundbite from crowd at Byblos)

Professor ALTON DOODY (Co-Owner, Bravo! Restaurants): There's a lot of empty seats. This one is not as...

LANGFITT: Alton, a retired business professor, analyses the scene.

Prof. A. DOODY: Look at the age of this group. There's nobody here with money. If you look at that group there, they're not at the bar, they're not drinking a lot, there's no wine bottles on the table. Having a beer and some salads and things. You know, we'd die on that basis.

LANGFITT: Recently, the brothers reopened another Bravo! in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb. Because of labor and housing shortages, they're paying thousands of dollars a week to rent apartments for Bravo! workers they brought in from out of town. But the extra cost is worth it. There are lots of customers and the restaurant is doing huge business.

The area around the Bravo! in New Orleans is in much worse shape. As the brothers and their father drive through, they pass blocks and blocks of empty homes on darkened streets. Losing a market like that is devastating, says Tom Weatherly. He works for the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

Mr. TOM WEATHERLY (Louisiana Restaurant Association): It's just hard to be a neighborhood restaurant when your neighborhood's not there anymore. And that's what most people would find startling about New Orleans if they were to come into our community right now, is that you can drive through whole neighborhoods that are just completely gone. People won't live there for a year at least.

LANGFITT: Uncertainty about New Orleans' future has led big names, like Ruth Chris Steakhouse to move its headquarters to Orlando. Even Ralph Brennan, a member of the city's first family of cuisine, considered leaving. Brennan owns Bacco's in the French Quarter. Signature dishes there include crawfish ravioli with sun-dried tomato pesto butter. Sitting at a table before lunch, he describes his thoughts after Katrina.

Mr. RALPH BRENNAN (Owner, Bacco's): The first couple of weeks after the storm were probably the most difficult times that I've ever faced, and I was in Jackson, Mississippi, at a friend's home watching the levees break and watching the city flood. The emotion that it brought out, that your city is being destroyed, and I was really disturbed for about two weeks. And I started thinking, you know, do I go back? Do I not go back? You know, what's the city going to be like? And I was really kind of getting depressed.

LANGFITT: Brennan says tourism will return to New Orleans, but he worries that unless the government ensures the city can withstand future hurricanes, many residents and regular customers won't come back.

Mr. BRENNAN: The part of the market that scares me right now is the local market. What's going to happen? Who's going to fill the office buildings downtown? Are the people who evacuated to Houston--are those people in Houston going to come back? I don't know.

(Soundbite of crowd noise and dishes being handled)

LANGFITT: After the drive around town, the brothers and their father gather the next morning at the Metairie restaurant which is dotted with Roman columns and serves dishes like tortellini florentine for 10.95. Chris, the chief operating officer, contrasts the situation today in Metairie with the one in New Orleans.

Mr. CHRIS DOODY (Co-Owner, Bravo! Restaurants): It's actually two different markets. The market there is much thinner. My impression of the restaurants that were open last night was they were smaller restaurants that didn't have the requirements of staffing that we do. The typical restaurant that we went in last night had probably 15 employees. A typical Bravo! has 75 to 100.

LANGFITT: Fresh from a night's sleep, Rick, too, is leaning towards shutting down the New Orleans' Bravo!

Mr. R. DOODY: We've never closed a restaurant. We have 50 restaurants. This is the first. And it's a shame because my belief is this city's going to come back better than ever long term. We don't have the momentum in that restaurant to weather the storm.

LANGFITT: With that, the family members begin to make their way to the airport for the journey home, and New Orleans faces the loss of yet another business. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, New Orleans.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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