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2021 isn’t the rebound year New Orleans needed

NEW ORLEANS – Parades are rolling and brass bands are back.  Music venues are sold out again and mouth-watering Cajun and Creole dishes are being served up in packed restaurants in New Orleans. With its culture economy, the city is trying to rally back after crippling disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, including a lethal summer Delta surge and a catastrophic hurricane. 

A recent study showed 10% of all U.S. restaurants have closed permanently since the pandemic began. No one knows the struggle more than Lil Dizzy’s Café. Last fall’s closure of the lunchtime institution in Treme – which some consider the oldest Black neighborhood in the nation – was devastating for this tight-knit community. The beloved family-owned restaurant was a staple in a neighborhood known for jazz clubs and soul food spots celebrating African American and Creole heritage. 

The pandemic’s toll was too great for the restaurant’s patriarch, 73-year-old Wayne Baquet, Sr., to overcome. But his son and daughter-in-law, Wayne, Jr., and Arkesha, decided recently to reopen the Black-owned business. It was only running for five months before it was forced to shut down again for a month in August due to Hurricane Ida. While the popular buffet is gone, they continue to serve up the family’s much sought-after fried chicken and gumbo. It hasn’t been easy.

 “There are days where you are dead in the water. Then, you have days where things are flowing well. You can’t really gauge it. It’s unpredictable,” Arkesha Baquet told the PBS NewsHour. “What I do have in my corner—I’m still serving the Baquet family staples. We just want to ask people to continue to support us. We are an African American family that is fighting to keep this legacy alive.”

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Lil Dizzy’s Cafe reopens in New Orleans’ historic Treme neighborhood after initially closing during the pandemic. Photo by Arkesha Baquet

Restaurants are one critical part of the puzzle as local tourism officials are trying to resuscitate New Orleans’ $10 billion hospitality industry. 

City leaders say that losses in the hospitality industry contributed to a $76 million drop in revenue, from $659 to $583 million between 2019 and 2020. The impact was immediate not only for the industry, but for the city as a whole, resulting in spending cuts, furloughs for city employees, and elimination of contracts.

2021 was supposed to be a rebound year, but a spate of stops and starts — including a resurgence of the Delta variant and Hurricane Ida — has slowed the heartbeat of the city’s main economic engine.  The storm alone caused massive power outages for two weeks. The city says it lost $8.6 million as a result. Hospitality leaders estimate they need to fill at least 26,000 positions to keep up with the current pace of business and what’s expected in the near future.

City leaders are hopeful that the rest of the year will be an important test for rebuilding its entertainment and hospitality economy. The Revenue Estimating Conference, charged with adopting revenue projections, estimates the general fund will return to 95 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2022. The main challenge is how to make that happen.

“One of the things that we’re very excited about is engaging and starting and utilizing and activating events and festivities that we know are important not only to our culture but to our bottom line and our ability to generate revenue,” New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said at a news conference this week.

Even under normal times, Black business owners experience more roadblocks to entrepreneurial survival than other groups, but it has been especially difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows 41 percent of Black-owned businesses shuttered during the pandemic compared to just 17 percent of white-owned businesses. 

Restaurateurs like the Baquet’s know first-hand that the pandemic and economic struggles have taken an even more significant toll on Black-owned businesses. 

 “We must keep the footprints of Black-owned restaurants alive and never let our history or culture fall by the wayside,” LaVerne Toombs, executive director of the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce, told the NewsHour. “When it comes to Black restaurants, they’re the very essence of New Orleans. People come here because of the food and the culture from our neighborhood restaurants.

New Orleans Black restaurants were recently featured in the “No Crumb Left Behind” tour organized by Black Restaurant Week LLC, which operates in 15 cities, including New Orleans. The effort was launched after Black business owners cited lack of access to business loans and trouble generating public awareness of exposure to Black culinary establishments. It offers outreach and support; including marketing and PR support.

READ MORE: ‘The system was never created for us.’ Business owners of color still struggle to get enough COVID aid

“The purpose is to publicize the existence of hundreds of Black-owned restaurants that desperately need their communities to learn about and patronize them, thereby boosting the eateries’ bottom lines, especially as the pandemic drags on,” Derek Robinson, Black Restaurant Week marketing director, said. “The ‘No Crumb Left Behind’” campaign is to ensure that we are helping as many culinary businesses stay afloat as the world recovers from the pandemic.”

Inviting tourists back 

The city’s hospitality industry, with its 1,200 restaurants and 26,000 hotel rooms, was counting on a jam-packed fall festival season, but the Delta variant and Hurricane Ida blew that away. 

“We’ve had to deal with some unexpected challenges, and we are not where we thought we would be for the Fall of 2021,” explained Kelly Schulz, Senior Vice President of New Orleans & Company, which is the city’s destination marketing company. “We went through a pretty big emotional and economic blow when we had all the festival cancellations [and]we’re doing everything we can to keep those restaurants and clubs alive because there is no New Orleans without food and music. Those restaurants are a big part of why people come here. You can’t recreate these experiences or these restaurants or these people anywhere else.”

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Boudin from Toups Meatery is one of the dishes served up for the New Orleans Fall Food Celebration in New Orleans. Photo by Paul Broussard / New Orleans & Company.

New Orleans & Company just began a “Welcome Back to New Orleans” campaign. It also unveiled the New Orleans Fall Food Celebration with the intent of coming to the aid of restaurants whose businesses were negatively impacted by the Delta variant surge and Hurricane Ida. Through mid-November, the city is hoping tourists and locals will eat their way through New Orleans at the more than 235 participating restaurants.

Still, the pandemic lingers, and a labor shortage threatens the recovery of a determined city. Last month, LeBlanc+Smith, one of the larger restaurant groups in the city with five restaurants, closed another eatery — it’s third in 10 months. Before COVID, all were stable and profitable businesses.

“It was challenging, especially dealing with the business volume that dropped, but it was also challenging because there was tons of difficult and necessary introspection that led to change,” the restaurant group’s co-founder, Robert LeBlanc, told the NewsHour. “It’s led to restaurants that have closed down. It has led to people who thought they were passionate about the industry to leave the industry.”

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Owner Robert LeBlanc walks through Longway Tavern which was closed due to the Pandemic in February 2021. One of three of his New Orleans restaurants to close. Photo by Paul Costello

The Louisiana Workforce Commission reported 66,100 leisure and hospitality jobs in June 2021, up 9,300 jobs over the previous year but down dramatically compared to 97,000 jobs in June 2019. Still, those in the restaurant industry say the labor crunch remains widespread, with thousands of jobs unfilled. It became worse this summer as the Delta variant surged, and weeks of prolonged power outages from the Category 4 Hurricane Ida left hospitality workers in the dark and demoralized. 

“We suffered more loss in my professional career in the last 12 months than I’ve really ever suffered. Everyone felt like it was behind us and was starting to get excited and have a real sense of optimism,” LeBlanc said. “I think we probably had more people leave the industry as a result of the Delta spike than we did with the initial COVID-19 outbreak.” 

COVID numbers have dropped recently, and an uneasy optimism has returned, but with a caveat. Owners and employees have used the unexpected shutdowns to rethink and reset. The industry is different. After 20 years, LeBlanc says the pandemic forced him to prioritize health, happiness, and relationships. 

“Finally, you get to feel what a good night’s sleep feels like. Finally, you get to know what it’s like to go to bed at 10:30 p.m. as opposed to 1:30 a.m. Finally, you know what it’s like to be able to have the energy to get up and take a walk in the park in the morning,” he said. “In a lot of respects, COVID … allowed us all to reflect on things. It has been incredibly difficult. But, at the same time, I do feel … that it will lead to a lot more growth and good things in the long-term.”

LeBlanc has changed some of his own practices, choosing to close some restaurants and scaling others down to make them smaller and leaner, and therefore, better able to weather shutdowns. For example, some of his properties converted to bars only; in others, he expanded outdoor space. These changes allowed him in some cases to pay employees better and adjust his own personal work hours and business hours, too.    

“It’s not necessarily reinventing to survive, but it’s more reinventing to define a business structure that will enable people to live joyful, balanced, and fulfilling lives as a result of working in them,” he said. “Instead of forcing people to compromise joyful lives, we must provide incentives so they can continue to work successfully in our restaurants.”

Ever-changing safety protocols, the lingering pandemic, and the threat of more powerful hurricanes have career bartenders and aspiring writers like Christopher Louis Romaguera rethinking his return to slinging drinks. His bar, The Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchman Street, is shut down again, this time due to damages from Hurricane Ida in late August. 

“I’ve worked in the service industry for the last 16 years, and I have never been out of work for such a long period of time. So, I’ve been asking myself if I still want to keep doing this,” Romaguera said. “It is nerve-racking. I have applied for more non-hospitality jobs in the last two months than I have in my whole life.”

Those in charge of promoting tourism are worried about worker shortages impacting the experience of tourists in the city. “When you come to New Orleans, you don’t just remember the restaurant and the meal that you had; you remember the person that served it because they are usually such a dynamic, authentic, beautiful New Orleans person,” Schulz said. “We can’t lose our workers.”

To alleviate the strain on the hospitality industry, Schulz says aggressive recruitment efforts and marketing campaigns are ongoing to promote the opportunities available. Three large job fairs were already held this year. Local restaurants, hotels, and other companies turned the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center into a giant recruiting office to fill the worker gap. 

For Romaguera and others in the hospitality industry, pandemic fatigue is a real struggle. It’s a daily fight between wondering if more shutdowns are on the horizon or fantasizing that the pandemic is finally winding down. 

“I am Cuban. I got to go with my heart and just hope there will be a day where I am shaking a drink, and there are two hundred people in the bar, and my best friends are on the stage. And at one point, I toss my shirt out into the crowd and just be happy as hell because we are happy and don’t care about it all anymore.”

The shows must go on

New Orleans tourism spending in 2019 broke records but during the pandemic, New Orleans & Company estimates the city lost $200 million per week from visitors. Many in “The City That Care Forgot” are ready to put the gloomy last 18 months behind them. The city is hopeful because more conventions are booked, international visitors will soon be allowed back, and music venues are sold out again.  

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Music venues like Orpheum Theater were packed during the NOLAxNOLA music extravaganza as New Orleans’ music scene emerged from the pandemic. Photo by Whitness This Photography

For most of October, a glimpse of that future was on full display with its NOLAxNOLA music extravaganza, a multi-format showcase similar to Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW), as New Orleans’ music scene emerged from the pandemic. At the famed Preservation Hall, The Original Pinettes Brass Band played as part of the event. Music clubs put together 300 different musical shows at 35 venues to bring back New Orleans’ beloved live music scene. 

NOLAxNOLA was designed to help music venues and musicians recoup revenue lost by the cancellation of the fall festivals, including the granddaddy of the city’s normally packed festival lineup, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. After it was canceled in the spring of 2020, Jazzfest was canceled again in 2021 after attempting spring and fall comebacks, which dealt a significant blow to the city’s economy and cultural lifeblood. New Orleans & Company spent $2 million advertising the NOLAxNOLA event featuring jazz, soul, and funk music. It’s also an effort to show how to present large events during the pandemic safely.

“There is no New Orleans without New Orleans music. It helps drive our economy and supports local businesses,” Schulz said. “We’re promoting to travelers to keep their travel plans while following all vaccination and safety guidelines because the shows must go on.”

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Thousands of parade-goers party on Decatur Street near the Mississippi River as New Orleans tests the water for Mardi Gras 2022. Photo by Michele R. Zeringue.

On top of that, hopes are high that Mardi Gras returns next March. Those who talked with the NewsHour are in near agreement that the city’s tourism-based economy needs a strong season. That could be why it was a welcome sight for residents to see the “Krewe of Boo” Halloween parade roll through the streets on Oct. 23 — a trial run with COVID rules for riders and tourists. Similar to a typical Mardi Gras, thousands lined the streets to catch throws and watch marching bands for the first big parade since the pandemic shut down the party. 

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“Krewe of Boo” parade-goers catch throws and watch marching bands for the first big parade since the pandemic shut down the party. Photo by Julie Clements

City officials and volunteers, costuming as Dr. Anthony Fauci, conducted surveys and collected data at the parade to gauge the impact of COVID. Dr. Jennifer Avegno, director of the New Orleans Health Department, says 1,200 parade-goers took the survey. The team distributed 1,000 at-home tests and administered 60 COVID tests along the parade route, and will check in with those who took the survey over the next two weeks to monitor their health status. 

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City officials and volunteers, costuming as Dr. Anthony Fauci, conducted surveys and collected data at the Krewe of Boo parade in New Orleans to gauge the impact of COVIDPhoto by NOLA Ready / Facebook

The information collected during and after the parade will help leaders better understand coronavirus spread in large gatherings. If there is no uptick in COVID infections, it might help greenlight the lavish Mardi Gras parades and frivolity for next year. 

Meanwhile, at Lil Dizzy’s Cafe, where family memorabilia cover the walls, the place was buzzing with tourists and locals alike on a recent Monday as Arkesha Baquet served up the traditional red beans and rice with high hopes for the future. Lil Dizzy’s fights on. 

“There have been several hurdles we’ve had to jump over, but it is extremely important to us to succeed because it is about family. It’s about our neighborhood. Our kids may be the fourth generation to carry this legacy on,” Baquet said. “People come and they say, ‘I’m so happy you guys decided to continue the legacy’ and ‘thank you for not letting the business close’.”

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