It took some imagination to foresee a business boom along Freret Street back in the spring of 2006, when Michelle Ingram bought a building here to start her pet boarding and grooming shop, Zeus' Place.
"There were vagrants living upstairs in some of these buildings, and they'd hurl sofas out onto the street, but it didn't matter because no one was ever driving down the street," Ingram says. But Ingram did have imagination, and while walking to her shop each day from her home a few blocks down Freret, she'd picture the businesses she hoped would one day emerge in the battered, flood-stained storefronts.
"On these dream walks of mine, I hoped that maybe, someday, we'd have two restaurants between my house and the shop," she says.
These days, reality has far outstripped that modest dream. The recovery of this historic but long-neglected business corridor is now in overdrive, and more than anywhere else this eight-block stretch of Freret between Napoleon and Jefferson avenues has emerged as the city's newest restaurant row.
Eight new bars, restaurants and cafes have opened along the corridor since 2009, including three in the last five months alone. Four more are slated to open in 2011 (including two as early as this week) and still more chefs and restaurateurs are now hunting for Freret Street real estate for their next ventures.
Each of these new businesses is independent, locally owned and doing its own thing (a pre-Katrina Domino's Pizza franchise is back too). Their options range from hot dogs and po-boys to Cuban sandwiches and fresh juice sno-balls. Together, they've brought a level of vigor, momentum and traffic to this corridor that has stunned even the street's most ardent boosters.
"I'm really surprised by how fast it's gone, I mean New Orleans just doesn't move this quickly," says Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner of the Freret Street craft cocktail lounge Cure and board member of the Freret Business and Property Owners Association. "But I think what this neighborhood needed was a jump-start and it's been the restaurants and bars that provided that. There are tourists walking around Freret now coming to these places, and it wasn't that long ago when that just would have been unbelievable."
Cure opened in February 2009, transforming a building that had been a fire station, a law office and electrician's shop into a gleaming cocktail lounge stocked with fine liquors, serving small plates and staffed by skilled craft cocktail bartenders. It was an upscale oasis surrounded by blighted homes and boarded-up businesses. But the signs of further progress quickly grew from a trickle to a torrent. That summer brought a succession of new restaurant openings, starting with the homespun, pan-Latin Sarita's Grill, then the hybrid sno-ball stand/juice bar Beaucoup Juice, then Village Coffee & Tea at the Jefferson Avenue end of the strip. By October 2009, Troy Rhodies opened his traditional Creole soul café Freret Street Po-boys & Donuts and the whiff of rejuvenation was in the air.
The hot dog emporium Dat Dog opened this past February. In June, the Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant Ancora and the Delta/Louisiana eatery High Hat Café opened on the same day and under the same roof. Both ventures are co-owned by Adolfo Garcia, the successful chef behind downtown's RioMar, La Boca, a Mano and Gusto.
"We got in here based on a good feeling that something was happening on Freret and that we'd better get on it before it's too late," says Chip Apperson, the Memphis native who runs High Hat Café along with Garcia, and who bought the building shared by High Hat and Ancora along with Garcia and two other investors.
"There's a sense of camaraderie," Apperson says. "Everyone on this street knows each other, and they help you. They say, 'you need a box of napkins, a roll of quarters? We're looking out for you.' There's a good mix of concepts here and that's drawing people in, helping all of us."
More help of this sort could arrive as early as this week, when Adam Biderman hopes to open the Company Burger on Freret and begin serving hand-crafted burgers. This week is also the target date for Ben Sherman and Steve Watson, co-owners of Uptown's King Pin Bar, to open their Chicago-style deep dish pizza restaurant, the Midway, on the 4700 block of Freret.
Other ventures slated to open by year's end include Origami, a new Japanese restaurant from veteran local sushi chef Mitsuko Tanner now under construction in the former address of Friar Tucks bar, and PubliQ House, which owner Rhett Briggs describes as being a comfortable bar with a sense of design. There will be 20 beers on tap at PubliQ House, along with 100 more in bottles and a stage for live music. Briggs also wants to build parking accommodations specifically for food trucks to cater to his patrons.
In addition, Dat Dog co-owner Skip Murray has bought the former gas station across the street from his current address and plans to relocate to that much larger space. Once that happens, Murray says, he wants to convert Dat Dog's small, original location into a different type of eatery, possibly a candy shop.
"I never expected this turnout," Murray says of the popular response to Dat Dog. "With hot dogs, you have fanatics that seek you out, they're like bird watchers. But I wondered if people would walk to Freret to find us and the answer is they did."
Restaurants and bars aren't the only businesses setting up shop on Freret, which has seen new ventures ranging from a comedy club to a bike shop to a garden center to a boxing gym since Katrina. Meanwhile, stalwarts like Freret Hardware and the Junior League's thrift store Bloomin' Deals are among the businesses that rebuilt after the flood. (Freret's best known pre-Katrina restaurant, Dunbar's Creole Cooking, reopened a few miles away inside a student center on the Loyola University campus.)
But with their density, diversity and attendant buzz, it's the new eating and drinking establishments that have put Freret in the spotlight. Dana Eness, executive director of Urban Conservancy, a local civic planning group, points out that while people don't necessarily travel across town for errands they can handle closer to home, they will seek out restaurants that are doing something different and exciting.
"You have to get out of your car to appreciate the diversity of businesses there now, and restaurants will pull people in who want to try them out," Eness says. "That's definitely a restaurant destination now."
Why restaurants and bars? Freret advocates and restaurateurs themselves point to a confluence of reasons. They credit a core of determined local developers and neighborhood leaders who stepped up as impresarios, and they say the relatively affordable real estate made a difference. They also credit District B City Councilwoman Stacy Head, whose district includes Freret, with helping create new zoning through an arts and cultural overlay district that specifically allows their businesses. And finally, there's the intangible allure and resiliency of the street's own DNA.
"I bought my first bike on Freret as a kid; we'd come to Dunbar's for lunch during high school," says Matthew Kohnke, a partner in Cure. "I had faith something positive would happen. This is a central neighborhood that's important but was just long-forgotten."
Named for the antebellum New Orleans mayor and cotton magnate William Freret, the street has had a long history as a commercial corridor. A streetcar track was installed in the 1920s, and many Jewish and Italian merchants opened here, swelling the number of businesses from just six in 1909 to 80 by the 1930s, according to the Preservation Resource Center (PRC).
As early as the 1950s, however, the familiar story of white flight to the suburbs and the rise of larger retailers elsewhere in the metro area began to take its toll, according to PRC reports. The corridor lost 20 businesses between 1952 and 1972.
Redevelopment efforts started early, with the administration of Mayor Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial pumping in $1 million in 1978 to plant trees and build a public parking lot. But the neighborhood's slide continued, and by 1994 it was home to just 32 businesses, according to the PRC. Around that time, the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services got involved with commercial reinvestment and homebuyer programs, and many of today's advocates for Freret say this group was vital in stabilizing the surrounding area.
After the 2005 levee failures, Freret was inundated by as much as four to five feet of floodwater. In 2007, it was named as one of 17 "re-new zones" around the city by Ed Blakely's Office of Recovery Management and as such was supposed to receive an infusion of taxpayer funding to spur commercial redevelopment. Freret developers say that help never materialized, and today Head says the Nagin administration didn't follow through on the program. A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu says the city "no longer utilizes the 17 target zones identified by the previous administration," though he notes Landrieu's office "view(s) the Freret corridor as a prime location for investment."
But in the neighborhood itself, the pieces for redevelopment were coming together on their own. It was at a community meeting early in 2006 when Ingram of Zeus' Place met Freret residents and real estate developers Greg Ensslen and Peter Gardner. Each was passionate about the street's potential, and each had investments riding on that potential.
"We decided the easiest, fastest way to get attention to Freret was with a market," says Ensslen, whose company Go Mango has redeveloped a number of the commercial buildings along Freret.
Ensslen, Gardner and Ingram each kicked in $100 to seed a bank account to start the Freret Business & Property Owners Association, which they used as the vehicle to hold the first Freret Market in September 2007. Today, this monthly market typically draws 90 vendors and 5,000 shoppers (the next one is Sept. 3).
"The market put more eyes on the street, it got people to see all the commercial buildings we have here so when they had ideas about starting that restaurant they always wanted to do they now at least knew about Freret," Ingram says.
As that first Freret Market got underway, neighborhood leaders were also working with Head's office to rezone the neighborhood as an arts and cultural overlay district. This city planning designation, put into effect in 2008, eases the permitting process for restaurants, entertainment venues, galleries and other types of businesses.
"Everyone who wanted things to happen on Freret were at those neighborhood meetings and the message was clear: we want businesses open here at night," Ensslen says. "The people here bought into it. They recognized that if we want things to happen here and have Freret be an active place, a safe place to be at night, that other things would come with that, like people parking on your block, like noise at night, like the time someone breaks up with her boyfriend outside of your house. So we recognized that from the start and built the rules and the zoning around that."
For instance, the overlay district allows bars and restaurants, but prohibits package liquor sales. Bars can host live music, but not karaoke, DJs or adult entertainment. Restaurants can host bands too, though they must be "non-amplified." The overlay also sets business hours for bars, which have to close by midnight Sunday through Thursday and by 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Head says that by setting out such rules, the neighborhood let entrepreneurs know they could invest in Freret without the local resistance that sometimes accompanies a restaurant or bar opening in other parts of town.
"It meant that when people came to see me about a project, I could say, look Magazine Street is at the saturation point for restaurants and (bars) but why don't you go to Freret Street where your business is already allowed as a matter of right, where you can get a liquor license as a matter of right?" Head says. "Magazine Street won't accept another bar, but (on Freret) you can open; you don't have to jump through all these hoops."
Many of the restaurateurs and bar owners now open or coming to Freret had looked at other properties around town, and they say the zoning overlay was a big part of their decision. One of them is Biderman of the Company Burger, who recently moved back from Atlanta where he was a chef at Holeman & Finch Public House, a meat-centric "nose-to-tail" restaurant that was named the best restaurant of 2010 by that city's alt-weekly, Creative Loafing.
"It's the people here, the philosophy of bringing something back, and that zoning overlay just makes it all so much easier," Biderman says. "It's the attitude that the people invited us to be here, they said 'yes.' They want you to be here as long as you're doing the right thing.
"That's an enormous shift in thinking for this city, and for a first-time restaurateur that's so reassuring, that if you do it right you're investing your money and you can open and be successful. In other areas, you worry if you piss off the wrong person, and you don't even know it, they'll make trouble for you. Here, everyone seems to have the same goal."
One of the question marks for Freret's future is the impact of planned roadwork. The neighborhood has been expecting the city to begin a round of streetscape improvements to repair broken curbs, install new benches and signs, plant trees, upgrade streetlights and make sidewalks more wheelchair-accessible. The start date for this six-month project has been pushed back many times, but Landrieu's office now expects construction to begin in November.
Ensslen is among those hopeful that, despite inevitable inconveniences from the roadwork, the project will leave the street ready for more investment. And more people have indeed expressed interest in joining the Freret restaurant row. Commercial real estate signs have blossomed on many of the empty buildings along the street, and chefs and restaurateurs with an eye for expansion have been shopping around.
Xavier Laurentino, the chef/owner of Barcelona Tapas in the Riverbend, was on Freret one recent afternoon checking out a dilapidated storefront. He's interested in creating a new restaurant on Freret specializing in bocatas, the slim, crusty sandwiches served at practically every cafe in his native Barcelona. Likewise, chef David Whitmore, who runs Mimi's of River Ridge along with his co-chef Pete Vasquez, says they're interested in Freret's potential and have looked at a number of properties for a new restaurant.
The success on Freret has others hopeful that its example will inspire similar redevelopment along more historic commercial corridors.
"O.C. Haley (Boulevard) could be the next success story like this," says Head, whose council district also includes that underutilized Central City business strip. "It's not seen the same level of entrepreneurship. There it's been about nonprofits and government programs and you can see how the difference in commercial development varies greatly.
"I'm hoping the entrepreneurial spirit that's driven the Freret renaissance, with the support of government, can make it the next success story, that people in Central City can get together, maybe with partners, and buy these beautiful historic buildings and invest in them and get the types of things there that they need."
Freret Street restaurant row by the numbers:
• 8 new additions since 2009
• 3 so far in 2011
• 2 more planned to open in August
• 2 more announced to open later in 2011
Timeline of restaurant openings:
Cure (Feb. 2009)
4905 Freret St., 302-2357, www.curenola.com
Beaucoup Juice (June 2009)
4719 Freret St., 430-5508, www.beaucoupjuice.com
Sarita's Grill (July 2009)
4520 Freret St., 324-3562
Village Coffee & Tea (Aug. 2009)
5335 Freret St., 861-1909, www.villagecoffeeneworleans.com
Freret Street Po-boys & Donuts (Feb. 2011)
4701 Freret St., 872-9676, www.freretstreetpoboys.com
Dat Dog (Feb. 2011)
5031 Freret St., 899-6883, www.datdognola.com
High Hat Cafe (June 2011)
4500 Freret St., 754-1366, www.highhatcafe.com
Ancora Pizzeria & Salumeria (June 2011)
4508 Freret St., 324-1636, www.ancorapizza.com
The Company Burger (Aug. 2011 planned)
4600 Freret St., 410-7811, www.thecompanyburger.com
Midway Pizza (Aug. 2011 planned)
4721 Freret St., www.midwaypizzanola.com
PubliQ House (Late 2011 planned)
4525 Freret St.
Origami (Late 2011 planned)
5130 Freret St.