Guys are always telling me now how hard it is to find chefs to hire," says chef/restaurateur Adolfo Garcia. "I say, 'Yeah, that's because they're all opening their own restaurants.'"
He should know. Before Hurricane Katrina, Garcia was chef and partner at RioMar restaurant in the Warehouse District. Since 2005, he's opened five restaurants in New Orleans, often partnering with up-and-coming chefs to start them.
Garcia may be more prolific than most, but he's hardly alone: Established restaurateurs are adding more properties, and young chefs are jumping into the business for themselves. Developers are designating spaces for new restaurants in their projects, and some restaurants are clustering in former dining deserts like Freret Street, where a dozen eateries have opened along a half-mile stretch since 2009, and Bywater, where six new restaurants have opened within a few blocks of each other this year. Then there are entrepreneurs who deliver their meals via food trucks and the pop-up restaurant scene; sometimes these ventures grow into brick-and-mortar restaurants.
It adds up to a great surge in dining options this year in New Orleans.
"When I talk with customers now and ask where else they've been eating, it's always a new place," says Chris Montero, executive chef at Cafe B in Old Metairie, which opened in 2011. "For us in the business it means more competition for every diner, but it's an eater's market out there."
Census figures from 2011 show the city's population at just three-quarters of its pre-Katrina level, while the population for the metro region remains 10 percent lower.
Why are so many restaurants opening here now, when the industry has been suffering nationally? How does an area with a significantly reduced post-Katrina population support them?
"You're just not seeing restaurants opening like this in other places," says Stan Harris, president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA). "To have this growth, even when the city's population is still down, it's just flabbergasting." (See "Opening soon," page 31.)
While anecdotal evidence of the boom abounds, a precise figure on how many restaurants are open now is harder to come by because of the different criteria used to count restaurants and define markets. The state's parish-by-parish database of food-service permits generally is disregarded because it includes not only restaurants but everything from grocery stores to nursing homes. New Orleans tourism officials and other industry watchers instead have adopted the tally of restaurants food writer/radio host Tom Fitzmorris maintains on The New Orleans Menu website. It shows an increase from roughly 800 restaurants before Hurricane Katrina to more than 1,300 today, and Fitzmorris adds to that number nearly every week.
This count is highly customized, however. It includes restaurants in all of Orleans Parish and most of Jefferson Parish, but only in certain towns in five other surrounding parishes. It also excludes fast food outlets, take-out and delivery-only operations and most national chains. Fitzmorris acknowledges his list is selective but says, "I have always used these same criteria, so it's a steady statistic."
"It's not spot-on but we think his numbers are pretty dependable when you're talking about sit-down restaurants," says John Williams, director of the Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration at the University of New Orleans (UNO). "It gives you a gauge for what's happening."
Those tracking restaurants nationally tend to analyze a larger regional picture. For instance, in its annual growth index released earlier this year, the market research company Nielsen Claritas reported 3,374 restaurants in the five-parish New Orleans area, including independent businesses and chains. That was an increase of 147 restaurants from the previous year and up by 523 restaurants from the total in its 2007 index. (Nielsen Claritas didn't respond to a request for pre-Katrina data.)
That kind of growth is at odds with industry trends nationally. According to the New York-based market research firm NPD Group, while the overall restaurant industry is seeing a slight increase in visits and spending this year, the full-service sector, as opposed to fast food, continues to see declines.
"The restaurant industry was hit hard by the recession and hasn't yet fully recovered," says Kim McLynn, a spokeswoman for NPD Group.
The November edition of the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Performance Index, which tracks the industry's health and outlook, fell to its lowest level in more than a year, with twice as many restaurant operators expecting business to worsen than improve.
Around the New Orleans restaurant scene today, though, you're more likely to hear optimism.
"A lot of people have been waiting for the stumble on this, and it hasn't come." Williams says. "The restaurants here are doing very well."
Some new restaurateurs are finding their dining rooms packed and their waiting lists or reservation books full. "We're always asking ourselves what we did in a past life to deserve this success," says Kim Nguyen, whose Vietnamese cafe Magasin has been a hit since it opened Uptown in February.
Chef Michael Doyle is similarly surprised by the public's response to Maurepas Foods, the casual, intensely seasonal restaurant Doyle opened in January near his Bywater home. Many nights every table is full and much of the open space in this one-time corner store is filled with people waiting for tables.
Doyle's plan to open Maurepas Foods in a neighborhood that had not been known for restaurants initially drew skeptics.
"We had a banker come down here and turn around without even getting out of his car," Doyle says. "He pulled up, drove off and then emailed me later saying, 'There's just no way.'"
Just as new parts of town are growing into restaurant destin-ations, the types of new restaurants are different — from New York-style slices at Pizza Delicious, a former pop-up that went fulltime last month; to Root, a yearling in the Warehouse District where chef Phillip Lopez prepares highly conceptual cuisine in a kitchen loaded with high-tech gear like dehydrators and sous vide cookers. Lopez, a New Orleans native, says he opened Root in response to the stagnation he felt at traditional restaurants here. He believes a craving for new culinary ideas is propelling new restaurant growth.
"I see it as a changing of the guard," he says. "There's been a reset button. People are changing the way our restaurants operate and what they do."
Lopez believes the post-Katrina influx of people from around the country is helping accelerate changes in the restaurant scene — and he thinks that's an important part of keeping New Orleans cuisine relevant. Lopez and his business partners plan to open a second, higher-reaching restaurant in the Lower Garden District early next year. The new place, Square Root, will serve multi-course tasting menus exclusively.
"It's about making sure the food scene in New Orleans is everlasting," Lopez says. "A lot of restaurants in town now are forward-looking."
Octavio Mantilla, who runs eight New Orleans restaurants with chef John Besh, also believes the spread of new restaurants is in line with the wider sweep of change the city has experienced since since 2005.
"New Orleans is reinventing what the city is all about," Mantilla says. "You see that everywhere, and the restaurants are no exception. We (the Besh Restaurant Group) had two restaurants before Katrina. When we started talking about more, people said, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' But we don't open restaurants for the sake of opening them. Our whole plan is: We only grow if we have talent that wants to do something new with us."
Some restaurant growth can be attributed to continued recovery from Hurricane Katrina. A small cluster of new restaurants is emerging in Gentilly, and earlier this year Cafe Dauphine opened in the Lower 9th Ward. Neither neighborhood had much restaurant development until recently. Other factors are at play also as old corner stores, former warehouses, storefronts and residences are transformed into restaurants around the city.
Like Lopez, some observers point to a generational shift in what New Orleanians want from their restaurants — less formal settings, more international foods. At the same time, food TV programs have glamorized the restaurant business and enticed more young people to come aboard. And many restaurateurs say they are confident that today's busy lifestyles will cause people to dine out more often.
Then there is the relatively low barrier for entry into the business.
"You could argue that there's not a lot of other entrepreneurial opportunities out there and the restaurant business has been something that people fall into by passion, not by common sense," says Jon Smith, a former local wine merchant who now is a real estate consultant on restaurant projects. He says poorly structured leases or the potentially high cost of making the city's older buildings restaurant-ready are common pitfalls for new ventures.
Christine Briede, who runs the food service equipment supplier Loubat in Mid-City, says she has seen this issue play out more often lately when prospective restaurateurs start calculating the real cost of their plans. She also expressed concerned about the long-term viability of some of these plans.
"You hear about so many new places opening," she says. "Are they just taking smaller pieces of the pie?"
That pie represents dining dollars from residents as well as tourists. A survey commissioned by local tourism and convention agencies covering the first half of 2012 showed the number of visitors was slightly higher than the same period in 2011 and was on track to exceed that year's total of 8.75 million. The full-year tally for 2012 should still fall short of the 10.1 million visitors the city saw in 2004, the tourism industry's pre-Katrina peak, but today's visitors spend more — especially at restaurants. At mid-year, the survey revealed, restaurant spending by visitors was up 12 percent from 2011.
Still, the banker who literally fled from the idea of Maurepas Foods is no aberration. Restaurant industry leaders say bank credit often is unattainable for new restaurateurs, especially those with few assets to secure loans beyond their restaurant equipment and furnishings. Instead, many new restaurants are floated by private investors, family members and personal savings accounts.
"What scares me is people getting into the business who don't have the experience but put their entire life savings into a project," says Steve Pettus, managing partner of Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group. "Maybe some of them think, I love to eat and I have 100 friends who will support me. Well, you need 100 friends every night, and 100 of their friends."
Pettus has opened a dozen restaurants in his career, and will add another in late January as the Dickie Brennan group builds a 200-seat restaurant called Tableau as part of the redevelopment of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, the historic community theater across from Jackson Square. Pettus says the Tableau opening was too important an opportunity to pass up, but he's still not sanguine about the overall picture for the restaurant industry.
"You can't have that kind of growth in supply without growth in demand," he says. "Simple economics will tell you that."
The LRA's Harris says restaurants are highly vulnerable to cash flow issues, which means their business prospects can change rapidly.
"The engine that helps restaurants survive is capital," he says. "You have to be able to sustain yourself in the downtime (especially in the summer when convention and events trail off). You'll see restaurants that are here one day and not tomorrow."
For the most part, however, Williams says the local industry has proved resilient.
"The visitor really supports this sector and we have a home base that supports it too," he says. "What we see here is atypical of what's happening in other cities, where even if hotels are doing well the restaurants are not."
For his part, Garcia believes the high proportion of chef-led and independent restaurants now opening in New Orleans could be a key to their longevity. Typically owners of such restaurants are fully invested in their projects — financially and emotionally, Garcia says. He says often they are willing to continue operating with a lower profit margin than a chain restaurant that has to justify its bottom line to a corporate entity.
"I think we're closer to the product and closer to the people we work with and serve," Garcia says. "When I go to other [places], I see the proliferation of restaurants but it's usually chains. Oh, Applebee's is going in here, oh, they're getting a Five Guys over there. Here, it's more grassroots. You hear about Chef So-and-So opening a new place, or this sous chef is opening his own place. That's really a unique situation and I think we're blessed to have that."