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"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."