New Orleans' restaurant scene seen as city's driving force
Don Ames Reporting
A recent New York Times article says New Orleans' restaurant industry has become the backbone of the city since Hurricane Katrina, similar to what the financial industry is to Wall Street.
Wendy Waren, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, says that claim may be justified.
"It provides 70,000 jobs to residents in the Greater New Orleans area," she says.
More than 10 percent of the jobs in the metropolitan area are in the restaurant business, compared with an average of 8.2 percent nationwide.
WWL's restaurant expert, Tom Fitzmorris, says New Orleans has 70 percent more restaurants than it did in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina hit, even though the city has fewer people than it did before the storm.
Economically speaking, the New York Times says the restaurant boom is a barometer of a city that is more affluent and more educated than it used to be.
Though the median household income in New Orleans is still below the national average, the population has more college degrees and more households that earn over $75,000 a year than it did before the storm.
Richer cities tend to have more restaurants per capita.
And, Waren says there's' a lot of money being spent in local restaurants. "We're on track, statewide, to do 6.8 billion dollars in annual sales, and about 3 billion of that is attributed to the New Orleans area."
She attributes the industry's local strength to at least one outside factor...tourism.
"Tourism and the influx of people moving here from other places," Waren says. "And, also, people are eating out more for their meals, in general, that they were some years ago."
"We're becoming recognized, nationally and internationally for our restaurant scene, even more so than we had been previously," says Waren. "We're seeing more and more restaurants open, even during the slow summer months, than previous years...we're seeing a lot of diversity in our restaurant offerings in terms of cuisine. It's just booming."
She says the restaurant business is a stable one in New Orleans and Louisiana, and sees it as expanding even more.
"Tourism, definitely, will help sustain this growth," Waren says. "We're seeing more and more visitors, nationally and internationally."
Despite the abundance of competition, banks have not reduced financing for new establishments, according to Jeff Ehlinger, a senior vice president at First Bank and Trust in New Orleans. He told the New York Times that could happen. "But it's not currently happening," he said. "Most of these restaurants would have to start going by the wayside, and right now they're doing pretty well."
Waren says funding for the restaurants "comes from investors, family friends, joint venture capitalists and things like that," besides the traditional banking sources.
And, she defends the often low paying, entry levels jobs in the industry.
"We're a huge source of jobs and, also, careers," says Waren. "There's a lot of upward mobility in our industry for those people who want it and want to work for it."
"You know, ambition is a great thing in our industry. And, we foster personal and professional development in individuals in our industry."