I think pretty much any of us who live and eat in New Orleans (and I mean IN New Orleans) would agree we try to keep things as local as we can. Our dining places are largely locally owned and most of our grocery choices are at least regional. Not that any of us haven’t been into a Wal-Mart or Winn-Dixie when it’s convenient or we’re trying to get several things in one stop. But we’d usually rather get our burgers at Bud’s than Burger King and, thankfully, it’s usually easier to get to a local place than to some chain.
When I was buying food in bulk quantities for our restaurant, I’d always deal first with the local wholesalers like F. Christiana and P.A. Menard before I’d call on Sysco or Conco. There were times the local guys just didn’t have what I needed, so I’d have to go to the larger operations. But it was a rare event and, in the case of some of our meat items, only after the local guy had gone out of business. It was a point of local pride — seeing my dollars going to someone based in Marrero or New Orleans East rather than a portion of the take going to Houston or Godknowswhere. When we were selling beer, our most exotic product was imported from faraway Abita Springs. You get the idea.
All that changed, however, shortly after we were forced to move to Broadmoor and found ourselves a scant five blocks from Restaurant Depot. Not only did the place have everything we needed, but it was easily the closest food purveyor of any kind. Closer than a Rouse’s, closer than the Robert Fresh Market, closer than anything but a Chevron convenience store. There were no delivery minimums to meet, no worries about a supplier running short of a needed item and, most importantly, they’re open seven days a week with a full array of the locally produced products I‘d been buying anyway. Despite my “buy local” pledges, I quickly found myself a daily customer of this massive national chain.
Y’know how you stand in line at the grocery store and kinda peruse the other folks in line and what’s in their buggies? I make a silent game out of this — trying to determine a little about the people ahead of me by what they’re buying. Here’s a guy with a bouquet of flowers, a couple of nice steaks and some really good wine. It’s his anniversary and they’ve decided to stay in instead of going out. That stack of cheap frozen pizzas over there? That lady’s kid is having a bunch of friends over for the night. Good luck with that, sweetheart. One time the guy ahead of me had a bag of limes and a huge container of “personal lubricant.” I didn’t wanna know.
It was the same at Restaurant Depot — except a lot of these folks around me were operating some of the best-known and widely celebrated restaurants in the city. They’re standing there in line and wearing their chef attire with the names of where they worked, fergodsakes. I was amazed at some of the stuff they’d have on their flatbed carts.
Fancy Italian joint? Canned Alfredo sauce. Big-name steak house? Frozen ribeyes by the case from a giant packing house in the Midwest. Highly-regarded Cajun place? Two dozen cases of swai (a catfish from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam). Don’t even get me started on the shrimp and crawfish I saw being scooped up by the cartload — in many cases being sold as “locally caught” if “local” means a written language not based on the Roman and Greek alphabets.
This is not a blanket indictment. I know what it costs to run a restaurant and I know what the prices of truly “local” products are (or at least I did a month ago). There are plenty of places in New Orleans that promise local and deliver just what they advertise. I also know demand for a particular item can force a place to run out of the local product and they have to stopgap with something else temporarily. Prices for a particular item can occasionally skyrocket and wreck a profit margin. A place has to do what it has to do to keep going. I get that. Really. I’ve been there.
A reputable place with true local sourcing will tell you when they’re out of the local product. They either won’t serve it or they will tell you it’s not local. The chef at an honest place will usually be able to tell you exactly where a particular item comes from, since he/she sees the delivery box every day (though extremely high-volume places with large staffs might be an exception to this rule. I don‘t know. I‘ve never worked in one).
I don’t have a problem with places that don’t make promises about where they get their inventory. All they want is for you to have a decent enough experience so they will remain on your personal radar and you’ll become a repeat customer. The first sale is easy — it’s the second and third and fourth that are much tougher. But when a place promises “local“ or “house-made” or something special like that, it better be the truth.
Your best protection is to ask questions and be wary of any evasiveness. An honest place will give you a direct answer, even if it’s one you don’t want to hear.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.