Food in many forms is hot in New Orleans right now.
For those of us who remember how awful and dead the city seemed after Katrina with no street lights, no house lights and only wreckage everywhere it’s quite a thrill to drive by the construction sites in Mid-City and Carrollton where three massive supermarkets are being built.
Michael Hecht, President and CEO of GNO Inc., says these three projects are among the most notable of some 80 businesses that are being built or refitted right now. “It’s taken eight years since Katrina but corporate America has taken a secret ballot on whether New Orleans is a good place to invest millions of dollars and, thank goodness, they voted yes.”
Investing the millions of dollars in the three supermarkets – and the estimated 700 jobs to staff them – are Costco in Carrollton adjacent to Xavier University, Whole Foods at Bienville and North Broad and Winn-Dixie in Mid-City.
Meanwhile, also on the food front, two great Vieux Carre restaurants that had been closed are getting ready to open their doors again. On Conti Street, Broussard’s, first opened in 1920. will offer classic French Creole cuisine and on Decatur, Tujaque’s will continue its 100-year tradition of providing the finest beef brisket on the planet. Broussard’s will be under the direction of the Ammari brothers whose company is called Creole Cuisine. The new chef is Guy Reinbolt who left an executive chef position at the Sheraton Hotel to take on the challenge of making Broussard’s once again a relevant Vieux Carre restaurant. At Tujaque’s, still recovering from the shock of the death of long-time owner Steven Latter will now be under the direction of Latter’s son, Mark.
Both the Ammari brothers and Mark Latter are impelled in large part by the coming push by New Orleans’ tourism community to push the volume of visitors to the city from the current 9 million to 13 million by 2018.
On the supermarket front, retail food executives think there’s going to be room for the growth and development of three big supermarkets in the Mid-City and Carrollton neighborhoods where real estate sales have been brisk and the population is growing. Of course, executives at all three supermarkets believe their appeal is sufficient to attract shoppers from throughout the region in the same way that the old Schwegmann Supermarkets used to do years ago.
“The investment of the three supermarket chains is probably going to be in excess of $30 million in brick and mortar but what many of us are equally excited about are the 600 or more new jobs with benefits that they’re going to create,” says Hecht. “Those 600 employees are going to be homeowners, taxpayers and folks who put their roots down in the community. That is great news for New Orleans.”
In Hecht’s view, the corporate leaders took note of the development of viable shopping, dining and entertainment corridors on Magazine Street, North Carrollton Avenue, Harrison Avenue and, of course, the Vieux Carre and decided that New Orleans’ comeback from the depths of Hurricane Katrina was for real and permanent.
For those of us who care about such things the cranes in the sky at the three supermarket sites has a certain irony. After Katrina, then-Mayor Ray Nagin with great fanfare brought in a consultant named Dr. Edward Blakely to make and implement a plan for New Orleans’ recovery. Unfortunately, in the opinion of many, Blakely turned out to be a blowhard and a fraud. His promises of “cranes in the sky” turned out to be as empty as a crawfish bucket after a bad day in the swamps.
Of course, today, there are cranes in the sky at the three supermarket sites and other places as well. This success cannot be attributed to either Nagin, who now lives in Dallas, or Blakely who has presumably returned to his haunts in Australia. But there seems to be no doubt that the comeback of New Orleans is real and has attracted the support of some corporate guys who have the capacity to sign checks in the millions of dollars.
If you want to see another set of cranes in the sky drive down Canal Street in the Mid-City area and take a look at the massive medical center now taking shape. Allan says it reminds him of the Superdome in the early 1970s when the skeletal shape of what was to become New Orleans’ most important building was just starting to assume what would become its iconic form.
The Superdome was a catalyst for a billion dollars worth of hotel and office building construction in the Poydras corridor. Hecht looks at the medical center construction and thinks not only of a huge catalyst but also a center that will create thousands of jobs with good benefits and career paths for folks living throughout the metro region.
“The fact that the medical center is real and very viable is one of the factors that gives people like the Supermarket executives, the Ammari brothers and the Latter family confidence that investments in New Orleans are substantive and based on realities, not just hope.”
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.