Ian McNulty: For restaurants in New Orleans, the double-edged sword to face a normal summer | Where NOLA eats

The calendar says summer begins on June 21, information that basically tells us that calendars don’t know New Orleans. We all know that summer really starts immediately after Jazz Fest and lasts until around Halloween.

Still, the “official” start of summer signals what is historically the toughest time of year for restaurants in New Orleans. Things could be different this summer though, given the history we’ve been through and are still dealing with.

Will this be the normal slog of low tourism, slow business and inevitable restaurant closings? Or, with the pandemic clearly in a different phase now, with no restrictions or mandates in place, will the pent up desire to get out and live life in a social, not socially distanced way, going to continue?

Either way, restaurants seem to be facing a double-edged summer.

After absorbing all the blows of the pandemic, restaurants badly need the boost of a busier than normal summer season. But at the same time, most cannot always manage the business. Right now, many restaurants are operating at full capacity, trying to keep up with demand as they are understaffed and while trying to rewrite old business models around spiraling cost increases across the exploitation.

That’s enough to make New Orleans’ summer slump a breeze.

You have to go back to 2019 to find the last “normal” summer in New Orleans. The pandemic has dictated restaurant conditions for the past two years far more than the usual seasonal rhythms.

But don’t forget how tough the season is usually for restaurants. Research by this article in 2018 found that nearly half of all restaurant closings in New Orleans over the previous decade occurred during the summer months, and full-service restaurant revenues sold out dropped 30% in the summer compared to their peak winter months.

The answer, in normal years, is well established. Restaurants are battening down the hatches, trimming the sails, and often dipping into the gains they’ve made in good times to deal with it.

This is why diving into the summer of 2022 makes me particularly worried. Restaurants have been on the ropes for so long now that the usual coping mechanisms may not work.

Restaurants are largely on their own to find the way. The latest round of federal relief funding, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, was quickly depleted last year and, despite pleas and campaigns from small businesses that need it most, lawmakers have sniffed out opportunities to replenish this fund.

According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, that left $1 billion in aid requests to Louisiana restaurants alone unfunded. Nearly 3,000 restaurants in the state that applied were left out when the underfunded fund ran out.

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I’m afraid that will leave many restaurants one step closer to closing, whether it’s the kind of family issues that can plague the smallest moms and pops, a breakdown of local infrastructure, or (it must be admitted) a damaging or simply disruptive hurricane, as we saw after Hurricane Ida.

There is good news to come. This summer marks the return of some major events for the first time through the pandemic. This includes Essence, from June 30 to July 3, and Cocktail Talesthe spirits industry conference, back July 25-29.

Restaurant week is in progress at the moment, an offer to add a spark to the beginning of the summer. Coolinairethe ever-popular campaign of fixed-price meal deals at many restaurants returns in August.

As deep summer approaches, some restaurateurs tell me they’re actually hoping for a slowdown this season, after a frenetic spring.

This may seem counter-intuitive for companies that have lost so much. But there are also bandwidth, energy, and morale factors beyond the balance sheet.

It could be a season to reset, and maybe even try to restructure for the higher costs and changing business conditions they face now.

What they can still hopefully rely on are their best customers, locals and visitors who are so loyal and frequent that they practically count as restaurant dwellers.

It’s at least one thing that should continue despite all that this impenetrable summer has in store for us.

I walked past closed bars and toasted them with a drink to take home, hoping they would come back, not knowing how or when they might.

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