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New Orleans Picks Up

Few Workers Returned, but Restaurant Is Cooking

October 30, 2005|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Jim Ritchie's Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, in the old French Market section of the French Quarter, is renowned for wood-oven pizza with crawfish and andouille (Cajun smoked sausage) and a sophisticated wine menu.

A native Clevelander, Ritchie came to New Orleans in his 20s and worked as a bartender before opening the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen in 1989. At age 50, with the restaurant well established and "only five payments left on the SBA loan," Ritchie said he and his family had been looking forward to a little more financial ease.

Then Katrina hit, shut him down for seven weeks and scattered his employees across the country.

Storm damage was minor -- the Quarter escaped the flooding that inundated 80% of the city. But Ritchie lost food worth $6,000 in the subsequent power outage, and wind-driven water and dirt found their way through the antique shutters.

There is so much demand from hotels and office buildings for cleaning services that it's nearly impossible for a small operation like Ritchie's to get an appointment, or even a return call, from a cleaning firm.

In a stroke of luck, he bumped into a woman at a grocery store whose company had a contract to clean up local Popeye's chicken outlets. She took pity on Ritchie and agreed to send a crew around to his restaurant to clean out the refrigerators and scrub and wax the floors.

The gas and electricity were back by late September, the water a little later. Another stumbling block was finding a source of andouille. Ritchie's regular supplier, celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme's bayou country sausage factory, was knocked out by the storm.

But the real hang-up for Ritchie -- as for many other New Orleanians struggling to get back in business -- was finding workers. More than half of the city's housing stock remains uninhabitable, and the supply of temporary shelter lags far behind the demand.

When Ritchie managed to reopen Oct. 19 with a lunch-only schedule and a limited menu, just three of his 20 regular workers were on hand, and he'd had to personally find them living quarters.

One cook was staying at Ritchie's house in the Algiers neighborhood across the Mississippi River from downtown, and two other workers were camped at local group homes maintained by Ritchie's wife, a psychiatric social worker. The homes were temporarily vacant because the clients had been evacuated to Tennessee.

Prep chef Yukita Porter, 25, had fled to Atlanta and was torn about coming back. For the single mother, it meant leaving her 5-year-old son behind with cousins in Georgia.

"I didn't want to take my boy out of school and come back here and have to leave again," she said, noting that her apartment house in New Orleans East may be gone for good and the public schools won't reopen until at least early November.

In the end, Porter decided to return because she bought into her boss' vision of a better New Orleans. Ritchie believes that government -- federal, state and local -- has an obligation to at least match the kind of effort being put out by returning storm victims, who are working on the city's recovery day and night. New Orleanians will demand decent housing, functioning schools and a reasonable level of public safety -- and he thinks they will get it.

"He makes you think things are going to be OK," Porter said. Besides, she added, "We're like a family. We look out for each other."

In the meantime, the influx of government workers, construction contractors and insurance adjusters means that Ritchie and other French Quarter merchants can count on a decent flow of customers even if other parts of the city are largely deserted.

Ritchie estimated that the storm cost him $180,000 in lost sales, although his expenses also were much reduced while the bistro was closed. He had considered business-interruption insurance too expensive for an operation his size, but expects his regular policy to cover at least some of his storm-related costs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency might pay his deductible.

The restaurant's survival was never in doubt, he said. It didn't hurt that he got back in business quicker than some of his competitors.

The day that the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen reopened, without advertising or other fanfare, it was three-quarters full within the first hour, Ritchie said. And last week, "we were doing almost Jazz Fest-Mardi Gras business.".

"People were just tired of canned food," he said.

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