The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has long been an economic engine for New Orleans. Thanks to a new initiative, the massive drawing power of the convention center is now also creating a major new market for local farmers, fishermen and traditional Louisiana food makers.
“The idea was to design menus that work and that use local food, primarily so we can have better food that we can be proud of and support the local food producers we have here,” says Donald Link, the New Orleans chef now coordinating local sourcing for the center.
Last summer, the convention center replaced its long-time food and beverage purveyor with Centerplate, a Connecticut-based company that provides such services at large sites around the country. Part of Centerplate’s strategy was to improve food quality overall, and to do that the company partnered with Link.
“My role is to help them find local sources, develop recipes and ideas and show how to bring it all together for much better quality,” he says.
Link runs the New Orleans restaurants Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher, along with the private-dining facility Calcasieu and a second Cochon restaurant in Lafayette. Restaurants like his have embraced local sourcing for years. Link says the same approach applied to the massive scale of the Convention Center gives thousands of visitors more rewarding, representative meals and opens new business opportunities to support local suppliers, which are often small, independent and family-owned businesses.
The strategy change means poor boys found at the Convention Center’s food courts and cafés are now made with the same staples – from Gulf shrimp to Creole mustard – that New Orleans neighborhood restaurants demand, while the center’s vending carts and in-hall concessions feature traditional dishes like shrimp remoulade, gumbo and alligator sauce piquante and even baked goods that come directly from local producers.
Such local foods are often pricier than processed alternatives, but Link says the increased quality makes up the difference with greater sales volume. Within the first few months of the change, he says, the Convention Center’s food court sales shot up 40 percent.
“I really am very excited about this, bringing more volume to the convention center strictly by switching to local sourcing and bringing more business to our suppliers,” Link says.