I keep waiting for the turning point for restaurants in New Orleans. By “turning point,” I mean the point at which we are seeing more restaurants close than open. I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I do know that every restaurateur I speak to complains about finding employees.
I don’t see that becoming easier any time soon, and I don’t think that bodes well for the dining public. You can be the most talented chef in the world; if you don’t have the staff to prepare and serve your food, your restaurant won’t succeed. But consider the issue from another perspective: when you first open a restaurant, you can’t expect customers to consistently fill every seat at every service. In a perfect world, you’d only hire people to work when you needed their labor.
But if you are a cook or server, you don’t want to work only when the restaurant is busy – you want a full time job and you want to be able to count on getting consistent shifts so that you have a consistent income. After all, you’ve got expenses too.
New Orleans has always been a relatively expensive place to live as compared to other Southern cities. We were once one of the most densely populated cities in the country, and it is still very expensive to rent a place here.
I love this city and am probably unfit to live anywhere else, but I’ll be damned if I don’t question that love when I drive over yet another pot hole or when I look at the bill from the S&WB, Entergy and my insurance company. I’m from here. I speak the language and I know people. If I was young and looking for a job in the hospitality/restaurant industry this is where I’d come, too. But I don’t know that I’d stay. I don’t know that I could afford to.
I don’t know that there’s really a solution to the problem. Some argue for an increase in the minimum wage, but for restaurants that already operate on thin margins any significant added expense could be fatal. I suppose an ordinance restricting new restaurants could help, but that’s benefitting established businesses at the expense of start-ups. We could maybe start tearing down blighted properties that have been vacant since Katrina and let people add to the housing stock but we all know that’s not going to happen in any serious way any time soon.
Despite all of the above I’m optimistic. New Orleans is always going to be a great town and people will always love eating here. As long as we stay above water we’ll have a vibrant restaurant scene supported by locals and tourists alike. We’ll always have young people wanting to come here to work in our restaurants. I just hope that things change enough that those folks want to put down roots.