With most of the French Quarter still shuttered and another hurricane churning across the Gulf of Mexico, a scattered handful of business owners were struggling to reopen this week.
"I've got to make a living," said Vaughn L. Morenti, owner of Bourbon Street Party Balcony & Facility, which rents spaces for Mardi Gras and other events, and a souvenir shop that sells Mardi Gras beads, masks and T-shirts. The souvenir shop's cash register and a generator had been carried off by looters, and the interior was dark and stifling, but Morenti said there was no chance he would leave his business again.
Around him, the landscape was unpromising. In a city that a week ago sounded as if its business core would be up and running in no time, only a few doors were opening. And some businesses may never return. Jim Funk, the chief executive of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said he expects a quarter of the area's 3,400 restaurants are closed for good because of a lack of enough insurance coverage, added to what looks like months of little to no business.
Many Bourbon Street restaurants remain closed -- with none of the telltale signs of reopening, such as trucks parked in front bearing industrial strength carpet dryers.
Julio Menjivar was dragging cases of 7-Up and Coca-Cola into Utopia, a bar on Bourbon Street, on Tuesday, preparing for a smattering of customers. When he came to check on the bar Sunday, people stopped by to ask if he was open, so he pulled out some beers and let them stay. By Tuesday night his electricity was back, and he was fully opened. "Everyone has Dominos pizza, and it turned into a beer and pizza party," he said.
"A lot of people are just looking at things now and may not know for sure what they're going to do," Funk said. "We're only three and a half weeks past the storm, and communication is still a challenge in this area. E-mails are sporadic. Insurance adjustors are backed up." And water is still not potable. The association is working with the Department of Health to come up with creative but safe ways for restaurants to reopen. On the possible list are bottled water, water shipped in, and plastic plates and utensils. "Can you imagine that at Commander's Palace?" Funk asked with a wry laugh.
Compeat Restaurant Accounting Systems, a company that provides accounting software to restaurants, was based in Metairie, La., until the Sunday before the storm. Harry Barkerding, who founded the company in 2000, said he made a contingency plan after Hurricane Ivan to leave. Now he has moved to Texas. "It is unlikely I will move my business back to the city," said the lifelong New Orleans resident. I have a young, growing business, and it's one that is portable. From an emotional standpoint, that's a whole other matter."
Barkerding said Dave and Buster's, a major client of his in Dallas, agreed to house the company temporarily if another hurricane hit. When the storm approached, Barkerding got his plan rolling. He and his 13 employees were on the road Sunday and plugged in to servers at Dave and Buster's in Dallas by 11 a.m. Monday, as the storm raged in Louisiana. He did payroll on Tuesday, as he normally would, and sent out monthly billing to clients on Wednesday. He plans to relocate permanently in Austin.
"This was seemingly the best choice with the cards in front of me," he said, choking up as he spoke. "I'm a lifelong resident who's seen lots and lots of hurricanes come and go. But I'm at a point where I have a growing business and employees who rely on me. If we were forced to stay in New Orleans and be down for the many weeks, I'd be out of business."
One of his clients, the historical restaurant Antoine's, is not so portable. Located on Louis Street since 1840, the 1,300-seat restaurant that claims to be the originator of oysters Rockefeller is trying to make its comeback.
Michael J. Guste, general manager, was at the restaurant Tuesday, as Dryout, a company that provides huge fans to remove moisture, was at work -- for $10,000 a day, according to Guste. The restaurant, founded in 1840, has been in his family for five generations. "And it will be here for a sixth and seventh," he said.
He had set up on the sidewalk this week with his cousin, Rick Blunt, who helps him run the business, and Finis Shelnutt, a real estate broker in the area, cooking red beans and rice for anyone in the city.
Tuesday night, they scored fresh chicken and made a pot of jambalaya for about 100 passers-by, mostly military, journalists, and a few French Quarter holdouts. They pulled out white tablecloths and a few tables to seat anyone who wanted to stop. Flashlights worked as ambiance, and Shelnutt later found a generator to hook up to portable lights and a fan.
Guste said he has been in touch with his Chicago-based meat supplier, which said it is ready to cut and ship meat for Antoine's. His dishwasher supplier gave him chemicals for clean up. He hopes to have a small rollout in two weeks.
And as for Hurricane Rita? Guste said the restaurant will secure the roof of the four-story building and hope for the best. "That's not going to stop us."