10 Aug How independent businesses kept New Orleans afloat

WWNO

Panera and Starbucks are fine, but Laurel Street Bakery is something different. Hillary Guttman, the proprietor, recalls no chain coffee places opening near her in the weeks that followed the flood. First responders were a hungry market themselves.

“Just the National Guard alone could have kept me open,” Guttman says. “There was no place to eat, there was no place to get groceries and people were tired of eating [rations].” Guttman was able to line up supplies from Baton Rouge, 80 miles away. Six weeks later, once the evacuation order was lifted and she got the all-clear on her water supply, she reopened, even before electricity was restored.

“I would mix by hand; I could only do things that I could make by hand, which is a lot actually,” she says. “It’s how it used to be all be done.” Indie businesses like this had a strong track record finding ways to reopen.

“They don’t really have any options; there is no safer place for them to retreat to,” says Dana Eness, who runs a nonprofit in the city called Stay Local. “They can’t go up to headquarters, pull back.” These indies, Eness says, have been an engine these last 10 years, not only because tourists gravitate to cool places, but data show that indies tend to source from nearby.

“[They] hire someone locally to do the designing, the branding, the social media. So [they’re] creating lots and lots of local jobs for other local businesses,” Eness says.

As you stand on Magazine Street in New Orleans, a commercial corridor filled with retail shops, it’s hard to spot many recognizable brands. Roberta Brandes Gratz, an urban planning expert and author of “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City,” says this comes from under- rather than over-planning.

“It’s a miracle in its own way,” Gratz says. “Not planned on any planning board, just sort of emerged organically, a mixture of small business, local ones, big ones and some chains.” For such a dense commercial strip, planners didn’t push suburban-style parking lots and shoppers make do with the street parking or walk.

Quentin Messer, CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance, is a fan of the indie businesses that give New Orleans its resilience and character, but he’s also working to attract national retail brands at the same time.

“New Orleans was significantly under-retailed, about 30 percent under-retailed,” says Messer of pre-Katrina New Orleans, “so you had the city losing tax revenue” to regions outside the city that had the national chains. A new challenge is that indie businesses are seeing their rents rise. They blame the nationals coming in, sometimes lured with tax breaks, bidding up their leases.

But in many parts of post-Katrina New Orleans, national chains are nowhere to be seen. On the corner of Bayou Road and Desoto Street in the city’s Seventh Ward, Vera Warren-Williams, founder of the Community Book Center, was part of a group of women who ran businesses along the block.

“We became known as the belles of Bayou Road,” Warren-Williams says. After the disaster, her bookstore along with the hair salon, day care center and restaurant next door got back in business with a common land line, a copy machine and even shared labor. “We pooled our resources together, and we supported each other, we encourage each other to just come back and continue to develop.”

Before your hearts get over-warmed, here’s a dose of post-Katrina retail reality: Although the storm thought otherwise, this area wasn’t a flood zone, and the store had no flood insurance. When Warren-Williams scraped together the money to fix the ruined floor, a careless workman left the water on, destroying the repair. She paid upfront to fix the shattered windows, but those contractors vanished. Weeks later, she tracked them down.

“I was able to remind them who I was and escort them to the bank and got my money and was done,” Warren-Williams says.

Her challenge 10 years later is digital. We all know what Amazon and e-readers are doing to booksellers. In other words, the national competition didn’t move in next door. They slid in via the internet. Warren-Williams is adapting by selling more gifts and Senegalese cloth set out in neat piles amid the bookshelves.