Where Y’Eat: As restaurants stack up, so do concerns in a crowded dining scene

Jan 19, 2017

When you hear me talking about restaurants, it’s usually good news, like new picks from the latest additions to the New Orleans dining scene, or sizing up a delicious new trend or revisiting the classics that are so beloved in our restaurant community.

After all, this is the way New Orleans talks about its restaurants -- incessantly and with anticipation. In this town, we really do talk about dinner while we’re having lunch.

But, I’ve also been listening, and what many people in the restaurant business are talking about these days has been less appetizing.

By many accounts, the year we recently left behind was a tough one for New Orleans restaurants, and people who I normally count on as upbeat optimists in the industry were singing a different tune. 

What’s happening, what’s wrong and will things get better? I’ve been hearing questions along those lines in all different corners of the dining scene, from little joints to famous-name dining destinations.

Parsing the health of the local dining sector can be tricky. It’s composed of mostly small, independent businesses. Lots of different, and usually individualized factors are in play. But let’s put a name on the big one, the thing that’s making all the other pressures come to a head: it’s the sheer number of new restaurants in New Orleans, and with many more in the pipeline that will be an ongoing issue.

Competition has become increasingly tight not just for your dining dollar but for restaurant staff as well. Ask restaurant people about this and the standard, professional response is that competition is good, that it makes everyone up their game. But after years now of repeating this mantra as still more restaurants open, the tenor has changed. There's more talk of tipping points and the fear of tumbling off them. But then, there's always that hope that the city can handle one more, namely their own.           

This can be a touchy topic in the business. After all, if we have a glut of restaurant, it’s not the latest one or the last dozen that has made the difference. Rather, it's an accumulation that began long ago, sometime after Hurricane Katrina recovery shifted over to expansion, and while we were all cheering it on.

And new restaurants are necessary to keep a vital part of New Orleans life thriving. They’re vehicles for new talent to emerge and homegrown companies to expand, for careers to blossom, for fresh ideas to join the culinary equation and for some older, more familiar ideas to be revitalized.

New Orleans has a very eager audience for restaurants, and dining is a cultural pursuit here. We care about what happens to our restaurants, and not just because we like having lots of dining options at our disposal. So, when there’s concern in the industry, there’s concern among New Orleans food lovers. If the story for them continues to be a smaller pie with more people taking slices from it, we should take nothing for granted about our own favorite spots